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Banton, Travis

dietrich created madame wore

B. August 18, 1894

D. February 2, 1958

Birthplace: Waco Texas

Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard … as designer extraordinaire at Paramount Studios from 1925 to 1938, Travis Banton costumed Hollywood’s women of style, both on and off the screen. His career in dressmaking began in New York when he was hired as an assistant to Madame Lucile and then to Madame Francis. In 1917 he created the costumes for the movie Poppie , starring Norma Talmadge, but it was The Dressmaker from Paris (1925) that put him in the spotlight, along with the wedding dress he created for Mary Pickford’s secret marriage to Douglas Fairbanks. Ultimately, however, it is his work with Marlene Dietrich for which he is best remembered. Among his most memorable creations is the one Dietrich wore in Shanghai Express (1932). Banton clad her as a black swan in a lavish gown of feathers and wrapped her in veils and crystal beads.

Banton’s attention to elegance and detail positioned him as an American couturier, of sorts, who by dressing actresses in sables, brocades, and velvets, as he did Dietrich in The Scarlett Empress (1934), encouraged women, fresh out of the Great Depression, to dream. Having sumptuously costumed such silent screen sirens as Pola Negri, Lillian Gish and Clara Bow throughout the 1920s, he became well known during the 1930s, for dressing actresses, especially Dietrich, in masculine clothing with broad shoulders, trousers, and ties. For Carole Lombard he created slinky, bias-cut gowns and for Claudette Colbert he devised a special collar that appeared to lengthen her neck.

When Banton dressed Tallulah Bankhead in a backless dress for the film Thunder Below (1932), this daring new look became the rage. His costumes were often featured in magazine spreads and copied for retail distribution. Harper’s Bazaar suggested that fashionable readers might carry a parasol or don a lace scarf as Dietrich did in The Devil Is a Woman (1935).

His last film with Dietrich was Angel (1937), in which she wore a gem-studded fur-trimmed evening suit, which reportedly cost the studio $8,000. Banton continued his work at Universal Studios and Columbia Pictures after leaving Paramount in 1938 and eventually launched his own line of women’s ready-to-wear. In 1940 he was voted one of America’s favorite designers in a poll of 1,000 buyers from across the United States. He continued designing until his death at the age of sixty-four.

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