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Art Review

At new fashion exhibition, MFA goes glam

Some of  the gowns from the ’30s and ’40s in “Hollywood Glamour” at the Museum of Fine Arts.
Some of the gowns from the ’30s and ’40s in “Hollywood Glamour” at the Museum of Fine Arts. Photos by Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

‘Hollywood Glamour,” the MFA’s rich new fashion exhibition, feels like Oscar night.

The theatrics at the Museum of Fine Arts begin as soon as visitors step into the dark rectangular hall. Dramatic lighting, along with a pair of chandeliers dripping with crystals, set the scene, and gowns make their entrance on a sweeping grand staircase reminiscent of, say, “Gone With the Wind.”

To be sure, the stars are the gowns.

Designed for some of the greatest actresses of the 1930s and ’40s, these dresses look as carefully constructed as the Woolworth Building. But there is nothing costume-y about these costumes. The gold lame dress Betty Grable wore in “This Way Please” (1937) was sewn with actual gold thread, just as costume designer Travis Banton sewed Carole Lombard’s sexy number for “No Man of Her Own” (1932) with a spool of silver.

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The grandeur nearly makes up for the fact that there are only 16 mannequins on display. At least museumgoers can give each diva her due. The white satin off-the-shoulder Jean Harlow dress (designed to match her platinum tresses) still shines 80 years after its design, and the hand-printed flowers on Gloria Swanson’s yellow “What A Widow!” gown is artistry as fine as any hanging in the museum. (An unrelated but amusing aside: Joseph P. Kennedy, who had a long affair with Swanson, produced “What A Widow!,” a box office bust in 1930 .)

A gown worn by Greta Garbo and designed by Adrian.
A gown worn by Greta Garbo and designed by Adrian.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“Hollywood Glamour,” which runs through March 8, reflects the carefully crafted personas film studios cultivated for their stars during the early years of talking pictures. A black velvet gown with a beaded neckline designed by Adrian embodied the masculine-meets-feminine style Greta Garbo exuded. The embroidered purple dress Elsa Schiaparelli made for Mae West (1937’s “Every Day’s a Holiday”) was French fashion amped up with a strong-shouldered silhouette for a giant American personality.

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My eyes immediately found their favorite, a Banton gown designed for Lombard (“No Man of Her Own”). The plunging neckline hits the naval, and the overt sexiness is striking.

There’s weight behind the sparkle as well. Studio designers couldn’t work with noisy fabrics such as taffeta, and instead poured their visions into chiffon, silk, and even velvet. Designers Edith Head and Banton knew pale tones translated well on camera, which was part of what made Marlene Dietrich’s sheer fox-trimmed lounge gown in “Desire” (1936) so alluring.

Equally compelling are the jewels in “Hollywood Glamour,” many of which are on loan from jewelry designer and collector Neil Lane. He was on hand at Monday’s preview of the exhibition, and his breadth of knowledge and storytelling skills are stellar. (Note to MFA: Lane deserves his own exhibition.)

A Trabert & Hoeffer necklace from Neil Lane’s collection.
A Trabert & Hoeffer necklace from Neil Lane’s collection.Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Pointing to a platinum and diamond Art Deco bracelet he acquired nearly 20 years ago, Lane recalled the romance between an aging Mae West and Paul Novak, a bodyguard almost 30 years her junior. “He loved her so much, he put her jewels in a safety deposit box [after West died]. He never sold it,” said Lane, who purchased several pieces at auction after Novak’s death.

“It was about size. It was about statement,” said Lane, peering into the cases that bear oversize baubles that used to belong to actresses Ginger Rogers, Myrna Loy, and June Knight. “I’ve used a lot of these designs in my designs today.”

In Rogers’s set of diamond and emerald earrings, bracelet, dress clips, and ring, Lane has a collection that exemplifies the period and the personalities on film.

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“I love the jewels. I covet them. I have a visceral reaction to them,” said Lane, who has designed for today’s Hollywood elite including Jennifer Hudson, Barbra Streisand, and Charlize Theron. “If a martian came from outer space, he would know it came from 1935.”

In the back of the hall, viewers can see the jewels and dresses in action on a giant TV screen playing snippets from several of the exhibition’s relevant films including “Desire” and Joan Crawford’s “This Modern Age” (1931). The screen is mounted high above the room, making the stars seem even more out of reach.

The gown at right was designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and worn by Mae West in 1937’s “Every Day’s a Holiday.”
The gown at right was designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and worn by Mae West in 1937’s “Every Day’s a Holiday.”Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Jill Radsken can be reached at jill.radsken@globe.com.