Irene Lentz: Fashion and Style Icon during Hollywood's Golden Age
With all the craziness since the beginning of the school year, I completely missed Women out West's third birthday last month! So, thank you for joining me as we continue to honor the talented women who have added such richness to our lives. Along the
way we have explored female painters, sculptors, photographers, quilters and architects.
Time to give a nod to women artists who braved the early entertainment
business. It’s a tough venue in which to work and I can assure you from
experience, just getting the proverbial “foot in the door” is a real challenge.
Irene Lentz Pictured with original designs Los Angeles, California
There is an enormous range of artistic areas in which to work in show
business; everything from animation, which includes storyboard artists and
inkers, make-up, scene painters, set designers and dressers and costume
designers. Most people with even a cursory knowledge of film costume designers are
familiar with the names Edith Head and Bob Mackie. Unfortunately, few have ever heard of Irene Lentz, a twice-Oscar-nominated designer with a
seemingly charmed career that ended in tragedy when she leaped to her death from
her room at Hollywood's Knickerbocker Hotel in 1962.
Irene at a fitting
Born inBaker, Montana, Lentz began her Hollywood career as a silent film actress at age 20 appearing insupporting rolesinsilent
filmswithMack Sennett as early as 1921. She appeared as aningénue in rolesopposite Sennett'sleadingcomedians,Ben TurpinandBilly
Bevan. Her first film was directed by Sennett's production chief,F. Richard Jones and their
professional relationship matured into a personal one. They had been married for
less than a year when Jones perished, most likely due to tuberculosis which was rampant in Los Angeles in the 1930s. After his death, Irene Lentz
left for Europe where she discovered couture.
Frank Richard JonesAmerican Director and Producer Husband of Irene Lentz ca 1919
Lentz had been sewing since childhood
and, with a gift for style, she opened a smalldress shop on the USC campus in Los
Angeles. After her husband's death and her return from Europe, she opened another boutique at
9000 Sunset Boulevard where she built a following among wealthy women. Those influential clients included MGM chief Louis B. Mayer's daughters Irene and Edith and a
celebrity clientele that would embody Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, and Carole Lombard. Bullocks, a now defunct but high-end department store in Los Angeles, offered Lentz the opportunity to open her own custom design shop at
the store. As a costume designer, her first big
film break came when she designed the wardrobe for the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. Lentz remembers, the day Mayer called. "I thought maybe he wanted me to
design wardrobe for some pictures," instead, he offered
her the job as head of MGM's costume department, replacing the well-known Gilbert Adrian,
who was leaving to start his own fashion line. During her tenure, Lentz (who
had by then closed her shop at Bullocks) clashed with Mayer. "It was not easy for
her," says fashion writer Mary Hall, founder of The Recessionista blog,
who has researched Lentz's life. "She had
conflicts with Mayer because she wanted quality in design. Mayer's top priority
was economy in design." In addition to work pressures, her second marriage to
screenwriter Eliot Gibbons (brother of MGM head art director Cedric Gibbons) was said to be an unhappy one.
Ginger Rogers in Irene Shall We DanceRKO Radio Pictures ca 1937
Billing herself simply as
"Irene," her first work was on the 1933 film,Goldie
Gets Along,featuring her own designs for star,Lily Damita. Lentz
was also hired to create thegownsforGinger
Rogerson the 1937 filmShall We DancewithFred
Astaire. This was followed by additional designs in another Rogers’ film as
well as work for other independents such asWalter
Wanger Productions,Hal Roach
Studiosand major studiosRKO,ParamountandColumbia
Pictures. During the 1930s, Irene Lentz designed the film wardrobe forleading ladiessuch as Constance Bennett,Hedy Lamarr,Joan Bennett,Claudette Colbert,Carole Lombard,Ingrid Bergman, andLoretta Youngamong others.
Ava Gardner The Postman Always Rings Twice Metro-Goldwyn-Mayerca 1946
Lentz not only costumed Hollywood's Golden Age stars for the big screen,
famously putting Lana Turner in then-scandalous high-waist shorts
with a midriff-baring top in 1946's The Postman Always Rings Twice,
she also dressed them in life. Her signature Irene clothing line was one of only two to have its own salon at the Bullocks Wilshire department store in the 1930s and '40s (Coco Chanel had the other). But since her death, until fairly recently, Lentz has been largely forgotten. "She is the most celebrated costume
designer nobody has heard of," says TV and movie costume designer Greg LaVoi, who is in process of writing a book about her.
Doris Day in Irene ca 1960
Her close friend Doris Day, whom Lentz dressed in the early ’60s films Lover Come Back and
Midnight Lace, still remembers her fondly. "She
was such a talented designer, and I loved everything she did for me," Day
tells THR. "She knew
exactly what I liked, and when we did a film, we didn't even have to discuss my
wardrobe because she knew what I would wear." Lentz was revered for her dresses in ultrafine silk soufflé,
luxurious bias-cut chiffon gowns and kick-pleated day skirts. Her looks
represented a new wave of modern American dressing: wide swingy trousers with
elegant silk blouses, tailored suits cut to hug a woman's curves, with hand
stitching and exquisite buttons. "Her tailoring flattered a woman's
figure," says Doris Raymond, owner of L.A. consignment store The Way We
Irene Lentz Design Dinner dress of bianchini black crepe
By the end of the ’40s, Lentz wanted out of MGM. After leaving MGM, she founded her own fashion line and sold that line in 20 of the biggest department stores in America in the 1950s. including Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, to relaunch her
line at a more mass-market level. "It was marketing genius. Upscale stores
could offer clients the Irene garments that stars loved," says Hall.
"Today, that would be similar to how someone like [designer] Janie Bryant has leveraged Mad Men to design a
fashion line for Banana Republic. Except Irene was a fashion designer before
she was hired by the studios."
Irene Lentz Design
If her career sounds like a Hollywood movie, the ending is a real tear-jerker. On Nov. 15, 1962, days after her latest show received rave
reviews and three weeks short of her sixty-first birthday, Lentz checked into the Knickerbocker in Hollywood under an assumed name. (The now-closed
hotel has a history of tragedy: Actress Frances Farmer was arrested there before her
institutionalization, and I Love Lucy's William Frawley was dragged there to die after he
had a heart attack on the street.)
Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel 1714 Ivar and Hollywood Boulevard ca 1940s
There is some question as to what drove her to such despair. In her 1975 autobiography, Doris Day wrote that Lentz had spoken of a longtime
love for the actor Gary Cooper who was married, but known for his many affairs and had died the year
before. Other factors surely played their parts as well: her husband's ill health following
a series of strokes, her alcoholism and an incident (recounted by client Barbara Sinatra in her autobiography) in which Lentz suffered facial paralysis after falling asleep with her face under an electric
blanket. Lentz jumped to her death from her bathroom window where she landed on the awning of the lobby entrance and was not discovered until the following morning. Lentz leftsuicide notesfor friends and family, for her ailing husband, and for the hotel residents, apologizing for any inconvenience her death might cause. As per her wishes, Lentz is interred next to her first husband,F. Richard Jones, at theForest Lawn Memorial Park CemeteryinGlendale, California.
Sadly, her line closed a few years after her death. But Lentz no
doubt would be pleased to see her designs coming back into style. Says Day:
"I can see why there is interest in her today. I often hear from fans
telling me how much they loved my wardrobes in films, and I can thank Irene for
that. Her designs are truly timeless."
Marlene Dietrich in Irene The Lady is Willing Columbia Pictures ca 1942
Doris Day in Irene Midnight Lace Ross Hunter Universal-International ca 1960
Now, 51 years after her suicide at age 61, Lentz's designs have a new group of admirers including Tory Burch who wore a Lentz creation on the NYC charity circuit, and for 2010's The Tourist, costume designer Colleen Atwood, who dressedAngelina Jolie in a caramel shawl and ivory sheath based on an Irene look. "I have always been enamored of the refinement of her eye," says Atwood. Her most enthusiastic fan is the aforementioned Greg LaVoi. During the run of TNT's The Closer, he dressed star Kyra Sedgwick in 60-year-old suits, and in spring of 2013, relaunched the Irene line with the consent of her family. Irene items come up for sale occasionally at The Way We Wore and Melrose Avenue's Decades and are priced from $1,800 to $3,800. It's a wonderful tribute to a legendary designer!
1. http://articles.latimes.com/2014/feb/17/image/la-ig-irene-20140216, retrieved December 2, 2016
2. Colette, Californian Elegance, February 2011, https://blog.colettehq.com/inspiration/irene-californian-elegance, retrieved December 2, 2016
3. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/irene-lentz-costume-designers-chic-430898, retrieved December 2, 2016
Vintage Style Files, The California Elegance of Irene Lentz, January 2014, 4. http://www.bluevelvetvintage.com/vintage_style_files/2014/01/06/the-california-elegance-of-irene-lentz/, retrieved December 2, 2016
5. The Hollywood Reporter Remembers Irene, Mary Hall, 2013, http://therecessionista.com/the-hollywood-reporter-remembers-irene-lentz/?doing_wp_cron=1481046590.9050979614257812500000, retrieved December 5, 2016