Tuesday, December 6, 2016

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 in Baker, Montana, Lentz began her Hollywood career as a silent film actress at age 20 appearing in supporting roles in silent films with Mack Sennett as early as 1921. She appeared as an ingĂ©nue in roles opposite Sennett's leading comedians, Ben Turpin and Billy 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 small dress 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 the gowns for Ginger Rogers on the 1937 film Shall We Dance with Fred Astaire. This was followed by additional designs in another Rogers’ film as well as work for other independents such as Walter Wanger Productions, Hal Roach Studios and major studios RKO, Paramount and Columbia Pictures. During the 1930s, Irene Lentz designed the film wardrobe for leading ladies such as Constance Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Bennett, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Ingrid Bergman, and Loretta Young among others.
Ava Gardner
The Postman Always Rings Twice
ca 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 soufflĂ©, 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 Wore.
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 left suicide notes for 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 the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, 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
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 dressed Angelina 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!
Irene Lentz
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