Skin and beads, the name I gave this post, is based on what Marilyn Monroe called her Jean Louis designed gown from 1962, the one where she sang Happy Birthday Mr. President to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Indeed, the main advantage of a dress made of glass bugle beads is that their weight presses against the skin. You either see the skin left exposed, or you clearly see the contours of the wearer. And the beads not only reflect light, but are themselves translucent, and sewn onto the sheerest of silk chiffons. Marlene Dietrich below knew how to pose in a gown made of bugle beads. This one was designed for her by Irene. Little skin actually shows, yet you feel that all of it is showing.
The tubular bugle beads can be sewn solidly on a dress, or they can be used for decoration. Bugle beads shared the same limelight as sequins in the 1920s, when glitter was in favor (did it ever go away?). Sequins don't let the light through, and they are much lighter in weight, an advantage in cost of production and wearability. But sequins don't flatter the screen siren figure like beads do. Below a young Joan Crawford wears a fur wrap and nude souffle dress bodice, both decorated in bugle beads and sequins, in a photo by Ruth Harriet Louise from 1926.
With Jean Harlow, Adrian had the perfect figure on which to mold a nightgown made of bugle beads, accented with ostrich plume sleeves. The contrast of the shiny, reptilian skin of the beads, along with the fuzzy-nest sleeves of the nightgown, provides the perfect symbolic duality of the good-bad girl that was Jean Harlow. The photographer Harvey White captured this essence perfectly in the photo below from Dinner at Eight.
While rarely paired on film, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable made a compelling couple in films like Red Dust. The chiaroscuro of black and white photography by Hurrell captures their radiance. The Adrian-designed gown of bugle beads reflects the light as it reflects her figure.The two stars are perfectly comfortable with each other. This type of dual portrait photography is a lost art (see my blog post Double Vision: Portraits of the Silver Screen Romance
Adrian designed another knock-out gown of solid bugle beads for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red, 1937, It was made of red bugle beads, and provided a key role in the plot of the film. Vintage beaded movie gowns rarely survived. Due to their weight, they would rip apart if left on hangers for long. This one miraculously survived at MGM because a wardrobe lady had placed it in a drawer where it was forgotten for decades. It is now at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
The Bride Wore Red gown in all its red glory is shown below in London at the V&A Museum's Hollywood Costume Exhibition.
The photo below shows Carole Lombard in a beaded gown designed by Robert Kalloch for Brief Moment, 1933, at Columbia Pictures. Travis Banton had designed her Paramount movies and then Irene took over her wardrobe designing until Lombard's untimely death in 1942. She was always photogenic and looked great whether in glamour or everyday clothes.
The bugle beads these fabulous gowns were made from were usually silver-lined, which gave them their highly reflective quality. But the beads could be made of colored glass. Jeanette MacDonald below wears an Adrian designed gown of blue bugle beads in the film Sweethearts in 1938. the back of the gown shows just enough skin to be tantalizing, and with Jeanette's back framed with a yoke and swags of beading, it emphasizes Adrian's favored V-line silhouette. The front was very close-fitting like Joan Crawford's red-beaded gown.
Marilyn Monroe had some fabulous designers working with her: Travilla, Orry-Kelly, and Jean Louis. The black souffle dress below is decorated with strands of bugle beads. It was designed by Orry-Kelly for her in Some Like it Hot.
Pictured below is the famous 1962 Happy Birthday Mr. President dress designed by Jean Louis, otherwise known by her as the "skin and beads" dress. Actually it was made of a flesh-colored souffle (not pronounced soufflay), and decorated with rhinestones, not beads. But Marilyn's point was that it was tight enough to be her skin. It sold at auction at Christie's New York for $1.2 million a few years ago.
Glass beads are expensive but ever in style. The famous model Verushka of the 1960s wears this outfit in the legendary film Blow Up, in 1966. In this outfit, which is actually a short nightgown with open sides, Verushka poses for the photographer played by David Hemmings.
Beads always seem to convey glamour and excitement, which Bob Mackie recognized for his many designs for stars or stage. below is a beautiful red decollete vintage gown made of red beads and sequins. It would have been a hit on any of this year's red-carpet events.
The photo below shows a close-up of the bodice and the detail of the bead and sequin decoration. They make a beautiful combination of reds on a dark ground.
The weight of the the solidly beaded gown, and its high cost to make, has made them rare today. But beads still make for excellent decoration, and their sheen provides a tantalizing contrast with bare skin. One great example is shown below, a Ralph Lauren 1920s-inspired gown worn by the belle Camilla Belle at the Met's Costume Institute Gala in 2012.
The gown was silver metallic with beaded decoration, with deep decollete and backless, the effect heightened by panels of nude fabric that formed the shoulder straps. Silver gowns can sometimes wash-out against pale skin, but the look on Ms. Bella was a perfect combination of skin and beads.
Note: I had intended for this post to be my 100th, since I had started this blog on the topic of Hollywood glamour, and wanted this "anniversary" post to echo that start. Instead, a couple of other posts begged for priority, and so it's number 102, at four years and one month into the life of the Silver Screen Modiste.