It seems like a perfect situation. Embryonic Hollywood in the 1920’s on the look-out for talent to gild the lily, designers to glamorize the bevy of beauties becoming stars. Famous French designers who could deck the movie queens in costumes as lavish as could be imagined. Paris fashion, Hollywood hoopla...perfect match? It didn’t seem to work, though.
Erte was already famous when he was summoned to Hollywood by M-G-M. His ornate, yet stylized and streamlined artwork graced the covers of Harper’s Bazaar and helped to visually define the era. Born Romain de Tirtoff in Russia, he was renowned for his extravagant Art Deco illustrations of women wearing astonishing creations, often dripping with beads and plumage. Though primarily an artist, Erte had worked as assistant to the great couturier Paul Poiret and designed costumes for the stage. He was a prime candidate for fame as a Hollywood designer.
Erte’s initial attempt at designing for the movies was a total non-event. He was hired by William Randolph Hearst in 1919 to do sets and costumes for “Bal des Arts”, but the project fell through. Six years later, he hit town with maximum hype.
The M-G-M publicity machine went into high gear to trumpet the arrival of Erte in 1925. He was treated like a star, installed in a hilltop house on Beechwood Drive in Hollywood, given a chauffeured limousine, two bi-lingual secretaries and was subjected to no fewer than 197 interviews with the press. Anticipation ran high because Hollywood costume at that time had very little to do with anything but pure fantasy and nobody was better at conjuring up incredible visions than Erte.
However, the designs that seemed so delightfully bizarre and elegantly eccentric on paper just didn’t work. They overwhelmed the actresses who had to do more than strike poses in them. “Paris,” the film which was to have been his initial design project at M-G-M, was delayed due to script problems and he worked on three other films. “The Mystic” starred Aileen Pringle. He also created costumes for a masked ballet in “Dance Madness.” None of his designs, when realized, were as wonderful as his illustrations of them.
Erte evidently suffered from artist ego and this is more likely the reason for his Hollywood failure than his designs themselves. Unlike Edith Head who became famous for her ability to deal with difficult stars, Erte became confrontational. When he designed historically accurate Belle Epoch costumes for “La Boheme” in 1926, star Lillian Gish refused to wear the crisp cottons he envisioned. She wanted raggedy silks and she had star power to throw around. Erte didn’t stand a chance. She also reneged on wearing the corsets Erte insisted upon and she convinced the film’s other star, Renee Adoree, to also refuse them. Finally, Miss Adoree did wear Erte’s costumes, but superstar Gish did not and Erte’s name was removed from the credits. When “Paris” was finally ready to go into production, Erte took one look at the script and decided it did not represent the city as he knew it. He asked to be released from his contract and that was the end of his one year stay in Lotus land.
Since then, other famous French designers tried to go Hollywood with varying degrees of success. Coco Chanel was another of M-G-M’s imports. She came, she saw, and didn’t much like the flashy vulgarity she saw. Audiences didn’t much like what she designed, either. Her little black dresses didn’t’ have enough pizzazz for the silver screen at that time. Elsa Schiaparelli didn’t come to Hollywood in person, but designed costumes for a Mae West movie. They were all re-designed by Edith Head. Marlene Dietrich, a devoted client of Christian Dior in her private life, wore his New Look creations in “Stage Fright” (directed by Alfred Hitchcock.) When Hubert de Givenchy’s couture creations were worn by Audrey Hepburn in “Sabrina,” it was a perfect match of star and designer. Their relationship upped the sophistication level of fashion in film. “Funny Face” is sublime, style-wise and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is the paramount paradigm of cinematic elegance.
Today, glamorous fashion is seldom, if ever, seen in movies; it is only at The Golden Globes and the Academy Awards where stars parade and preen in creations by designers like John Galliano for Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Oscar de la Renta and Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. What a shame Erte died in 1990. His extravagant visions, dripping with pearls and swathed in furs, would finally find their perfect place on the Red Carpet of today.