These thoughts are dedicated to my friends who are obsessed with costume design in old Hollywood movies that were produced before they (my friends) were born.
In 1932 my mother was 7 years old, and lived in a faraway land. For her, Joan Crawford, Adrian and the Letty Lynton dress were not a thing. In 1932 America, after the 1929 market crash, was tail-spinning to the bottom of an economic hole, aka the Great Depression. Also in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States and would succeed in pulling the country out of the worst economic depression of the time, and on the road to prosperity. The exuberant Letty Lynton dress more than fulfilled the dream life of many American women and girls at that difficult time.
The “Letty Lynton” by Adrian
Here’s the story about the Letty Lynton dress — that I could gather. It was a costume designed by Adrian for Joan Crawford to wear in the movie “Letty Lynton”. Soon, charges of copyright infringement were thrown at the film, resulting in it being pulled from distribution; it was never released again, and movie fans were deprived of viewing it. We, however, live in the age of YouTube and online video streaming. In 2017, kind fans uploaded excerpts on YouTube, though I’m not sure where they found the clips. I found some websites airing the full movie free of charge, but I’m not willing to click on strange links, and am happy to view the short clips on YouTube. TCM, however, has a synopsis of the movie and some viewer rants, but I could not see the full movie scheduled anytime soon. So, feel free to watch the dress moving around on a beautiful Joan Crawford aboard a cruise ship on the YouTube clips, if you don’t mind the fuzziness.
Putting aside the unfortunate shelving of the film, this cupcake of a dress became a sensation at the time. Slightly modified copies of the dress (not exact copies) sold 500,000 nationwide – or so it is reported. (I guess the depression wasn’t as bad as they said.) Macy’s alone is said to have sold 15,000. How did that happen? According to the chapter on “Letty Lynton” in the book Gowns by Adrian, the studios hit on the idea of pre-publicizing the fashions in the movie for their fashion obsessed fans. Ostensibly, that would bring more fans to the theater where they could see their favorite movie star in the dresses.
Such is the story of the Letty Lynton dress. In spite of the film being pulled from distribution, it is said to have set a trend of large, ruffled sleeves and ruffly hems in a huge way in the 1930s, no doubt a marketing coup, and result of agreements with MGM, Macy’s “Cinema Shop” and a firm called Modern Merchandising Bureau. The movie is said to be a breakthrough of sorts since it was the first time movies and fashion trend-setting seemed to become a “thing”. The book mentioned above has fascinating details – if you’re a vintage Hollywood costume fan and can buy a new or used book, or borrow it from the library, go for it.
The dress fabric is described as white cotton organdy. Notably, the dress bodice appears to be a belted jacket with a tailored collar. Might this be a two piece outfit? Watching the clips shows that the ruffles are attached at the armhole rather than a sleeve. That’s how I’m seeing it. The width of the ruffles and the stiff nature of the fabric combines to form the exuberance. Any thoughts on that?
Coming back to the future, see this image of actress Lily Collins in the last showstopper look by Chanel’s Haute Couture Spring 2017 collection. While there are differences in color, additional ruffles on the skirt and an actual sleeve, the basic premise of the look is the same including the belted bodice. Looks like the House of Chanel added scalloped edges to the collar layers, and the sleeve ruffle edges.
It is one heck of a Chanel cupcake, and a red carpet stunner. Amazing that I did not see it anywhere during awards season; did you?
The sleeve is trending big (pun intended) in 2017. Any ideas on incorporating this big ruffly sleeve for non-celebrity people?
On Tamron Hall
Oh loooook! Tamron Hall, former anchor on NBC and MSNBC, is wearing the closest thing to the Letty Lynton dress – seems like a red carpet event. And she’s pulling off the look as beautifully as Joan Crawford.
Amazingly, as I looked for more information to include in this post, I found more written material and images of the Letty Lynton dress. Here are a couple of links:
Hollywood Comes to Aberdeen (UK)
Letty Lynton inspired sewing patterns on Pinterest
12 thoughts on “Nothing’s New – Chanel Channels “Letty Lynton””
Fascinating. Thank you for all the research you must have done. I like the original much more than the overdone ‘cupcake’ with way too much icing……
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Me, too. The original, while exuberant, is more palatable – design-wise.
Thanks for this fascinating post, you’ve pulled together many threads. I like the triple scalloped collar on the Chanel, and some sleeves in the patterns look translatable for everyday wear.
You’re welcome, Jay! I love digging into iconic fashion and what went on behind — it’s creation, the human condition during that time, etc.
Thank you Samina – great article and I know you are referring to me as an “obsessed friend” of old Hollywood costume design! haha! I am fascinated with this era (as well as the forties) – what amazes me is the intricate work they did at that time with hand work and simple, non-computerized sewing machines. I can’t tell by the picture but I would assume that the hems of the ruffles were hand rolled – so impressive!
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You bet, I’m referring to you! I remember your (and mine) obsession with anything that had anything to do with old Hollywood costume.
I do like Hall’s dress the best although there are lovely similarities with the other gowns. All beautiful! Is it possible to find a dress pattern with the correct silhouette and add the ruffles afterwards?
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Hi Linda, I’m very sure there are patterns that have same or similar lines. I did not look for them but maybe I should look in the modern pattern catalogs. Don’t you think it would make a cute prom dress?
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It would be a perfectly lovely prom dress!
I didn’t know the fascinating history of the Letty Lynton dress. For actual wear, I like the drama confined to one area and the rest of the garment streamlined. I too still see an emphasis on sleeves, whether ruffled or cold shoulder.
Lisa, the book I refer to has historic details behind other Adrian gowns – if there is a copy in your local library, I would recommend checking it out.
Yep, we’re still obsessed by sleeve manipulations!
Did you see Celine Dion’s dress at the Billboard awards? That dress is being talked about! Wing-like.