I made the comment some time ago that we are over-run with books about some designers (Chanel) and for others there is practically no information to be found in print. This new book on Hollywood designer Irene is a step toward making a lesser known name more familiar.
Irene is generally known only by her first name, but she was Irene Lentz Gibbons. This is important to remember because there was another Irene, Irene Sharaff, working in Hollywood at the time, and there was a milliner Irene in New York. It can be confusing, especially since both Irene costume designers worked together at MGM for a time.
Irene Lentz arrived in Hollywood as the town was emerging as a center for making movies. She was working in a drug store when she befriended Dick Jones, a director at Mack Sennett Studios. Irene was cast in several movies, but she decided that she wanted to design and make clothes. She and Dick opened a dress shop in 1928. They married the next year, but Dick soon died of TB.
Irene then formed a partnership with friends – a venture called Irene, LTD. Here she made clothes to order for the Hollywood set and gained a reputation for glamorous dresses. She got the attention of Bullock’s Wilshire department store, and in 1933 she became the custom designer there. Her designs were labeled simply, “irene.”
In 1936 Irene married Eliot Gibbons and she continued to work at Bullock’s. By the late 1930s studios were beginning to offer her employment as costume designer, but she did not go to work at MGM until 1942 when Louis B. Mayer offered screen credit for her work.
At this point the book becomes very detailed about the various people working with Irene at MGM. I’ll admit that I was lost through much of it, as the names were not familiar and it was hard to keep all of them straight. I had not seen many of the movies mentioned and the details made my eyes glaze over. So instead of trying to keep it all straight I focused on the illustrations – beautiful original sketches and photos of the actresses wearing the finished products.
Some interesting things about movie wardrobes are revealed in the text. First, designers like Irene worked in a team. She may or may not have designed all the clothes for which she got screen credit. Also, the studio was really good at recycling costumes. Lesser actresses often wore hand-me-downs in later movies after A-list actresses wore them in more important movies. An example of this is a fur trimmed paisley jacket that was made for Ingrid Bergman to wear in Gaslight in 1944, and was also worn by Ava Gardner in The Great Sinner of 1949. That jacket can be seen today at the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina.
There are also some juicy, gossipy bits. LB Mayer had Irene design Judy Garland’s wedding dress. He insisted on approving it even before Judy herself saw the dress. Irene got along with the actors and actresses she dressed with one notable exception – Katherine Hepburn. Hepburn was very particular about her clothes and rarely approved them on the first viewing. If she were made to wear a design she did not like she would find a way to “sabotage” it, position herself on screen so that the garment could not be seen.
Unfortunately, there are many details about Irene’s alcoholism. As early as 1933 people had begun to notice her excessive drinking. It was the pressure of working at MGM and the added problems with her husband that began to make her drinking a major problem.
In 1947 Irene reentered the clothing manufacturing business with the first collection being shown in 1948. At the same time her contract with MGM was renewed for another five years. Her role there changed, as she was able to choose the movies she wanted to work on. It was an encounter with Katherine Hepburn that led to her firing at MGM. Hepburn complained about Irene being drunk on the job and she was soon let go.
At that point, the book is over. Even though the title tells us that it is about Irene’s years at MGM, the story ends so abruptly that it leaves the reader hanging. Irene went on to run her dress and suit business for thirteen more years before killing herself in 1962. Did her alcoholism play a role in her death? Was her business a success? For the reader unfamiliar with Irene’s work and life, there are a lot of unanswered questions.
The book was written by Frank Billecci and Lauranne Fisher. Fisher is the daughter of Virginia Fisher who was Irene’s sketch artist at MGM. Much of the content is based on Fisher’s recollections, and those of Irene’s secretary, Chrys Carter. Irene also kept a scrapbook which has survived, and the list of primary sources was impressive.
But the big strength of this book is the quality of the illustrations. Even though Irene was designing for characters, you can get a real feel for her design aesthetic, one that carried over to Irene, Inc.
I’ve included three ads from the 1950s which show what Irene was all about. She designed glamorous evening and cocktail dresses along with tailored suits.
When I first started buying vintage clothing, years and years ago, I found a beautiful linen dress with an interesting structure and very nice embroidery. It was not until I got it home that I found the irene label, and not until years later that I learned who she was. I’ll share photos of my irene dress next week.
I neglected to mention that I was sent an e-copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes.