A fashion history of ‘The Great Gatsby’

When Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” arrives in theaters next week, it won’t be the first time a cinematic adaptation of the charismatic millionaire will enthrall the fashion world.

The 1974 version of the film, starring Robert Redford and a perpetually whispering Mia Farrow, may have been kicked to the curb critically, but that summer, the film’s fashions helped to ignite a jazz age craze.

Summer whites dominated when it was in theaters, thanks to Redford’s thick cable knits and dandy suits and to Farrow’s diaphanous white ruffles. Perhaps costume designer Theoni V. Aldredge (who battled with a then little-known Ralph Lauren for costume credit) took direct inspiration from protagonist Nick Carraway’s description of the parties he witnessed at Gatsby’s.

“There was music from my neighbor’s house through those summer nights,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. “In his enchanted gardens, men and girls came and went like moths, among the whispering and the champagne and the stars.”

“I think it’s great timing for the movie,” said Jill Carey, a professor at Lasell College and curator of the school’s fashion collection. “It’s been almost 40 years, I think people are still very intrigued with the 1974 version.”

Carey also thinks that the timing of both films is no coincidence.

“We crave a classic in times of struggle,” Carey says. “In 1974, we were struggling economically. And now there’s also an incredible polarization of wealth as there was when ‘Gatsby’ was written.”

Perhaps the biggest legacy of the 1974 “Gatsby” was the emphasis on men’s tailoring. Lauren, who is credited with creating Redford’s suits for the movie, helped make this Gatsby believable in his surroundings.

“Who doesn’t want to live in that Ivy League world of mansions and elaborate parties?” Carey asked.

The 1974 “Gatsby” stands as the fashion pinnacle for Fitzgerald’s novel — at least until the latest “Great Gatsby” opens next week. But the period piece, which earned Theoni an Oscar for costume design (she didn’t thank Lauren in her acceptance speech) was not the first cinematic adaptation of the book. Here’s a look at three more celluloid interpretations.

“The Great Gatsby” (made for TV, 2000)

  • Paul Rudd stars as Nick Carraway, Mira Sorvino is Daisy Buchanan and Toby Stephens portrays Jay Gatsby in the small screen adaptation. It’s not only cringe-worthy for Stephens’s bad American accent, but also for the clothes. Call it “The Great Gatsby Goes to Gosford Park with a Stop at Brideshead.” There is nothing sexy or fun here. It looks like it was filmed during a damp, mossy English summer. And poor Sorvino and Francie Swift (who plays Jordan Baker) are stuck in frumpy dresses with oversized hats that feel like Great Depression precursors.

“The Great Gatsby” (1949)

  • History’s most prolific movie costumer, Edith Head, made the wardrobe for this black and white interpretation. If the 2000 TV version was “Brideshead”-esque, the 1949 version played up the romance in classic Hollywood style. There’s sass, quick wit, and not a lick of subtlety, plus Shelley Winters as tragic mistress Myrtle. This is Gatsby Noir. Head delicately balances the 1920s with the 1940s in her costumes, but eventually seems to shrug her shoulders and go with the 1940s. Don’t bother looking for flapper dresses, dropped-waist lines, or the Charleston. These party guests prefer waltzing in structured gowns.

“The Great Gatsby” (1926)

  • What should be the most authentic of the “Gatsby” adaptations sadly no longer exists. The only known footage can be found in a trailer for the film. Much like the 2013 film, the most memorable moment in the 1926 trailer is a risque pool party, minus the hybrid hip-hop soundtrack. Pictured: Lois Wilson.

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther
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