Notes From A Designer’s Diary

by Bonnie Cashin

Screenland | June 1945

“If the average American girl could be the heroine of her own life story, and dress accordingly!”

This thought struck me more forcibly than ever it had before while I was fitting Dorothy McGuire for the part of Katie in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Most of the girls want to look a little glamorous on the screen (and off) whether the story calls for rags or riches. Not Dorothy. A stickler for characterization, Dorothy stood for hours in her old rags and ravels, suggesting a patch here, a droop there, deliberately deglamorizing herself in order to make sure that not a single bright thread should give the lie to Katie’s threadbare life. Dorothy was playing a heroine of poverty and she dressed accordingly.

So should we all, according to the parts we play, in make-believe or in life.

Joan Blondell didn’t complain, either, when as Aunt Sissy she had to wear the sort of ugly-period-of-1914 clothes, the high-topped shoes, the blousy blouses, the too-tight corset.

“Oh, Bonnie,” little Peggy Ann Garner said to me when we were making Francie’s clothes, “oh, Bonnie, every picture they put me in I have to wear poor girls’ clothes. Can’t I have one good dress?” so we gave her the white graduation dress and the red roses, and Peggy Ann accepted poverty and trouped through the picture, patiently ironing her one faded cotton (and she did iron it) and well content.

In any motion picture studio the story is the important thing. As a fashion designer, I agree that it should be, and know that my value to my studio is how much I can contribute to the story by dressing the characters in clothes that tell you what kind of people they are, what made them as they are, what kind of lives they live, what their tastes are, their potentialities, perhaps their dreams.

It is equally important for clothes to characterize you in real life. You, for instance. Suppose that the minute you walk into a room your clothes say whether you are the languorous or the breezy, straightforward type, whether you are naïve, like Joan Leslie, or complex, like Gene Tierney; whether you are quiet like Jeanne Crain, or a cut-up like Joan Blondell. Think how much more dramatic you could be, how your personality would be italicized and unforgettable – and how much time would be saved and misunderstanding avoided.

Clothes should tell secrets. Looking back at all the great women of history and at the outstanding women of today, you find that you associate with them a certain Look. The details of their dress may escape you, but the Look tells their story and the part they play in it. By her one black blouse and air of stark simplicity you would know, on sight, that Madame Curie was a student and a scientist; by her voluptuous feathers and laces and elaborate coiffure, that Dubarry was the mistress of a king. One girl I know wears nothing but black and white, or straight red. She is a poster. The personalities of women such as these are as sharp-cut as an intaglio.

If the average girl would determine what she is really like, and dress it, there would be fewer bobby sox and other “brigades” and more individuals.

Clothes should tell the truth. The majority of girls on the screen make it their business to know the characters they play, but also to know themselves. Dorothy McGuire, off the screen as well as on, has that revealing-of-herself look. A sort of Claudia in real life; almost a pioneer type physically, with broad cheekbones and wide-spaced eyes; she dresses very casually, in tweeds, sweaters, skirts, bandanas tied, peasant-wise, about her head, little or no makeup. Dateless in her looks, that’s what she is – and so, wisely, avoids stylized clothes, wears basic things made for out-of-doors, for flying with her aerial-photographer husband, for sailing, for walking, for the things of freedom, which are the things she loves. She is the type of whom a picture made today will look right twenty-five years from today.

Blondell, too, dresses in real life for the character she is – a real, true, breezy, friendly girl. Joan usually wears slacks, the mid-calf length (she is one of the few girls who can wear that length and get away with it), flat shoes, a shirt open at the throat.

It’s fun being a designer in a studio. It’s not a glamor job, as might be supposed. It’s not a white-collar job. It’s a hard job. You’re on your knees a lot of the time. You get paint splashed around when you do sketches. But it’s exciting because there is always a change of pace. Different types – from Jeanne Crain to Judith Anderson – to work with. Different producers to work for, and – they are men – to please. Designing clothes for pictures is not only a hard job, it’s a diplomatic as well as a dressmaking job.

A designer shouldn’t inflict herself too much. An actress cant do a good job unless she I happy in her clothes. So if you think pink is becoming to her and she doesn’t, you must be able to make her feel happy in pink or you must do an alternative color. You must learn to bend and yet be firm enough to maintain your own individuality.

The dominating influence in clothes is color. Color affects us all, emotionally. A man may see a woman wearing gray or brown a dozen times and never really see her at all. He may meet her again, wearing yellow, and fall in love with her.

After the war we designers, starved for rich and beautiful dyes, are going color-mad. Prepare for a peacetime world of women arrayed like vivid rainbows!
Gene Tierney was in today, frightfully excited because she is to play the “femme fatale” lead in “Leave Her To Heaven.” What fun Gene is! The minute she enters my office she grabs for the jelly-bean jar then throws herself on the couch and talks about everything in the world, from the baby’s new tooth to post-war planning. Her mind like her body, is never still. Watching her today, I made a note that she should always wear short sleeves for she has the most beautiful arms and hands in the world. She does nice things with her hands. Because she is so active she wears a great deal of jersey, flexible material that leaves her free. Simple things, but with elaborate accessories, which she loves to change often/

Gene must minimize her clothes for her vivid personality, her varied moods are clothes enough, color enough, change enough – very little makeup, just lipstick, and she’s ravishing. With the most beautiful skin I have ever seen – looks simply wonderful in brown – skin so creamy against it. Looks wonderful in jade-green, too. And classic in all white or all black. She shouldn’t wear hats. The silhouette of her head is too interesting. Complex as she is, it’s difficult for her to dress according to a type when he is so many types. It’s the silhouette of the head, in Gene’s case, that gives her that Look.

Clothes that become easily disarranged are not, I was thinking today, 20th century (and I don’t mean the studio) clothes. Especially in California, where you drive 22 miles to work, or I do, and cant have things fly back and hit you in the face. Hats are often discarded, omitted from wardrobe, because a twist of jersey around the head is more functional. The no-hat business, about which you hear so much, depends in my opinion on environment and on the life you lead. Most of the stars dislike hats and seldom wear them, but that’s because they live in California where, as in Palm Springs, Palm Beach or any semi-tropical, outdoor life place, a hat is almost an affectation.

Joan Leslie is one of the nicest human beings I have ever known and one of the best-liked girls that ever guest-starred at our studio. I’d do anything for Joan. She is so grand to work with, so willing to let you try things, experiment. She’s the only actress I know who likes fittings and doesn’t fidget. When we were making clothes for the magic carpet sequence in “Where Do We Go From Here?” in which she flies through the centuries, her clothes following history, she said, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful – all the fittings!” Sounds like a designer’s wishful-thinking, but s’help me!

Joan was born naïve and will never become sophisticated. She is wide-eyed, her heart and mind are wide-eyed, and as long as you’re wide-eyed you’re learning. Joan looks best in the tunic line – a very slim skirt and a tunic that moulds her figure, but with no waistline. Because she is so young and so pliable she can wear her hair all kinds of ways. Up, it looks wonderful. Down, ditto.

I like to work with the young girls. They haven’t yet become set in their ideas. They’re still forming. Not until a girl is 30 does she really form her style, her individuality, come into chic.

What a very sensitive face Jeanne Crain has – everything shows on it, every shade of feeling, every least emotion. She has, I feel, a great future ahead of her. Making sketches for her clothes in “State Fair,” I thought of the clothes I did for her in “Home In Indiana,” which was Jeanne’s first picture and my first picture, too. It wasn’t a very varied wardrobe we did, for she wore mostly blue jeans and shirts in “Home” (we always call a picture by its first name at the studio) and they were right for her, they were best. Simple clothes are still best for her. Summertime clothes. Countryside clothes. For although Jeanne has a simply beautiful figure, and character and thoughts too deep to be merely juvenile, when you really know her she is a very young type and looks completely wrong in sophisticated clothes.

Thinking today of all the girls I have designed clothes for, and costumes, made me think of ballet, which is my love. I’ve written several ballets (a hangover from my Roxy days) although none of them have been produced as yet. I am thinking especially of an idea I once had for a fashion ballet which has never been done – must get out my sketches and ideas and work on them again!

And painting: watching Tallulah Bankhead at lunch the other day, I thought how I should love to paint her. Just that head – everything else cut off – just that head and that arresting face. There is something fascinating about Tallulah. She rivets your eyes and holds them. And she has merely to say “Please pass the butter,” in that commanding voice, and everyone listens.

Reflecting on how much I should like to paint her took me back to the days when I planned to be a painter and to a later time when, my personal life badly upset, I did paint and, good or bad, found it was release for me. I must try my hand again – for the better you are at many things the better you are at one thing – your job.

For if you are a designer you can’t live in an Ivory Tower. To be creative, in a contemporaneous way, you must know about what is going on in the world, and the more you know the more fertile and richened you are. And so, the more you know about people, too – and a designer who wants to help girls be the heroines of their own stories, off and on the screen must know them before she can dress them accordingly!