Gowns by Adrian were an MGM Staple

Naugatuck-born designer worked with a multitude of stars, from Garbo and Crawford to Hepburn and Garland, during Hollywood’s golden era.

Who would come to mind if you were asked to name noted show business personalities from the Waterbury-Naugatuck area?

Younger readers might come up with Dylan McDermott, the Waterbury-born actor who gained acclaim for his starring role on television’s Emmy-winning “The Practice.”

Those of a certain age (I will confess to membership in this ever-expanding group) would say Rosalind Russell, the Waterbury-born actress who starred in the long-running stage hit “Auntie Mame” and in the subsequent movie of the same name. Russell was nominated for four Academy Awards during her distinguished career (winning none), but she captured a Tony for the musical “Wonderful Town.”

Adrian Greenburg? This name, although unfamiliar to all but film historians and a few locals with long memories, belongs at the top of this list, too.

From the late 1920s into the early '40s, the Naugatuck-born and -bred Adrian designed costumes for more than 200 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films – including Oscar winners “Grand Hotel” (1932) and “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936). For the 1939 movie classic, “The Wizard of Oz,” he created the red-sequined slippers for Judy Garland.

Early on, he was billed as Gilbert Adrian (combining his father’s given name with his own), but later his credits simply read Adrian or Gowns by Adrian.

As MGM’s head studio designer, he created glamorous clothing for many of the leading stars of the era, including Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Katharine Hepburn, Garland, Lana Turner, Ingrid Bergman and, yes, Rosalind Russell. He was behind Crawford’s signature outfits with large shoulder pads, which spawned a fashion trend.

In its December 1932 issue, Fortune magazine wrote an in-depth piece about MGM’s success during the Depression era. In it, Irving Thalberg, the studio executive in charge of production, received the lion’s share of the credit. Thalberg, though, said that the praise for MGM’s success should go to two others – art director Cedric Gibbons and costume designer Gilbert Adrian.

Fortune wrote: "MGM pictures are always superbly well-packaged – both the scenes and the personalities which enclose the drama have a high sheen.”

Born Adrian Adolph Greenburg on March 3, 1903, he graduated from Naugatuck High School in 1920. His parents, Gilbert and Helena (Pollack) Greenburg, were Jewish immigrants who operated a millinery shop on Church Street.

Adrian studied art at the New York School for Fine Arts and Design (now Parsons School of Design), then transferred to the school’s Paris campus, where American composer Irving Berlin spotted Adrian’s costume on a model. Seeking fresh designs for his "Music Box Revue," Berlin asked Adrian to join him in New York to work on costume designs for the show.

In the mid-'20s, he joined Cecil B. DeMille as the head costume designer at his independent film studio. When DeMille transferred to MGM, Adrian went with him.

In 1939, Adrian married Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Actress (in 1928). Their son, Robin Gaynor Adrian, was born in 1940.

In Howard Gutner’s 2001 book, “Gowns by Adrian: The MGM Years, 1928-1941,” Robin  spoke about his father’s departure from films in 1941. “My father once told me that after he had finished working on ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ he felt like he had done it all,” Robin said. “By the early 1940s everything on his schedule seemed boring and repetitious to him.”

After leaving MGM, he opened Adrian Ltd. in Beverly Hills, and became a leading style maker in the American fashion industry. (He continued to do some film work until 1952.)  In addition to custom design, Adrian developed a ready-to-wear line; to make the line more exclusive, he allowed only one store in each city to sell his clothes.

Adrian’s design successes in California were often mirrored on New York’s Seventh Avenue, which transformed many of his movie clothes into American ready-to-wear outfits. Adrian "knock-offs" were seen everywhere. Some manufacturers would produce similarly fashioned garments, which they called the "Adrian silhouette."

After suffering a heart attack in 1952, Adrian closed his business, and he and his family retired to a ranch in Brazil, where he devoted time to painting landscapes. He returned to California in 1958 to design costumes for the musicals "At the Grand" and "Camelot." Before competing "Camelot," he suffered a second, fatal heart attack on Sept. 13, 1959.

Although he never received an Oscar for his work in Hollywood – the Academy Award for Costume Design wasn’t inaugurated until 1948, well after the bulk of his film work had been completed – Adrian was awarded, posthumously, a Tony for Best Costume Design (Musicals) in 1961.

Adrian’s Academy Award-winning films
            “Grand Hotel,” 1932;  Greta Garbo delivers her famous line, “I want to be alone.”
            “The Great Ziegfeld,” 1936; Luise Rainer also won the Oscar for Best Actress

Adrian’s Academy Award-nominated films
            “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” 1934;  Norma Shearer also nominated for Best Actress
            “Naughty Marietta,” 1935
            “Romeo and Juliet,” 1936;  Norma Shearer also nominated for Best Actress
            “San Francisco,” 1936;  Spencer Tracy also nominated for Best Actor
            “The Wizard of Oz,” 1939;  the film won two Oscars, including one for Best Music, Original Song (“Over the Rainbow”)
            “Ninotchka,” 1939;  Greta Garbo also nominated for Best Actress

Some other notable films with Oscar winners/nominees
            “Anna Christie,” 1930;  Greta Garbo nominated for Best Actress
            “The Divorcee,” 1930;  Norma Shearer won the Oscar for Best Actress
            “The Rogue Song,” 1930;  Lawrence Tibbett nominated for Best Actor
            “Conquest,” 1937;  Charles Boyer nominated for Best Actor
            “Camille,” 1937;  Greta Garbo nominated for Best Actress
            “Marie Antoinette,” 1938;  Norma Shearer nominated for Best Actress
            “The Philadelphia Story,” 1940;  Jimmy Stewart won the Oscar for Best Actor; Katharine Hepburn nominated for Best Actress
            “Woman of the Year,” 1942;  Katharine Hepburn nominated for Best Actress
            “Possessed,” 1947;  Joan Crawford nominated for Best Actress

Author’s note: Thanks to the brothers Andy and Bill Kapfer, both Patch readers, for alerting us to this accomplished man. Thanks also to Nancy Pemberton of the Superintendent of Schools office for obtaining from attendance records the correct spelling of Adrian’s surname.) 


Richard Adkins March 31, 2011 at 08:39 PM
Hi - Just for the record, Adrian's parents were not Jewish immigrants, although his grandparents were. Adrian's father, Gilbert Greenburg was born in Lewiston, Maine (although some records indicate that he may have been born in Brooklyn), while Helena Pollack was born in Waterbury. Helena's parents were from Bohemia, while Gilbert's father was from Russia and his mother born at sea on the way to America. Richard Adkins, author Adrian - American Designer, due from the History For Hire Press in 2011.


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