Carole Lombard's innate beauty and solid fashion sense was arguably the prime reason she became one of the most glamorous actresses of the 1930s, but she certainly would have admitted it was part of a team effort. And one of the most important parts of "team Lombard" was a man from Texas whose designing skills added allure to a number of legendary actresses.
His name was Travis Banton, shown here with Lombard:
Banton -- who was chief designer at Paramount during Lombard's seven years at the studio -- isn't quite as well remembered as some other classic Hollywood designers, such as Adrian at MGM or Edith Head, who worked with Banton at Paramount for 12 years and later succeeded him as its chief designer.
Head, who would design for films into the 1980s, always credited Banton with aiding her progress. "Travis was a marvelous designer," she said. "Any talent I might have would have lain undiscovered if he hadn't lighted the way for me. In my opinion, he was the greatest."
Unlike Head, Banton never really tried to become famous with the general public, although Paramount regularly publicized his skills. Here's a Lombard publicity still from the mid-thirties, plus its caption on the back:
Banton was born in Waco, Texas, on Aug. 18, 1894, but his parents moved to New York two years later. He developed talents in art, theater and fashion design, studying at Columbia University and the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he worked in a New York fashion house -- and gined his first success when his designs were selected by Mary Pickford for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. He then designed costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and other stage productions. It's believed he also did some work for Paramount's Astoria studio.
In 1924, Paramount's Hollywood studio beckoned; he did some designs for a film called "The Dressmaker From Paris." Banton soon became more popular with Paramount's actresses than its top designer, Howard Greer, who then quit to open his own business.
Banton hit his stride in the 1930s, when a new batch of stars arrived at Paramount. (He had not been able to persuade its top star of the late '20s, Clara Bow, to become more chic.) His primary work may have been done with Marlene Dietrich; compare her rather pudgy image in "The Blue Angel," filmed in Germany before Paramount signed her, to that of "Morocco," her first Paramount movie:
Lest you think Banton only guided Dietrich into an androgynous appearance, he helped make her look feminine, alluring, mysterious. This dress he designed for her in "Desire" should be sufficient proof, alongside a photo of Banton and Dietrich reviewing an upcoming costume:
For Lombard, he made her look sleek, urbane, sophisticated. (She so valued his guidance that he designed her costumes for several non-Paramount films, such as "Love Before Breakfast" and "My Man Godfrey." His final work for her was in 1939's "Made For Each Other.") Check out this outfit:
In "Nothing Sacred," a Technicolor film, Banton recognized the process overemphasized blue, a color well-suited to Lombard. To keep things in balance, he designed for her a beaded evening dress in a very light blue -- with dyed-to-match fox furs -- and when photographed, the color did not overwhelm her.
Banton played a key role in designing costumes for Mae West, emphasizing her curves in the vintage styles she preferred, adding just a touch of absurdist humor to her sexuality. Other Paramount actresses, such as Claudette Colbert, benefited from Banton's expertise, as this ad makes evident:
Banton left Paramount in 1938 and had stints for a few years at Twentieth Century-Fox and Universal; however, alcohol and other problems weakened his career. By the 1950s, he wasn't doing much work.
Then an old friend, Rosalind Russell, came to the rescue, as she asked him to design costumes for her upcoming Broadway appearance as Auntie Mame. The outfits were so well received that when Russell left the successful production and was replaced by Sylvia Sidney (someone Banton had worked with at Paramount), he designed her outfits too. Banton was designing for Dinah Shore's television show at the time of his death on Feb. 2, 1958. He is buried at Forest Lawn alongside his parents:
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