I love watching classic films, especially for the costumes. Uber glamorous evening gowns and elaborate costumes were a hallmark of the Golden Era of Hollywood. And during the 20s, 30s and 40s some of the most exquisite of the cinematic wardrobes were designed by Travis Banton, who dressed actresses such as Mae West, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Carmen Miranda and Rita Hayworth. But is most known for the spectacular costumes created for Marlene Dietrich.
Banton originally worked at a couture house in New York where Mary Pickford selected one of his dresses for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. This bit of fame got him hired at Paramount pictures to design the costumes for the 1924 film “The Dressmaker from Paris.” And an illustrious career in costume design began!
He was the chief designer at Paramount Studios until 1938 and afterwards worked for 20th Century Fox and Universal as well. During his film career he designed costumes for more than 200 productions including Shanghai Express (1932), Cleopatra (1934), Angel (1937), That Night Rio (1942) and Cover Girl (1944)
He collaborated with director Josef von Sternberg, cinematographer Lee Garmes and art director Hans Dreier to create a distinctively extravagant style known as ‘Hollywood baroque’, which for the designer involved very elaborate figure hugging costumes heavily embellished with beading and feathers.
Rumor has it that during the filming of Cecille B DeMille’s epic production, Cleopatra, Claudette Colbert refused to appear on the set because she didn’t like her costumes. She demanded none other than Travis Banton, who on short notice, put together some of the most amazing costumes in film history.
Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934)
Banton created Mae West’s signature curve-hugging look, with clingy fabrics, lavish use of fur trim, beading and jewels. Travis Banton dreaded his first meeting with Ms. West because his uncle, who was a district attorney, was responsible for her being sentenced to jail for obscenity charges for writing and acting in the play ‘Sex”. Though when the meeting finally took place, apparently she was very good natured about the incident and didn’t hold any grudges.
Mae West in Goin’ to Town (1935)
He was responsible for creating and cultivating Marlene Dietrich’s distinctive look. From the book “Those Glorious Glamour Years” by Alfred Bailey, Edith Head was quoted as saying,
“That was a story. Don’t forget Banton and Dietrich together built up almost a legend of an exotic, super high fashion look, which on another person would have looked ridiculous. She could get away with it. It was almost a signature, the feathers, the veils, the furs, the glitter, the glamour.”
Polka dots usually make an outfit more casual. But not when Marlene Dietrich wears them! Very chic and sophisticated look designed for Ms Dietrich, by Travis Banton. Desire, 1936.
Marlene Dietrich appearing in Desire 1936. Banton designer.
On the costumes for the film “The Scarlet Empress” Travis Banton was quoted as saying.
“Miss Dietrich’s costumes in that picture represented perhaps the finest and most beautiful collections of clothes I’ve ever had the pleasure of designing. They were expressive of the period’s fashions, without being mere stereotyped copies of sketches found in books. Rather, I placed myself mentally in the position of a designer of the middle eighteenth century.”
Marlene Dietrich as Catherine the Great in the Scarlet Empress 1934. Travis Banton design.
Unfortunately, like his fellow designer, Orry Kelly, his drinking problem eventually got the best of him and he had to leave the film industry. In 1956 he returned to Hollywood one more time and collaborated with the Russian couturiere Marusia Toumanoff Sassi on the costumes of Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame. Two years later he passed away at the young age of 63.
His protege, Edith Head, who replaced him at Paramount, said of him. “Travis was a marvelous designer. Any talent I might have would have lain undiscovered if he hadn’t lighted the way for me. In my opinion, he was the greatest.”