As a society, we tend to think of the 1930s as a forlorn decade. The Great Depression inflicted destitution, distress, and despair upon millions. There was one place, however, that people could go to escape from this harsh reality: the movies. Big musical numbers, handsome leading men, and gorgeous starlets all brought the citizens of America into theaters to escape their realities and lose themselves in the darkness for a few hours. One facet of films that exemplified the glamour movie studios were selling to the audience were the costumes worn by the stars. Travis Banton designed some of the most opulent and creative costumes, not only changing film history, but the fashion of the decade itself. His work with famous actresses on screen ensured that his “touch” would be remembered and referenced for years after he himself stopped designing.
The Texas born Travis Banton began his illustrious career when he got hired to work as an apprentice for Madame Francis, located in New York City, in the early 1920s. His first major success came when actress Mary Pickford chose one of his designs for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. This immediately put him on Hollywood’s radar and soon after, Paramount Studios hired him to costume The Dressmaker from Paris (1925). Paramount’s co-founder Jesse Lansky promoted Banton and the film by comparing them both to the couture Parisian fashion salons. In 1928, Banton was named head of Paramount’s Costume department.
Travis Banton’s work in film inspired fashion trends that pushed fashion forward. He is credited with popularizing the jersey knit one-piece bathing suits worn during the 1920s and 1930s. In a 1940 survey of the American public, Banton was voted one of its ten favorite designers. Incidentally, this survey also reveals the enormous influence of the film industry, as three of the ten selected came from the world of costume design. Banton strove to create garments characterologically, rather than what he wanted them to wear. Even though fantastic gowns fill the screen, they are always aptly chosen. The character exudes confidence and ease in the costume, giving the viewer the sense that these women lived in these clothes, rather than a costume for the film.
The mass impact and large audience films had did not go unnoticed among the fashion elite. In retrospect, its not surprising that Hollywood costumers, like Banton, had an impact on fashion. The major costume designers influenced what the New York and Paris fashion houses created and sold in their salons. These couturiers knew that their customers were going to the movies and coveting what their favorite actresses were wearing, so they began creating knock-offs of film costumes.
A noteworthy example of the growing relationship between Hollywood costumes and fashion is the Travis Banton costumed Cleopatra (1934), directed by Cecil B. DeMille. He created beautiful, if anachronistic, art deco gowns for Claudette Colbert. (Banton was not the original designer asked to create the costumes. He was commanded to replace the original costumes created by Ralph Jester and Natalie Visart when Colbert dramatically rejected them.) Once the film premiered, Macy’s department store stocked their shelves with Egyptian-inspired clothing and accessories that proved popular with their shoppers.
Travis Banton’s design style evolved throughout his early career. In the 1930s, his ‘look’ took shape. He favored lavish designs trimmed with feathers, beads, and jewels, making the actresses wearing his designs look glamorous and unattainable, yet still human. It’s no surprise that Banton thrived at Paramount. Paramount was a studio known for its lavish romantic comedies, by directors like Ernst Lubitsch, and its stunning epics by DeMille. These types of films benefited from Banton’s opulent creations. When viewed through modern eyes, his over-the-top excess is a little jarring and, at times, ridiculous. However, we must remember that during this time, people were going to the movies to escape the harsh realities of life brought on by the Depression. The average American woman at the time may have never owned a gown like his, but when they went to the movies, they could see his creations and imagine themselves escaping into them. Perhaps the greatest display of Banton’s love of glamour is revealed in his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg.
Starting in 1930, Travis Banton began an influential collaboration that, while only lasting five years, still inspires countless artists’ work. Josef von Sternberg had been working in the industry for about as long as Banton had, but only recently found success, with The Docks of New York (1928) and Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel) (1930). Von Sternberg worked with a little known German actress on the latter film, and found in her great inspiration. When he returned to America, he brought Marlene Dietrich with him. While Dietrich served as von Sternberg’s muse, she simultaneously became the mannequin Travis Banton desired. When they met in preparation for the film Morocco (1930), Banton began shaping Marlene Dietrich into the sex icon we know and love today, giving her dieting tips and creating glamorous and unforgettable clothing for her on and off the film set. The film Morocco is probably only remembered for Marlene Dietrich’s iconic tuxedo costume, which was inspired by her days as a Berlin cabaret singer and executed to perfection by Banton.
One of their most famous collaborations was on the film Shanghai Express (1932). When we first meet Marlene Dietrich’s character, Shanghai Lily, she is adorned in raven feathers, creating an enigmatic allure that instantly intrigues the audience. Her clothing gradually becomes softer and more inviting as the film goes on and she reveals herself as more than just a morally loose woman. In the final scene, Dietrich is again wearing her raven feather ensemble, but this time she is with the man she loves and the costume functions now as a warning to other men that she is spoken for. Shanghai Express is my favorite film and I never tire of seeing the costume evolution throughout as Banton truly knew how to use the costumes as a narrative device.
His work on von Sternberg films, as well as his costumes for Ernst Lubitsch’s films, all helped form what is now known as the Hollywood Baroque look. He continued his career at Paramount through the end of the 1930s. He initially rejected the Technicolor process at the end of the decade but after moving to Colombia Pictures in the early 1940s, he was forced to work on color films. Arguably, his best work at Colombia was for the Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944) staring Rita Hayworth.
Like many costume designers of the day, Travis Banton turned to the bottle to relieve the stress incurred at his high-pressure job. Valentino (1951) was his last screen credit as costume designer. He continued designing at his own couture house until his death in 1958 at the age of 64.
Travis Banton’s career may not be as celebrated today as some of his contemporaries like Adrian or protégée Edith Head. However, he left an indelible mark on film history and pioneered a movement that still inspires. Taking for example his designs for Marlene Dietrich and couturier knock-offs of his film costumes, it is clear that Travis Banton contributed to the glamorous fashion zeitgeist.
Icon: Marlene Dietrich