1. Rita Hayworth in Jean Louis’ Creation
Rita Hayworth’s black silk gown worn in her 1946 film, Gilda. The gown was an instant hit showcasing Hayworth at the height of her fame as the seductive "Gilda". Elegantly outfitted in smooth black with her cascading red hair falling over her shoulders, Hayworth is masterful in the art of seduction and beguile. She sang and danced her way into the hearts of men across the world and immediately hypnotized audiences in Jean Louis’ classic fashion creation.
Famous Dance Scene
The gown is revealed in one of the most celebrated scenes of cinematic history: one in which Hayworth sings, "Put the Blame on Mame" and performs a striptease, only to be stopped by her lover before she can remove more clothing than her black gloves. This scene was choreographed by Jack Cole; the same choreographer that arranged Marilyn Monroe’s iconic “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Bestfriend” scene. Nonetheless, the dress and the scene helped cement Hayworth’s image as a sexy symbol forever, as well as being a fashion moment that will never be forgotten.
Creating the Gown
The designer was American designer, Jean Louis and the strapless black dress was made of satin and had a left side slit. Other features of the dress included a large satin bow on the left hip, as well as long elbow-length black satin gloves to match. Louis’ creation was inspired by the dress worn by Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau in her well-known 1884 painting, Portrait of Madame X. The painting displayed the renowned 19th century Parisian wife and socialite in a black satin dress with jeweled straps so it’s clear where Louis drew his inspiration. Hayworth had given birth to her first daughter on December 17, 1944, almost a year before filming began, and she was not back to her pre-pregnancy weight, so Louis created a girdle for her to wear under the dress. In addition to this, the gown accommodated Hayworth’s figure by having a built-in corset which entailed of 3 supports—one under the breast, one in the center and one on the side. Furthermore, around the top of the skirt soft plastic was shaped to provide added support and a better fit for Hayworth. Hayworth was one of Columbia’s biggest stars at the time and was given star treatment in every sense. From being styled by Columbia’s best costume designer, makeup artist, and hair stylist. It was estimated around $60,000 was spent on just the wardrobe.
Where Is It Now
Hayworth’s gown is now owned by the Forrest J. Ackerman estate, who in April 2009 attempted to sell it in an auction, but for some reason the dress was withdrawn before reaching the auction. The opening price would have started between $30,000 and $50,000 and it was noted that the dress still contains labels in the interior saying, "property of Columbia Pictures" and "Rita Hayworth".
Louis envisioning of Hayworth created an image that was adored by many; film critics and audiences praised her. The film was a box office hit and viewers loved her especially men, who praised as being the “love goddess”. Soldiers had posters of her as Gilda and a photo of her in the black gown was imprinted on the first nuclear bomb along with stenciled lettering saying “Gilda”. The bomb was nicknamed "Gilda” and was the first bomb to be tested after World War II as part of Operation Crossroads. The bomb was a reference to her being a “bombshell”.
2. Ava Gardner in Stunning Vera West Gown
Second on the list is my personal favorite, Ava Gardner’s black satin gown in 1946’s The Killers. This fashion moment is largely underrated with the designer being known by few people. It’s shocking to me that it never appears in fashion books or on film or fashion lists as Gardner was certainly a standout in this gown. Despite this, this dress still appears to inspire today’s famed designers. It is another gown that is worn by femme fatale, so just like Hayworth’s “Gilda”, Gardner’s character “Kitty” uses her sex appeal to seduce the audience and her male counterpart. And her gown demonstrates the dark sensuality of the character. Gardner’s long dark hair highlights the dress and further cements her gorgeous, but deadly image. Her character, Kitty, is conniving and smart using her allure to lead men to their deaths.
A Femme Fatale Song
The gown is revealed in a scene where Gardner is introduced to the audience leaning against a piano singing. The scene is of a party and Burt Lancaster’s character, “Swede” is spellbound by the site of her and can’t stop staring even though he is there with his girlfriend.
This black satin gown has one-strap in the center that goes over her left shoulder to attach to the back of dress. To accompany her dress, Gardner had long elbow-length gloves that appear to be made of different material than silk, maybe velvet. She also wore black strappy sandal heels. However, her gloves are not worn in the film, only in publicity pictures for the film.
Designer of the Gown
Gardner’s gown was designed by Vera West, while famed designer, Salvatore Ferragamo designed her heels. Costume designer, Vera West had been leading the costume department for Universal since 1928 and this film should have been her major breakthrough to the public. However, Universal was known for its horror films, not glamorous productions. Subsequently West is not as acknowledged in film or fashion history. West's career in film lasted 19 years as head of Universal’s costume department which is just as long as her acclaimed contemporaries, Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, and Travis Banton. Her astonishing career started at the impressive Lucile couturier—who other famous designers includes Howard Greer, Travis Banton, and Robert Kalloch. After attending the Lucile couturier, she opened a salon on New York City's 5th Avenue before starting her lengthy career at Universal. Eventually she would resign from films and began designing couture at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel for high-profile clientele.
Where Is It Now
Gardner’s stunning satin gown now resides in the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield, North Carolina near the star’s hometown. It can be glanced at through a glass showcase with a podium giving historical facts about the film and dress, as well as background information regarding the gown.
This was Ava Gardner’s breakthrough role and she made quite the impact. As the quintessential femme fatale, Gardner’s seductive and charming performance not only seduced Burt Lancaster’s “Swede”, but entranced audiences. This role lead to Gardner being cast in other star worthy roles and she would go on to have an astonishing career in Hollywood.