For as long as fashion has existed, animal metaphors have been an indispensible part of the designers language. Hollywood, during its golden age, a leading arbiter of taste, heightened and refined the animal metaphor with brilliant costume designers turning ravishing movie stars into expressions of animal desire.
Claudette Colbert was signed to play Cleopatra in Cecil B. DeMille’s lavish 1934 production. As always with DeMille, the costumes had to be sleek, sexy, and outrageous. Little regard was given to period authenticity. Ever since De Mille turned Gloria Swanson into a fashion superstar, he understood that audiences—especially glamour starved Depression era women—adored eye-popping Hollywood costumes.
Colbert, a demanding actress, was on good terms with Paramount’s chief costume designer Travis Banton. She had worn his costumes before and, like Marlene Dietrich, Banton designed much of Colbert’s private wardrobe.
Banton sat down and sketched a series of designs for The Queen of the Nile and sent them over to Colbert for approval.
As far as Banton was concerned this was a mere formality. So respected was Banton in the business that no one dared question his taste or imagination.
But Hollywood is a mine field of power plays among high-strung creative people.
Colbert hated the sketches and demanded changes.
Taken aback by Colbert’s reaction, but accustomed to difficult stars, Banton patiently revised his sketches and once again submitted them to Colbert.
The sketches were promptly returned to Banton’s office with Colbert’s comments scrawled across the pages labeling the costumes cheap, vulgar and unflattering.
Enraged, Banton tore out of his office, crossed the Paramount lot, and burst into Colbert’s dressing room. He screamed. She screamed. Epic insults were hurled back and forth. Studio personnel gathered outside and listened to the snarling artists. It was the best show in town.
Finally, Banton announced that he’d do one more set of sketches, but if Miss Colbert didn’t like them she might as well slit her wrists because he was not going to do any further drawings.
Banton locked himself in his office and worked all day and into the night on a new set of designs.
Exhausted, he instructed one of his assistants to deliver the sketches to Colbert. And then Banton announced that he needed a drink.
Off he drove in his green Packard roadster.
The next morning, a weary and shaken Banton—he put away more than one drink, a problem that would eventually destroy his career—waited for the star’s response.
In the late afternoon, a studio messenger arrived. Banton opened the portfolio and shrieked in horror.
His beautiful sketches were smeared with dried blood.
Colbert, channeling Cleopatra, had cut open her finger and dripped blood over the drawings.
Fleeing to to Palm Springs, Banton went on a three day bender.
Paramount chief Adolph Zukor negotiated a ceasefire, assuring the shaken designer that everything had been worked out with the temperamental star.
Banton returned to Paramount and the sumptuous costumes he designed—more art deco than ancient Egyptian—have achieved iconic status in Hollywood history.
Travis Banton, (1894 – 1958) one of Hollywood’s most important costume designers, dressed, among others: Pola Negri, Evelyn Brent, Clara Bow, Florence Vidor, Bebe Daniels, Kay Francis, Lilyan Tashman, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Sylvia Sidney, Gail Patrick and Mae West. Carole Lombard was so devoted to his fashion sense that she wore Banton’s clothing on and off-screen.
A bias-cut specialist, Travis Banton, was, like Adrian, a genius in making fabric drape and mold in highly suggestive ways. Banton was sensitive to a fabric’s weight, color and pattern, and he was acutely aware of how a costume absorbed or reflected light.
During his tenure at Paramount, Banton, like all costume designers, was forced to endure the diva-like behavior of difficult stars. In Hollywood, talent is never enough. Political skills and clever back room plots are invaluable.
For a few short years, Nancy Carroll (1903 – 1965) was a top star for Paramount. Her cutie-pie face served to camouflage a self-absorbed brat with little regard for her co-workers. Directors and producers found her talented but uncooperative, and her career was over by 1938.
The story goes that Banton designed a stunning gown for Carroll that was covered in painstakingly applied beads. At the final fitting, Carroll told Banton that she hated the gown.
She ripped it off her body and tore it to shreds.
A few weeks later, Banton looked out the window of his office and saw Carroll on her way to the costume department for another fitting.
“Here comes my cross,” moaned Banton.
He assigned Carroll’s wardrobe to his assistant, Edith Head, who went on to become Hollywood’s most celebrated—if not the most talented—costume designer.
Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount, called Banton into his office and demanded to know why the head designer was not present for Nancy Carroll’s fittings.
Banton quietly lamented that Carroll had gained so much weight, had become so plump that he could no longer dress the star.
Immediately, Zukor ordered Nancy Carroll on a starvation diet.
Travis Banton had designed the perfect Hollywood revenge.
And in today’s Big Hollywood, a slightly rewritten version of my post: The Dhimmis of Hollywood.