Designs for Stage and Screen

From the early 1930s on, Valentina designed costumes for Broadway productions, operas, and (by the early 1940s) Hollywood films. Drawing on her experience in theater, she was keenly aware of the character-specific, problem-solving needs of performers. Not surprisingly, Valentina's costume design quickly gained renown for helping to define a character's role without challenging an actor's stage presence. Aptly summing up Valentina's contribution to theater design, the drama critic Brooks Atkinson noted that "Valentina has designed clothes that act before ever a line is spoken." From Lily Pons to Rosa Ponselle to Gladys Swarthout, Valentina dressed and accessorized the world's most sought-after opera divas of the mid-twentieth century. Her stage and screen credits include longstanding working relations with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Ginger Rogers, and Jennifer Jones, to name but a few. Her designs for and association with the reclusive film star Greta Garbo (who lived in the same Upper East Side apartment house as the Schlées) inspired endless sensa-tionalistic journalism, but perhaps Valentina's most influential and highly publicized work was for Katharine Hepburn, whom she dressed in 1939 for Hepburn's starring role in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story. The white crepe, corselet-tied gown Hepburn wore was widely copied by designers at every price point across the nation for years.

In many ways, Valentina's work influenced fashion well beyond the scope of her limited elite clientele. In the 1940s, fashion editors coined the phrase "a poor-man's Valentina" to describe an affordable, simple, wellcut black dress devoid of any decoration. One of the first designers to promote monochromatic dressing, opaque and black stockings, and simple, short dresses for formal eveningwear, Valentina launched fashion trends that immediately trickled down to the masses. If Valentina's most recognizable calling card was simplicity, it should be remembered that hers was a carefully studied, highly disciplined simplicity. Her signature fragrance, "My Own," which was in production by the 1950s, was remembered by one ardent admirer as "Just like Valentina. Deceptively simple. But wildly complex." This carefully measured restraint during a time when floral appliqué, sequins, and pussycat bows were the ubiquitous choice of American dressmakers lent Valentina's designs a cool, modernist edge and earned her the respect and patronage of many of the most celebrated names in art, theater, and society. Wary of obvious fads and proudly declaring herself an American designer, Valentina insisted that true style and well-designed clothing were, in their ideal form, timeless, and she duly advised women to "Fit the century. Forget the year!"

In 1957, Valentina Gowns closed its doors—an event that coincided with the end of Valentina's marriage to George Schlée. The business was jointly owned and run, and it was George's role to manage the business while Valentina created—a two-person performance that simply could not be accomplished by Valentina on her own. In retrospect, however, it appears that Valentina's career might have run its course. By the late 1950s, both in the press and on the streets, the sophisticated ladies of café society were reluctantly giving way to the youth-driven and fast-approaching 1960s, which would witness the imperious and haughty glamour of the preceding era slowly fading away like the lingering scent of a once ravishing perfume. From the very beginning of her career, up until her very last days, Valentina had remained at the very top of the most competitive, most exclusive, and perhaps least understood area of twentieth-century fashion history—American couture. She died in New York City in 1989 at the age of ninety.

See also Film and Fashion; Hollywood Style; Theatrical Costume.


Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Steele, Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers.

New York: Rizzoli International, 1991. Watt, Melinda. Valentina: American Coutouriere. Thesis New York University catalog holdings, n.d.

Kohle Yohannan

VALENTINO Valentino Garavani (1932- ) was born in Voghera, a city in Lombardy, on 11 May. Even as a young man he was fascinated by fashion and decided to study design in Milan. When he was seventeen he discovered the extraordinary shade of red that would remain a design element throughout his career at a premiere of the Barcelona Opera.

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