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The Gown of Gilda

Jean Louis, costume designer for Columbia Pictures, knew how to dress women. Not just dress but encompass their figure and their character in the cut, color and style. As designer Bob Mackie put it, “He understood what ladies should look like.” In “Bell, Book and Candle” (1959) Jean Louis created a bewitching wardrobe for Kim Novak’s hourglass figure, making her look as slick as a black cat. “The nude gown” Marilyn wore when she sang “Happy Birthday” to J.F.K was one of Jean Louis’s creations as well. However, the gown which really made the attention sizzle around his talent and skill was the black satin gown Rita Hayworth made her famous “strip tease” as “Gilda” in “Gilda” (1946).

His first contracted film of Hayworth’s was “Tonight and Every Night” (1944); it would be the first of ten films Jean Louis would dress Miss. Hayworth. And his first job was not an easy one either. Having to work with a very pregnant leading lady, Jean Louis expertly made and altered Rita’s gowns to hide her growing belly. The studios must have been more than satisfied with the results because both actress and costume designer were loaned out to Universal Studios for a film titled “Gilda” (1946). In this film Rita was cast as the title character, the quintessential femme-fatale who plays with the hearts of Glenn Ford and George Macready just for the fun of it. At one point in the film, Gilda does a “strip tease” in the Johnny’s nightclub in a beautiful black satin gown.

When production started for creating the gown, it was well-known that it had to be strapless in order for Rita to sing, move and “strip.” Jean Louis used the famous portrait of “Madame X,” the Parisian socialite who was known for her “Gilda-esque” personae, as a visual model. The next step was knowing how to make the gown stay snung around Rita’s hourglass figure and the inventive costume designer created a harness. The harness was made up of three stays – one under the bust, one in the center and one on the side. Then softened plastic was molded around the top of the gown. When they were finished, the gown was not so much a gown but a technological marvel. There was no way the gown was moving from Rita’s body in the scandalous film sequence as her character teased and titillated her audience, both nightclub and film goers. The removal of the one glove from Gilda’s hand was never done so sexy and stylishly.

Jean Louis once remarked on how easy it was to dress Rita, “. . .[she] had a good body. . .She was very thin-limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and she had beautiful hands.” He continued to dress her for the next fifteen years of her career while Jean Louis worked with other top stars as well including Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. He eventually won an Academy Award for his costume work for actress Judy Holiday in “The Sold Gold Cadillac” (1956).

The last film Hayworth and Louis worked together on the western/psychological drama “They Came To Cordura” (1959). Jean Louis dressed Rita in a fairly contemporary wardrobe of peasant shirts and slacks to combat the heat of the desert, but nonetheless, the ensemble made Rita look glamorous.

In April 2009, Gilda’s famous black satin gown was put up on the Forrest J. Ackerman Estate auction.. The dress was described as still having the labels of “Property of Columbia Pictures” and “Rita Hayworth” sewn inside the gown; it also included the original hand-stitching and working zipper. The gown was estimated to sell between $30,000 to $50,000. However, the gown was pulled before it reached the auction block. Then, in September 2009, the gown mysteriously showed up as an Ebay listing and the starting bid was at $30,000. The information remains elusive as to whether it sold or not.

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