Gilbert Adrian

Leigh Wishner

Some stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age are so legendary they need only one name, and so it is with Adrian. Gilbert Adrian—known professionally by his last name only—was the first prominent fashion designer to use Dorothy Liebes’s fabrics. It was during the war years that Liebes’s specialty fabrics began to entice motion picture set decorators and costume designers, including Travis Banton, Edith Head, and Irene Lentz Gibbons. Though Liebes was never credited onscreen, numerous productions used her exquisitely textured, glimmering textiles for set decor and film costumes; the same qualities that made her materials exceptional onscreen made them desirable for celebrity fashions.  

Liebes’s unorthodox choices in weaving materials attracted Adrian, who left his position as head costume designer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941 to launch his ready-to-wear and custom fashion line. Liebes, who would become close friends with Adrian and his wife, film star Janet Gaynor, noted in her unpublished memoir: “My work came to [Adrian’s] attention in a somewhat roundabout way, via the Chinese quarter in San Francisco. . . . Having browsed through Chinese shops so much, I was quite familiar with materials that could be used in weaving. They were both colorful and inexpensive. Using Chinese ribbons, I had woven some cloth for handbags and wall panels. Adrian saw the handbags and ordered the Chinese ribbon fabric which he designed into beautiful evening coats” (Fig. 1). [1] 

Adrian invited Liebes to design an opulent backdrop for the theatrical catwalk stage in his Beverly Hills salon; in keeping with the Tony Duquette–appointed space, they decided on a subtle yet dramatic mélange of pale gray and cognac leather strips interlaced with metallic gold threads. The curtains were to be twenty feet tall, which Liebes described as “a tall order for the limited facilities in my studio” (Figs. 2A, 2B). [2] Liebes was certain her salon furnishings and custom fabrics for Adrian introduced her to Hollywood’s elite—an inkling borne out by a Harper’s Bazaar editorial depicting actress Lauren Bacall and model Slim Hawks (wife of film director Howard Hawks). Bacall wears a topcoat “woven of ribbon, silver thread, green and fuchsia pink wool all in a wonderful, elegant profusion,” while Hawks is shown in a suit jacket of “soft white wool—it might almost be heavy raw silk—with shining gold woven into the plaid” (Fig. 3). [3] Bacall’s coat is nearly identical to an Adrian coat acquired by another celebrity client, Madame Ganna Walska, now in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  

The California Stylist, a trade publication chronicling the West Coast fashion industry, illuminated the working process unique to this duo: “Leibes-created [sic] fabrics for custom-clothes designers are first woven, in sample size, at the studio and then submitted to the clothes designer. The sample itself serves as inspiration, and the gown, coat, or suit is designed to feature the fabric. One notable example is the perfectly simple, full-cut coat Adrian created, which gave full play to the stunning combination of color and metallic ribbons used in the fabric.” [4] Several Adrian jackets inset with horizontal bands of Liebes twills, gleaming with metal strands, popped up in press at this time; Liebes herself was photographed wearing such a jacket as she casually inspected a panel of her own work (Fig. 4). Though the only receipt from Adrian Ltd. in Liebes’s personal papers documents the purchase of a chartreuse wool suit in 1942, family photographs confirm that she wore other Adrian garments, including a smart, checked jacket and a witty dress (or blouse) featuring an “Egyptian collar” encircling the neckline, its faience beads reinterpreted in gingham, Adrian’s signature fabric (Figs. 5, 6). An identical suit in the collection of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising Museum in Los Angeles shows the precision of Adrian’s tailoring and the crispness of the checked wool fabric with which the suit is made (Fig. 7). 


[1] Dorothy Liebes autobiography (unpublished ms.), 196. Series 4, Box 4, Folder 9, Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 

[2] Ibid. 

[3] “Night Wools by Adrian,” Harper’s Bazaar 78, no. 2794 (October 1944): 92. 

[4] “The Liebes Look in Fabric,” California Stylist 9, no. 7 (August 1945): 105. 

textile woven with teal yarns and magenta ribbon within the weft

Fig. 1 Sample card for Chinese Ribbons, circa 1947; Designed by Dorothy Wright Liebes (American, 1897–1972); Cotton, viscose rayon, silk-acetate blend, cellophane, glass beads; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. Morris D. C. Crawford, 1955-71-5

textile panel woven with brown and grey leather along the warp and gold thread along the weft.

Fig. 2A Panel for Adrian Ltd. Showroom, Beverly Hills, California, 1947; Handwoven rayon, silk, metallic yarn, and leather; Museum of Arts and Design, New York, Gift of Dorothy Liebes Design, through the American Craft Council, 1973

black and white image of a large room filled with people seated. a woman wearing a dress is standing in an open space while the seated crowd looks at her.

Fig. 2B Panel for Adrian Ltd. Showroom, Beverly Hills, California, 1947; Image courtesy of Leonard Stanley

interior spread of a magazine with black and white images of women wearing blazers

Fig. 3 "Night Wools by Adrian," from Harper’s Bazaar, October 1944, 92.

black and white image of a woman wearing a black top with intricate details along the neckline. she has a textile draped over her shoulder and is lovingly gazing downwards at it.

Fig. 4 Dorothy Liebes in an Adrian jacket, 1945; Photograph by Yousuf Karsh (Armenian-Canadian, 1908–2002); Associated Press; Dorothy Liebes Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

black and white image of six people smiling and posing. dorothy liebes is towards the left with her arms draped over two of the people and she is wearing an Adrian dress with an Egyptian motif around the neckline

Fig. 5 Dorothy Liebes with her family, wearing an Adrian dress with an Egyptian color printed motif; Dorothy Liebes Papers

a black and white image of three women posing in front of a draped curtain, one the left dorothy liebes is wearing a blazer designed by adrian

Fig. 6 Dorothy Liebes with two unidentified people, likely family members, wearing an Adrian jacket made from a woven checked fabric; Dorothy Liebes Papers

a mannequin wearing a gray skirt suit

Fig. 7 Suit, Gilbert Adrian, 1946–48; FIDM Museum Collection, Gift of Anonymous Donor,
2003.40.15AB; Courtesy of the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Los Angeles, CA

Leigh Wishner

Leigh Wishner is a modern textile and fashion historian. She has worked in the fashion museum field for over twenty years, holding positions at the FIDM Museum at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at Cora Ginsburg LLC. She received her BA in art history and archaeology from Barnard College, and her MA in decorative arts and material culture from Bard Graduate Center. Leigh has an unabashed passion for twentieth-century textiles, fashions, and interiors, lecturing extensively on these intertwined subjects. Most recently, she contributed to A Dark, A Light, A Bright: The Designs of Dorothy Liebes (2023, Yale University Press/Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum), the first major publication devoted to this pioneering twentieth-century American weaver.