Sunday, January 19, 2014

Costume Designer - Travis Banton

For our very first entry in the new Behind the Screen: The Hidden Masters of the Golden Age of Filmmaking series we are going to feature Travis Banton, one of the most recognized costume designers in Hollywood during the 1930s. During his tenure at Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox and Universal studios he created over 250 beautiful gowns for stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis, Mae West and Carole Lombard. 

Travis Banton was born in Waco, Texas on August 18, 1894. At the age of two his family moved to New York City where, being surrounded by the fashionable society women of the Big Apple, he formed an early appreciation for beautiful fabric. This fascination led him to study fashion design and art at Columbia University and the Art Students League. 

In 1915, while still a fledgling student, he was given the opportunity to design Norma Talmadge's wardrobe for Poppy, an upcoming film production about to be shot in New York City. He created a beautiful beige tailored suit for Ms. Talmadge with a hat bearing green feathers to showcase her daringly new bobbed hairdo. He was a nervous, awkward youngster but, in spite of a few mistakes in his drawings, Norma Talmadge accepted each sketch with enthusiasm and praise. 

The gowns of Sinners in the Sun ( 1932 )

When World War I broke out, Banton shipped overseas to help fight and his costume-sketching was put on hold temporarily, but upon his return he plunged once again into the never-ending battle of beauteous fashion. His next assignment was to create the wardrobe for one of Hollywood's up and coming stars, Alice Joyce. His pleasant experience with Ms. Talmadge and Ms. Joyce gave him the school-boy illusion that all female movie stars were gracious, charming and patient. As he grew in experience, he later learned otherwise. 

Esther Ralston sharing sketches Banton created for her '27 film, "Fashions for Women"

In the early 1920s Banton was working for famous Madame Frances of New York fashion boutique. One of his spring creations, a bridal gown of bouffant white net, had received wide comment and publicity. It received even more publicity a few weeks later when Mary Pickford chose the gown for her celebrated marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. This only helped to make Banton more famous in the world of fashion and a short time later he opened his own dressmaking salon. Creating designs for the Ziegfeld Follies was only one of the assignments his salon had. In 1924, a phone call from Paramount Studios brought Banton out to Hollywood to sign a contract. 

Dietrich's beautiful fur gown in Shanghai Express ( 1932 )

Once in tinseltown, Banton designed costumes for Pola Negri, Florence Vidor and even the "It" girl herself, Clara Bow, in films such as The Dressmaker from Paris, The Grand Duchess and the Waiter, and Wings. When Paramount's chief designer Howard Greer left the studio in 1927 Banton was promoted to the position and was responsible for dressing the studio's most illustrious stars. 

Mae West in Belle of the Nineties

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s he created an extensive amount of beautiful fashions, notably Mae West's stunning blue velvet gown in Belle of the Nineties ( 1934 ), Claudette Colbert's scantily clad gold and black piece in Cleopatra ( 1934 ), and Loretta Young's lovely satin queen's robe with pearl-studded crown in The Crusades ( 1935 ). 

A stunning fringed evening gown and the famous Cleopatra head mask 

During the 1930s Banton's "look" veered towards dressing the female stars in suits, dress pants and other masculine wear. Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich helped to make this style especially appealing in films such as Shanghai Express, The Scarlett Empress, and No Man of her Own.

Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress and a sketch for her "Morocco" suit

Fifteen years of the pressure of creating fashions on schedule while feuding with the stars and the executives over costume details were beginning to take their toll on Banton and he turned to drinking. In the late 1930s he was becoming increasingly erratic in behavior, often difficult and not very reliable due to his alcoholism and, at the instigation of his subordinate Edith Head, was forced to leave Paramount Pictures in 1938. After this, he joined Howard Greer's label, Greer Inc. and also designed freelanced for Columbia Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox, where he worked for two years. 

Rita Hayworth modeling Banton's Cover Girl gown

While at Fox, he fashioned the magnificent matador outfits for Tyrone Power and the lovely gowns for Linda Darnell in The Mark of Zorro ( 1940 ) and Blood and Sand ( 1941 ), and created the colorful south-of-the-border inspired dresses for Alice Faye and Betty Grable in the musicals Down Argentine Way ( 1940 ), That Night in Rio ( 1941 ), and Moon Over Miami ( 1941 ). 

Grable's golden gown in Down Argentine Way

Most memorable of all were the fruit-topped concoctions he designed for Carmen Miranda in these films. With beads and fruit galore atop her head she jingled and jangled in tune with the songs that she sang.

The Tutti-Frutti Lady

From 1945-1948 Travis Banton worked at Universal Pictures where he designed the gowns used in films such as I'll Be Yours ( 1947 ), Morning Becomes Electra ( 1947 ),  The Paradine Case ( 1947 ) and Letter from an Unknown Woman ( 1948 ).  

One of his most striking designs though was not a gown at all - it was Kitty March's black negligee in Scarlet Street ( 1945 ). When Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett teamed up again for another film noir, Secret Beyond the Door, Travis Banton was once again called in to design wardrobe, which this time included more contemporary wear, such as the black and white dress suit she wears when she pleads with Michael Redgrave. 

This was one of the last films that Banton worked on before he retired from the hustle-bustle of cinema costume designing and focused all his attention on his fashion salon he set up with the Russian couturier Marusia Sassi. He returned to Hollywood only once, in 1956, to dress the always stylish Dinah Shore for an episode on her Chevy Show. 

Travis Banton passed away two years later, in 1958 at the age of 63, from throat cancer. His last creations were the sumptuous gowns that Rosalind Russell bedecked herself in, in "Auntie Mame" on Broadway in 1956. 

Today, many of Banton's creations can be seen in museums across the nation where they look just as modern and chic as the day he created them. Timeless fashion, now that is the mark of a truly great fashion designer. 

This post is a part of our ongoing series Behind the Screen : The Hidden Masters of the Golden Age of Filmmaking. 

Travis Banton ( 1894-1958 )


  1. I first noted Banton's name in the credits when I was a teen and fell in love with a black and white dress worn by Alice Faye in "Tin Pan Alley". It's not fancy, but to me it was perfection.

    Really enjoyed this post about the designer, who has popped up in my blog a couple of times recently ("Sun Valley Serenade" and "The Velvet Touch"). I don't feel informed enough to write in detail about costuming, but I know what I like and Banton I like.

    1. You said it perfectly Caftan Woman, we don't know a thing about fashion either but when we see a sharp looking dress onscreen it's irresistible not to write about it. I wonder if anybody owns one of his non-film creations today. What an heirloom that would be!