~ On the Stage / ~ Period Pieces

★ ‘Costumes by Adrian’ – A Vision of Camelot

Scene from the musical Camelot

★ I just stumbled across these fabulous vintage photos of the original 1960 Broadway production of Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe. Based on the legend of King Arthur, it had been adapted from T.H. White’s acclaimed novel The Once and Future King, and starred Richard Burton as King Arthur, and Julie Andrews as Queen Guenevere. One of the most successful musicals of the 1960s, the original cast album was even America’s best-selling LP for almost a year!

Throne room scene - Camelot

It won four Tony Awards and spawned numerous revivals, but for me, what makes it particularly noteworthy is the fact it was the last production worked on by acclaimed costume designer, Adrian. Working for MGM, he created costumes for over 250 films during his career, including the iconic ‘ruby slippers’ in 1939’s classic The Wizard of Oz. Leaving to establish his own fashion house in 1941, Adrian continued to work closely with Hollywood, but after suffering a heart attack in 1952 he left the fashion business entirely and retired to Brazil with his wife, actress Janet Gaynor and their son, Robin.

Eventually enticed back to work in 1958, he returned to the United States to work on the costumes for Grand Hotel – a musical featuring Vivica Lindfors and Paul Muni – before embarking upon what would turn out to be his final project; Camelot. On 13th September 1959, while still in the early stages of design, Adrian died suddenly of a massive heart-attack, aged only 56. I think that’s partly why I find these photos so interesting to look at – for although his work on the designs ceased tragically early on in development, his influence and truly unique sense of style is still undeniably present in the cast’s costumes.

Just look at this fabulous Queen Guenevere costume (above), worn by Julie Andrews, to see what I mean. Judging from the slubbed texture, it looks to be made out of dupioni silk, and that beautifully full and sumptuous skirt, the slim-fitting lower sleeves, and the opulent jeweled trim and headpiece are all classic Adrian touches. The elaborate metallic brocade of King Arthur’s tunic (as worn by Richard Burton) is also a quintessentially Adrian choice. You can see the same inimitable style in these other costumes (below) too. They’re luxurious, extravagant, and the metallic trims, embroidery and beadwork add a touch of the old Hollywood glitz that Adrian was famous for. The highly decorated cape (right) is particularly exquisite, with pearls delicately stitched onto the embroidered motifs.

Burton and Andrews may have been the leading actors, as King Arthur and Queen Guenevere, but they weren’t the only cast members to get the full Adrian style-treatment.

M’el Dowd (above left) got to sport this fab, floaty number as the powerful enchantress, Morgan Le Fay. Something about the frivolous, over-the-top extravagance of it really reminds me of the lavish costumes Adrian created in his 1930s Hollywood heyday – Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford were often costumed in similarly voluminous and flirty chiffon gowns. As Sir Lancelot, singer Robert Goulet (above right) was appearing in his first Broadway role. While his tunic may be perilously short, the faux-fur lion stitched to the front is such a whimsical touch. It’s another of the ‘classic Hollywood’ style costumes Adrian excelled at, as his vision of Sir Lancelot wouldn’t look remotely out of place in most 1930s Medieval-set adventure films.

Julie Andrews and Robert Coote in 'Camelot'

Are any of these costumes completely, or even largely, historically accurate? Heavens no, but then again do they really need to be? Consider for a moment that Camelot is based not on history but upon legend, and it’s a musical – I don’t know about you, but people bursting into song every five minutes isn’t something I come across every day. It’s patently not meant to be ‘real life’, and I think it would actually be somewhat disingenuous to try and pretend that it is. It’s sheer, unadulterated fantasy, and instead of harping on about the lack of authenticity in the costumes, I think it’s far more important to look at whether they ‘work’ for the production. And I think they really and truly do.

While Adrian never got to see his beautiful Medieval costumes grace the stage, or witness the enormous success Camelot would enjoy throughout its two-year run, his influence upon its opulent visuals, and his contribution to its overall success are indisputable. For me, the even greater tragedy is that despite his status as Hollywood’s foremost costume designer in the 1930s and 1940s, despite creating some of cinema’s most identifiable costumes, he was never even nominated for an Academy Award. That the ultimate accolade eluded him must surely be one of the movie industry’s greatest oversights, but it’s perhaps fitting for a man whose work inspired dozens of imitators, that his work – rather than a gold statuette – should prove his true legacy.

Much love,

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