Oral History with Adele Balkan
Adele Balkan (1907-1999) was a sketch artist and costume designer who worked in Hollywood for more than 30 years. She landed her first job in 1934 at Paramount, where she assisted the designers Travis Banton and Edith Head and worked alongside the talented artisans who created the costumes for the studio's films.
After leaving Paramount, Adele Balkan worked as a sketch artist for Irene at her exclusive salon at Bullock's Wilshire, and then returned to designing at RKO, where she worked with Edward Stevenson and Renie. She later began a long collaboration with Charles LeMaire, the head designer at Twentieth Century-Fox, where she had the opportunity to work on some of the studio's biggest films. She also became a designer in her own right, creating the costumes for, among other films, "Mighty Joe Young" (1949), "The Young Lions" (1958) and the remake of "The Blue Angel" (1959). Miss Balkan joined the Academy in 1947.
Pictured to the right: Marlene Dietrich in "Angel," wearing the gown designed by Travis Banton, for which Adele Balkan created the beading pattern.
In this excerpt from Miss Balkan's oral history, recorded in 1997, she recalls working with Banton and Marlene Dietrich on a particularly beautiful gown for the film "Angel" (1937).
INTERVIEWER: Did you have a chance to see [Dietrich and Banton] working together?
BALKAN: I was never in on a fitting with them exactly, but it so happens that [I worked on] one of the gowns. It's a beautiful beaded outfit, with a stole bordered in sable, and I did the beading pattern. I didn't do the beading, I did the pattern for it. So I was in on that inasmuch as I would do a little, for a sample, I would do a little design. The beader would bead it, we'd use our own imagination, we'd bring it in to Dietrich and Banton. We did not stay in the room with them. And she would say whether she liked it or what she thought, whether there should be a pearl here instead of there, she would say. Then she would send it back. We must have done that three or four times. And I can remember the beader, instead of making a new piece of material, she would add to the original, and in doing that it created a whole new design, and that's what Dietrich chose. She loved it, the conglomeration of the whole thing. And that is a beautiful dress. I don't think I ever got in on a fitting on that. But it is on display every once in a while.
INTERVIEWER: How many beaders would it take to do a dress like that?
BALKAN: Oh, we always had a head beader, and she would call in these beaders. At least four or five. See, the garment was in pieces. You couldn't bead it unless it was stretched on the sawhorses, on the wooden horses, so that they could get their needle underneath and on top with the beads, so it was stretched out. So naturally the garment was in pieces, so two or three women would work on each piece. If there were three or four pieces, there would be at least two women to a piece. They couldn't get in each other's way, they had to have elbow room. And it would take quite a while, because you had to order the beads, they had to be particular beads. It was kind of wonderful, all these departments, all these things, it was fabulous. It truly was a fabulous, exciting business in the beginning. It was glamorous. It lost that after a while, but it was, when I went in, it was still very glamorous.