Obituary: Jean Louis

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The Independent Online
Jean Louis was one of the finest costume designers of Hollywood's golden years. His clothes for women were soft and pliable, glamorous and very feminine, though like all designers of the period he was also adept at providing wide shoulders, angular lines, or smartly tailored business suits for the executive woman. He spent most of his early career as Head of Costume at Columbia Studios, where he dressed stars such as Rosalind Russell ("The way she carried her clothes made it a pleasure"), Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Kim Novak and the studio's prime contract star, Rita Hayworth.

For Hayworth he designed one of the most famous gowns in Hollywood history, the black satin strapless evening dress in which she moved with alluring abandon across a night-club floor performing "Put the Blame on Mame" as she seductively peeled off long matching gloves and tossed her hair provocatively in the classic film noir Gilda (1946).

The recipient of 14 Oscar nominations, Louis later designed clothes for the Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedies at Universal, and for Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1953). It was Louis who conceived the flesh-coloured body stocking and beaded gown that were to become so important a part of Marlene Dietrich's stage act, and it was a simple black silk jacquard dress by Louis that Nancy Reagan was wearing on the night her husband was first elected president.

Born Jean Louis Berthault in 1907, in Paris, Louis attended the Arts Decoratifs school there and, on graduation, was employed by the couture house of Drecol as a sketch artist. When he broke his arm in a taxi accident, the settlement money he was awarded enabled him to travel to New York, where he obtained a job at Hattie Carnegie's fashion house. One of his first designs, a blue satin evening gown, was purchased by Irene Dunne, who remained his customer for the rest of her life. Another of the Carnegie customers was Joan Cohn, the wife of the Columbia chief Harry Cohn, and she recommended Louis to her husband, who signed him to a contract in 1944.

His first assignment, Together Again (1944), starred his friend Irene Dunne, who stated, "I never had a designer who understood the importance of the close-up as much as Jean. He always made necklines that were different and interesting without drawing undue attention." The musical Tonight and Every Night (1945) started Louis' long association with the studio's "love goddess" Rita Hayworth. "Rita had a good body," said Louis. "It wasn't difficult to dress her. She was very thin-limbed, the legs were thin, the arms long and thin and she had beautiful hands. But the body was thick. She also had a belly then, but we could hide that."

One of the methods Louis used was to emphasise her waist and shoulders, and the famous Gilda gown did just that. "It was the most famous dress I ever made," said Louis. "Everybody wonders how that dress can stay on her while she sings and dances . . . well, inside there was a harness like you put on a horse. We put grosgrain under the bust with darts and three stays, one in the centre, two on the sides. Then we moulded plastic softened over a gas flame and shaped around the top of the dress. No matter how she moved, the dress did not fall down."

For Hayworth's dance of the seven veils in Salome (1953), Louis had the problem of conveying the impression of youthful flesh beneath the semi-transparent veils without the use of brassieres or lifts, the straps of which would have shown. His solution was to create a plastic body stocking which gave the illusion of nudity while retaining the perceived Hayworth shape.

Later, when Marlene Dietrich came to Jean Louis as a private client, he created a similar garment for her, along with form-hugging beaded gowns in flesh-coloured chiffon, to give the illusion of a figure that had defied time. Dietrich came to rely on Louis' expertise so much that when Harry Cohn tried to prevent her using Louis (he was displeased that Dietrich had turned down his offer to star her in Pal Joey - at that time to co- star Jack Lemmon in the role eventually played by Sinatra), she told the bosses of the Las Vegas casino where she was due to appear, who in turn contacted their Chicago associates, who were able to persuade Cohn to change his mind.

When Judy Holliday joined Columbia to star in Born Yesterday (1950), Louis found her one of his greatest challenges, since she was not a natural glamour girl, and tended to put on weight. As Billie Dawn, the mistress of a crooked politician, she was given 13 costumes by Louis which charted her character's evolution from vulgar to refined as she discovered education and true romance. "She came in to be dressed for the test and she was completely disinterested," said Louis. "We did the best we could but it didn't look glamorous. But as soon as the camera started, that woman became all glamour. That is a great actress." He worked on most of Holliday's subsequent films, and won an Academy Award for The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956).

When Judy Garland became unhappy with the costumes designed for her by young Mary Ann Nyberg for A Star is Born (she literally ripped one off in anger), she asked for Louis, who designed at least three memorable outfits for the movie - the navy blue bolero and slit skirt in which Garland sings "Gotta Have Me Go With You", the black satin dress in which she accepts the Academy Award, and the gold brocade and fox fur for the finale when she announces, "This is Mrs Norman Maine".

When Harry Cohn decided it was time to find a replacement for Hayworth, he asked his make-up and costuming departments to prepare starlet Kim Novak for tests. Louis designed a wardrobe for her, accentuating what he considered her most appealing feature, her bust, but the young actress refused his request that she wear a padded brassiere. When Cohn saw the tests he screamed, "She has no bust!", to which Louis replied, "That is her bust!" Receiving an ultimatum from the studio chief, Novak ultimately agreed to wear a brassiere, and Louis costumed her in several subsequent films including Pal Joey (1957), co-starring Hayworth. Louis had problems of a different kind when Betty Grable made Three for the Show (1953) at Columbia. She insisted that Louis allow her breasts to be raised to what he considered a ridiculous height to accentuate what she regarded as a tiny waist. "If you put your bust here," protested Louis, "you will have no neck."

In 1958, with studios cutting down on creative personnel - more films were being costumed with ready-made clothes, "shoppers" replacing designers - Louis moved from Columbia to Universal, where the producer Ross Hunter was starting his string of lush, glossy comedies and melodramas. One of Hunter's methods of attracting stars such as Doris Day, Susan Hayward and Lana Turner was to promise them gorgeous clothes designed by Louis. In Pillow Talk (1959) he created a new sophisticated allure for Doris Day that launched a new phase of her career, and in Imitation of Life (1958) Lana Turner was given the sort of glamorous wardrobe that was becoming rare on an increasingly "realistic" screen. (When Turner was cast in Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder the following year, it was her insistence on having Louis design her a set of beautiful gowns for her role as a soldier's wife that caused her to be fired from the film and replaced by Lee Remick.)

Louis worked with Turner again on Portrait in Black (1960) and Madame X (1965). Constance Bennett, cast as Turner's mother-in-law in the latter, refused to be aged with make-up and, in Louis's soft sweaters and chiffon scarves, looked exactly the same age as Turner. More problems arose for Louis when, for a scene in which the two women were both to wear fur coats, with Turner in a Louis- designed white mink, Bennett insisted on wearing sable. When Turner heard, she demanded that she be given sable, adding, "Let Constance wear chinchilla. It's more suitable for an older person."

Louis designed a more modest wardrobe for Marilyn Monroe as a troubled divorcee in The Misfits (1961). He recounted that, "One day Marilyn came down her stairs in a dressing gown and stopped in front of me. She said, 'Jean, if you're going to make clothes for me you should see what I look like.' She pulled open her dressing gown and there she was - wearing absolutely nothing." This inspired Louis to design her a minute polka-dot bikini. He also designed the heavily beaded gown in which Monroe sang "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy in Washington.

He designed more formal wear for Katharine Hepburn in both Suddenly Last Summer (1960) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), and had fun with the low-waisted dresses and cloche hats of the Twenties for Julie Andrews in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1966).

Generally, Louis had excellent relations with the stars he dressed. A small, reserved and soft-spoken man, he was used by many stars to design items for their personal wardrobes, or their stage and television appearances. When Loretta Young in 1953 became the first major film star to make the transition to a weekly television series, she chose Louis to design her gowns. Each week of the anthology series Young would literally whirl through a doorway to introduce the show wearing a glamorous Louis creation.

When Dorothy Lamour headlined at the London Palladium in 1950, Jean Louis designed the costumes for her act including, for her final number, a white strapless gown with a form-fitting bodice and over 200 yards of fine tulle for the skirt. At the climax of her act, Lamour would slip the gown off to reveal under-neath her trademark sarong.

Louis' last film was Ross Hunter's best-forgotten musical remake of Lost Horizon (1972). He had founded Jean Louis Inc, designing ready-to-wear clothes for the public, several years before, but with changing tastes business faltered. At his Malibu beach home, he and his late wife Maggy Fisher had been noted for their elegantly lavish parties; which had further depleted his funds. In 1993, he married the star for whom he had designed costumes 40 years earlier, Loretta Young.

Jean Louis Berthault (Jean Louis), costume designer: born Paris 5 October 1907; married first Maggy Fisher (deceased), 1993 Loretta Young; died Palm Springs, California 20 April 1997.