Curating The Joan Crawford Effect: Part 1

Recently, the Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library opened its fall exhibition The Joan Crawford Effect (October 6 – December 17, 2017).  A lot of people—students, colleagues, journalists—have asked me about my curatorial process.  In this series, I answer some of the most frequently asked questions.



Joan Crawford in Adrian's Letty Lynton gown
George Hurrell photograph of Joan Crawford in Adrian's Letty Lynton gown

Why did you decide to curate an exhibition about Joan Crawford?

When I first visited the Stephens College campus in spring 2016, I was told they had a “Letty Lynton” knockoff gown in their collections.  Letty Lynton was a black and white MGM film released in 1932 starring Joan Crawford.  In the months leading up to the film’s release, Crawford’s photographs (taken by photographer George Hurrell) appeared in fan magazines.  In the photos, taken on the set of Grand Hotel, Crawford looks stunning in several different Adrian-designed costumes.  For scholars of film costume and historical dress, the Letty Lynton knockoff in the Stephens collection is a major revelation.  A lot of us have read the statistics from Howard Gutner’s Gowns by Adrian book, which cites Macy’s claim that the store sold more than 50,000 reproductions of the famous 1932 Letty Lynton design at its New York stores alone.  For years this statistic has caused us dress scholars and curators to scratch our heads. Why don’t museums seem to have any of these reproductions in their collections if so many copies were sold? When I learned Stephens had a copy, I was ecstatic.  I had already been studying the relationship between fashion trends and Hollywood costume designs so it made sense for me to find a way to incorporate this Joan Crawford-related piece in a future exhibition.  Discovering that Crawford had briefly attended Stephens in 1922 was the icing on the cake.

Manufacturer's tag on the Letty Lynton knockoff in the Stephens collection
This tag on our Letty Lynton knockoff helped me to date the garment to 1933-1935 when the National Recovery Act was in effect (author photograph)

Why do you think so few museums have a copy of the Letty Lynton gown?

I have a suspicion that Macy’s may have inflated their sales figures for the Letty Lynton gown as a way to increase enthusiasm for their Cinema Shops collections, which were mini stores within Macy’s that catered to film fans wanting to dress like their idols.  Letty Lynton was released during the Depression [1932] and it strikes me as unlikely that more than 50,000 New York women would have the resources and inclination to buy such a fancy evening gown.

Letty Lynton-inspired gowns on exhibition
Two of the Letty Lynton-inspired gowns on exhibition from the permanent collections (photograph: Katherine Craig)

Did Joan Crawford wear the garments that are on exhibition?

No, she did not.  The featured objects from our collections include two gowns inspired by Adrian’s Letty Lynton gown.  One is a clear knockoff and the second is a looser interpretation of the design in terms of its silhouette and materials.  By including the second gown—which was probably homemade or made by a capable dressmaker—I wanted to show the broad impact the gown had on fashionable silhouettes at the time.

Of the three suits on exhibition, two were designed by Adrian once he’d left his position as head MGM costume designer and opened up his own Los Angeles fashion boutique.  The suits we have were sold at Neiman-Marcus, Dallas.  I included the suits as examples of his aesthetic sensibilities and the quality of his craftsmanship.

The third suit is from the 1930s and has been attributed to Elsa Schiaparelli.  When Crawford visited Europe in the early 1930s, she became enamored of Schiaparelli’s designs, which took their inspiration from masculine tailoring.  At the time, the fashionable silhouette for women was narrow, sloped shoulders.  Schiaparelli went against this shape and instead lightly padded out the shoulders.  Crawford had naturally broad shoulders and liked the idea of emphasizing her physique rather than trying to downplay it.  When she returned to the MGM lot in Culver City, she suggested to Adrian that he create similar suits for her.  This sparked their collaboration that led to the now famous Crawford “look” and inspired others to follow suit, if you will.  I include the Schiaparelli suit to show the source of inspiration for the Adrian/Crawford collaboration.  Perhaps the greatest advantage Adrian and Crawford had over Schiaparelli in terms of popularizing the broad-shouldered look, was the wide distribution of Hollywood films, which in turn influenced fashion trends.

Archives selected for inclusion in the exhibition (Author photograph, Stephens College Library Archives)

There are letters, scrapbooks, and other archives on exhibit—how did you collect these materials for the exhibition?

Last spring, when I was doing research for the exhibition, I contacted the Stephens College Library Director, Dan Kammer, about possible archives related to Joan Crawford’s enrollment at the college.  A history professor emeritus of the college, Alan Havig, returns to campus on a regular basis to maintain, organize, and provide access to the college archives.  Though I have not had the chance to meet Alan in person—we always seem to have opposite schedules!—I am incredibly grateful to him and all the students and staff who care for the archives, which are housed in acid-free folders and boxes.  The collection is organized such that it’s possible to go into the archives and browse the different shelves to locate materials related to one’s research project.  For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the curatorial process is the research.  I love looking through the objects and archives, not knowing what I’m going to find.  The most challenging thing is knowing when to stop collecting information and then refining it all down to something manageable to address within the context of an exhibition.

Last spring I took photographs and notes in the archives and made an inventory of all the materials related to Joan Crawford that I could find.  Next began the process of reviewing and narrowing down my list.  At this stage I began asking students for their perspectives on what they would find interesting in a museum exhibition.  Students told me they wanted to know more about Joan Crawford’s experience at the college.  While I had her transcript and yearbook photo, I didn’t have access to any of her personal materials—such as journals, letters written at the time—about her time at Stephens.  I don’t know if these even exist.  Stephens College president, James Madison Wood, wrote an unpublished memoir about his decades-long presidency that I found in the library archives.  I relied quite a bit on his narratives about Lucile “Billie” Cassin, as she was known in 1922, and his characterizations of her, their relationship, and her relationships with others.  Their later correspondence in the 1930s and 1940s and Wood’s memoir were essential for the exhibition narrative I wrote about the future Hollywood star.

Check back soon for more curatorial observations about The Joan Crawford Effect now open through December 17, 2017 at the Stephens College Costume Museum and Research Library located on the mezzanine level of Lela Raney Wood at the corner of College and Walnut in Columbia, Missouri.  The exhibition is open Wednesday 12-1, Thursday 5:30-8:30pm, and Saturday and Sunday 12-3.  The exhibition is closed during campus holidays.

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