In the realm of visual storytelling and cinema, costume and set design are particularly important for their contributions to the depth and believability of narrative spaces. The history of set and costume design in cinema is a fascinating reflection on the evolution of film as an art form. Set design encompasses the creation of physical and visual environments that enhance the storytelling and contribute to the overall cinematic experience, while costume design achieves the same goals through the careful curation of the clothing, jewelry and accessories worn by the actors on screen. These Hollywood arts play a crucial role in creating characters and establishing the visual style of a film – or even the visual style of an entire era.
Art Deco, the Silent Era and the Studio SystemIn the earliest days of cinema, films were often shot on simple, makeshift sets consisting of little more than a painted canvas backdrop hung on a clothesline. Likewise, costumes were often simple and practical, with limited attention to period accuracy or elaborate designs. Silent film actors often wore their own clothes or items borrowed from theatrical wardrobes. The focus was primarily on capturing the action rather than creating elaborate environments and accurate costumes. As the medium progressed, filmmakers began experimenting with more sophisticated set and costume designs, influenced by theatrical traditions. With the establishment of the studio system in the mid-1920s, costume and set departments became integral to film production. Studios like MGM had their own costume designers and workshops. Studios like MGM, Paramount, and Warner Bros. established massive backlots with permanent sets representing various locations (e.g., cities, Western towns, jungles) to streamline production.
Influential in this shift was Cedric Gibbons, the head of the art department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1924 through 1956. During his tenure, he was credited on more than 1,500 projects and served as the art director of over 150 productions, including some of the most visually iconic films of all time like The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). He was nominated a record 39 times for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction and won 11 times, and he even designed the Oscar statuette in 1928. Much of his early inspiration came from the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, which he attended in 1925. Upon his return to the United States, he applied a modern sensibility to the art direction at MGM, defining the early Hollywood look and becoming a pioneer of Art Deco design in America.
The clean lines and high-polish surfaces of Art Deco design lent themselves well to black and white photography, and audiences loved the look for its glamour and luxury. These early films provided a window into the world of fashion and wealthy living, and they continued to provide an escapist vision of society even after the stock market crash of 1929 and into the Great Depression.
In his earliest days at MGM, Gibbons was somewhat in competition with another art director, Romain de Tirtoff, better known as Erté. A native of Saint Petersburg, Erté had already made a name for himself as an illustrator for the pages of Harper’s Bazaar and for his stage design in the theatres of Paris when Louis B. Mayer brought him to Hollywood in 1925 to design sets and costumes for MGM. Erté was another Art Deco visionary, but he did not take to the studio system like Gibbons had. His first assignment was for the silent film Paris (1926) starring a young Joan Crawford, but the film suffered from many script rewrites and delays that frustrated Erté. He was assigned to other films in the meantime, such as The Mystic, Time, The Comedian, and Dance Madness. His most notable film was Ben-Hur (1925), for which he designed an Egyptian-inspired peacock costume worn by actress Carmel Myers. He ultimately worked under contract with MGM for only a year before returning to Europe, and his lavish set and costume designs for Paris were never used.
Ave Maria by Erté, 1928 set design.
The Golden Age of Hollywood
The Golden Age of Hollywood describes an era when big studios like MGM, Paramount, RKO, and Warner Brothers reigned supreme alongside their contracted stars like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple. This period lasted from around 1927 with the advent of “talkies” and 1969 with the rise of the director auteur.
The set designs and costumes reflected the heady exuberance of the era, helped along by the introduction of color and widescreen formats. Cinemascope, for example, required wider sets to accommodate the broader frame – perfect for the lavish musicals and epics that drew audiences in. Technicolor allowed set and costume designers to explore more vibrant and expressive color schemes, impacting the visual aesthetics of films. Innovations in lighting, such as the use of chiaroscuro and shadows, became prominent in films noir, influencing set design to create moody and atmospheric settings.
Betty Grable's Velvet Bodice from That Lady in Ermine, 1948.
Vivien Leigh's Earrings from Caesar and Cleopatra, 1945.
Costume designers such as Adrian and Edith Head became influential figures during this era, creating iconic looks for stars like Greta Garbo and Grace Kelly. Paramount even had its own fine jeweler on staff. Elaborate gowns and glamourous jewels became synonymous with the industry, leading the charge in fashion trends in the real world. The Art Deco style endured through the 1930s, and the decade also saw the rise of designer works used on screen, rather than purely the work of studio costume designers. Big-name houses such as Harry Winston and Cartier became more and more entwined with Hollywood and art cinema. Even though no Tiffany jewelry designs were actually worn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Tiffany got involved in the press tour for the film, loaning Audrey Hepburn the 128.54-carat canary Tiffany Diamond set in a necklace by the firm’s designer Jean Schlumberger for publicity photographs.
Increasingly seeing themselves as artists in their own right, set and costume designers were inspired by the world of fine art during this time. Rita Hayworth’s slinky black gown in Gilda (1946) was designed by Jean Louis as an homage to John Singer Sargent’s infamous 1884 painting Portrait of Madame X. The famous 17-minute-long dance sequence in the film An American in Paris (1951) rotated through several elaborate sets all based on the works on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, including Raoul Dufy, Henri Rousseau, Pierre Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The late 1960s and 1970s saw a shift towards more realistic and naturalistic designs. Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola emphasized authenticity, and set and costume designs reflected this trend. Location shooting gained popularity, reducing the reliance on elaborate studio sets. The period brought about a more casual and experimental approach to costume design. Designers like Theadora Van Runkle worked on films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), introducing a more contemporary and character-driven style.
There was still room for grand art design in the age of the auteur, however. Stanley Kubrick often took inspiration from fine art for his films – a scene in A Clockwork Orange (1971) alludes to a Vincent van Gogh work and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) references the Pre-Raphaelites. His film most heavily influenced by painting, however, was Barry Lyndon (1975) starring Ryan O’Neal. It includes many references to 18th-century English painting, favoring artists such as William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable. Kubrick even used a special fast lens in order to achieve a painterly look on the film.
Portrait of a Mr. Coke by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1760.
Throughout Hollywood's history, set design and costuming has evolved in response to technological advancements, world events, changing cultural norms, artistic trends and storytelling styles. Sometimes imitating art and sometimes imitating life, these creative endeavors continue to be a vital aspect of filmmaking, contributing to the visual language and narrative impact of cinema.
Explore M.S. Rau’s collection of fine art, jewelry and antiques that could elevate any film set’s visual narrative.