Helen Rose: Bridal Couture in the Era of MGM

 

With all of the hoopla over Meghan Markle’s wedding dress—the designer, the price, the tiara—we thought it might be interesting to bring to light a little-known secret about the wedding dresses of the biggest female stars at MGM back in the day—when glamour wasn’t just a word, but a matter of style.

When Kate Middleton married Prince William, her beautiful dress was compared with that of Grace Kelly at her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco: a gorgeous gown created by MGM design guru Helen Rose. What people didn’t realize until now was that Rose, who designed costumes for all of MGM’s fabulous musicals and dramas, designed and gifted all of “her girls” with a couture wedding gown. The group included Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Lana Turner, and my wife, Arlene Dahl. Talk about glamour.

Oddly enough, Helen Rose has never gotten the credit given to Adrian, her predecessor at MGM, who was credited with giving Joan Crawford those big-shouldered suits or Jean Harlow those sexy bias-cut satin gowns. Nor has she been as touted as Edith Head at Paramount, the costume designer for Audrey Hepburn, Kim Novak, and Barbara Stanwyck. 

Esther Williams

In 1943, Rose was hired by Louis B. Mayer at MGM as one of the staff designers after Adrian had resigned. Four years later, when head designer Irene also resigned, the role of chief costume designer was given to Rose. During her time, she dressed the likes of Judy Garland, Deborah Kerr, Esther Williams, Ava Gardner, and Janet Leigh in over 200 films, from 1947 to 1966.

With a circle of beautiful and famous young stars to dress at the studio, Helen became a sort of mother figure to them. When, one by one, they told her that they were getting married, she offered to create a wedding gown for each of them. Although the one for Grace Kelly became the most famous, each was equally beautiful and unique.

The dress she designed for Arlene Dahl for her wedding to Lex Barker really created a trend. This gorgeous couple, who were the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie of their day, had a much-publicized courtship as he was starring in the Tarzan films and she had just completed Three Little Words, a musical with Fred Astaire. Arlene’s dress garnered much notice, as it was the first short wedding dress at a time when all gowns were to the floor.

“I had worked as a model before going to Hollywood so I had a great appreciation of fashion design,” Dahl recalls. “When I joined MGM, one of the first people I met was Helen Rose, who created the most beautiful costumes to underscore the characters we were playing. She was so lovely and gracious to me. She appreciated that, as a model, I knew how to wear and move in her creations. We all loved her. What fun having fittings with the other girls who happened to be under contract—like Janet Leigh, Jane Powell or Kathryn Grayson . . . 

As we were all in our twenties, one by one we became engaged and couldn’t wait to tell Helen. What a thrill when she offered me a hand-made Helen Rose, a one-of-a-kind wedding gown courtesy of LB Mayer. I will never forget its elegance and beauty. It made me feel so special.”

Elizabeth Taylor wore her iconic gown, made by Rose, for her 1950 wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, Jr., when she was just 18 years old. The high-collared, pearl-encrusted ivory satin gown was sold in 2013 at Christie’s in London for £122,000.

While most of these stars had ill-fated first marriages, let’s not blame the gowns. Many of them had multiple marriages; Taylor had eight, Debbie Reynolds five, and Lana Turner seven. Certainly none of their subsequent wedding gowns could have surpassed the beauty of their Helen Rosen creations.

Today, every bride dreams of having that “one-of-a-kind” princess gown just like the MGM girls had in their day. With vintage fashion being so popular, perhaps some lucky gal rummaging through a thrift shop will come upon one of Helen Rose’s originals! —Marc Rosen