The Fabulous Fashion of the Movie Roberta

In Gunn’s Golden Rules, Tim Gunn lists what he thinks are “The Five Best Movies About Fashion.”  Though I disagree with Gunn (and many others) that Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-up is engaging, I was pleased that Gunn and I share enthusiasm for The September Issue (2009).  Anyway, Gunn’s list got me thinking about other movies that are either about fashion or at least prominently feature fashion.  Of course, every movie involves clothing and costuming characters, but some films seem almost an excuse to show off some designer’s work.

A perfect example of a movie partly made just to flaunt fashion is the 1935 musical Roberta starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Randolph Scott.  Scott’s character comes to Paris and inherits a fancy clothing boutique which means, of course, that not only will Dunne and Rogers be splendidly outfitted but that the plot will have to include a fashion show.  And what a show it is!  Costume designer Bernard Newman was brought to RKO Pictures upon the recommendation of Dunne and designed the large number of gowns for the movie.  The studio claimed he had spent $250,000 on the costumes and as David Chierichetti writes in Hollywood Costume Design, “Whatever they cost, the fashions were stupendous.”  (Also see W. Robert LaVine’s In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design for more on Newman and Roberta.)

Here’s what Ginger Rogers had to say about Roberta in her memoir:

With handsome clothes by my favorite designer, Bernard Newman, and beautiful songs to dance to, I had the time of my life playing this role. (p. 135)

Bernard Newman’s clothes in Roberta for me and for Irene Dunne were exceptionally clever and handsome.  The gold lamé dress I wore for the “I Won’t Dance” number was a dress I had bought while in New York as part of my trousseau.  That was the first time I ever wore a personal dress in a motion picture, and it was probably because Bernard Newman had designed it.  For the “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” number [sung by Dunne], he created a long black satin dress, with a wonderful piece of faux jewelry on the chest.  Men always commented on that gown; indeed, I never met a man who didn’t like that dress. (pp. 135-136)

In the same chapter about his own favorite films and books, Gunn justifiably gripes about students who claim to lack inspiration and exclaims: “Look around you!  Look out the window.  Go for a walk.  Go to a movie.  Go to a museum.  Go see a show.  Read a book.  Go to the library…” (p.75-76)  And he advises, “Any genre, any film, any book can be the jumping-off point for amazing creative work.” (p. 84) 

Roberta and the costumes of Bernard Newman should surely be an inspiration for any artist and a thrill for any movie viewer.  If he hasn’t seen it already, I hope Tim Gunn watches it too.

— Tim


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4 responses to “The Fabulous Fashion of the Movie Roberta

  1. Maria

    I loved Astaire & Rogers. The best book I ever read about them was by NYT dance critic, Arlene Croce: The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (c1972).

  2. Sheila

    A few more fashion films..
    Fred Astair’s Funny Face about a fashion photographer with innocent Audrey Hepburn and his muse.
    Prêt-à-Porter, Robert Altman’s humorous look at the fashion industry with a cast of thousand recognizable actors playing designers, models, reporters, etc.
    Finally, Meryl Streep does her turn as Anna Wintour type character in the Devil Wears Prada.
    And if you want a view of fashion design during the golden age of Hollywood check out this book: Edith Head’s Hollywood / by Edith Head and Paddy Calistro – TT505.H4 A33 2008

  3. Pingback: Irene Dunne: Lovely to Listen to | Eleventh Stack

  4. allwaysinfashion

    Just saw this movie for the first time on TCM— what a treat. I thought The Women was a great fashion movie, but this one has it beat. And I have never heard of Bernard Herman. Related to Stan Herman??? In any case a treat all around (of course the plot is silly and Randolph Scott seems so uncomfortable). It was pointed out that among the models in the finale fashion show is a young Lucille Ball (uncredited but her for sure).

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