Howard Greer in Modern Screen, 1933.
Long before Adrian left MGM to set up his own couture house, Paramount Pictures’ costume designer Howard Greer established a tony modiste shop on Sunset Boulevard catering to the needs and desires of many of Hollywood’s female stars. Driven and a great self-promoter, the charming Greer remained in business over 35 years creating simple but luxurious wardrobes for his clients.
Born in Rushville, Illinois, on April 16, 1896, Greer and his family moved to Nebraska around 1900 when his father became ill. The Greers worked their farm outside Lincoln, where young Howard dreamed of a glamorous life outside the dusty, monotonous acreage. While he tried to farm, young Greer loved drawing, especially sketches of female wardrobes and dresses.
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Howard Greer, Lincoln (Neb.) Sunday Star, Dec. 15, 1918.
After graduating from high school, Greer attended the University of Nebraska, where his parents hoped he would gather knowledge to become a banker. The ambitious young man kept up his sketching, especially after he came across fashion magazines displaying the latest styles. Before graduating, he sent letters to several of the top designers whose work he had admired in these journals, looking for a way out of the drab, stifled life in which he felt trapped.
The March, 18, 1918, Brooklyn Daily Eagle claimed that Lady Duff Gordon, known in fashion circles as Lucile, found both amusement and spunk in the letter he sent her, inviting him to an interview in her Chicago studio. Initially amused, Gordon became intrigued by the young Greer, hiring him as a sketch apprentice in 1916. Greer himself chronicled how he got the job, writing an article published in the March 24, 1918, Lincoln Sun newspaper, claiming that his dream at University of Nebraska had been to travel to Paris to study under Paul Poiret, and working with Lucile would prepare him for the fashion world. Impressed by his drive and talent, Lucile brought Greer to New York less than a year after he joined her Chicago office to sketch and provide designs, while he helped shape the wardrobe of such celebrities as singer/composer Nora Bayes and dancer Irene Castle.
Greta Nissen in a Howard Greer outfit, 1933.
Greer found himself drafted for World War I in late spring 1918, ending up a machine gunner in the 307th Infantry in France. He wrote lengthy letters home, which his parents shared with the Lincoln Sun, articulate and descriptive tales of Army life, the French countryside, and the people he met. He also joined the Argonne Players, a dramatic troupe of Army soldiers in which he designed sets, costumes, and advertising posters, with Percy Helton, a fellow member. Within a few months he was gassed, but eventually returned to service. With the conclusion of the war, Greer worked for a short time in Lucile’s Paris office, before landing his dream job sketching and designing for Poiret and later Molyneux.
The observant and curious Greer soaked up culture and design, expanding his knowledge and talents of the use of color, draping, and flowing lines. He acted as Paris correspondent for Theatre magazine, sharing gossip, trends, and reviews of the arts and fashion worlds, as he promoted himself and his talents through his columns.
Estelle Taylor in a Howard Greer outfit, Modern Screen, 1933.
In early 1922, Greer returned to New York to design costumes for John Murray Anderson’s fourth edition of the Greenwich Village Follies, per the January 15, 1922, New York Herald. The Big Apple fell in love with his designs, earning him rave reviews in magazines and newspapers, drawing the attention of Hollywood studios. After costumer Gilbert Clarke turned down Famous Players-Lasky offer of a job at its West Coast studio, Greer jumped at the chance to further his horizons, especially at $200 a week. In mid-January 1923, he began his journey west, as newspapers and magazines trumpeted the news of the glamorous and sophisticated designer’s opportunity, praising his flowing, elegant lines and artful use of color.
Greer learned the art of designing for the screen quickly, designing costumes for such films as “The Covered Wagon,” “Souls for Sale,” and “Bella Donna” before gaining a big break creating lavish costumes for Pola Negri’s “The Spanish Dancer.” Writers praised his sumptuous work for the film, especially a $25,000 wedding ensemble, with Camera magazine calling his work “nothing short of exquisite, daring, unconventional, and of the most superb details.” Negri so loved and admired his work on the film that she demanded he design all of her productions. Within a year, the dedicated, ambitious Greer became head of Paramount’s costume department, where he outfitted such stars as Bebe Daniels, Esther Ralston, and Florence Vidor in stylish, glamorous wardrobes. Over the next three years, Greer helped design costumes for “The Ten Commandments,” “Forbidden Paradise,” “Peter Pan,” and “Trouble With Wives.” At the same time, Paramount allowed him to design costumes for Anderson’s 1924 version of “The Greenwich Village Follies,” giving him further opportunity to demonstrate his sleek and sophisticated theatrical touches.
Lil Tashman, left, and Bessie Love in Howard Greer designs, Modern Screen, 1933.
By 1927, Greer felt stifled and ready for new challenges, deciding to open his own upscale couture salon and leave the safe confines of Paramount. He also recognized his fashion wasn’t quite as flashy as it needed to be for the screen, though it shone magnificently in real life. Photoplay announced in August 1927 that he had obtained space in Fred Thomson and Frances Marion’s Spanish Shopping Center at 6530 Sunset Blvd., across the street from the Hollywood Athletic Club, in which to open his stylish atelier, designed by artist Harold Grieve.
Obtaining $100,000 in financing from such friends and former Hollywood colleagues as Betty Compson, Betty Bronson, Olive Borden, Dolores Costello, Bebe Daniels, Dorothy Mackaill, Negri, Ralston, Florence Vidor, Lois Wilson, and Lilyan Tashman to furnish and decorate his salon, per the December 21, 1927, Variety, Greer opened his smart boutique called the House of Greer on December 22, with an opening to rival any Hollywood premiere. Klieg lights, costumed doormen, and Rolls-Royces welcomed guests, with his first three customers that evening Madge Bellamy, Norma Talmadge, and Negri.
Madge Bellamy, Modern Screen, 1933
Greer’s two-story space had its own private entrance facing Seward Street, and featured offices and work rooms on the first floor. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1928 described the dreamy Spanish arches, drooping pepper trees, wrought iron balconies, and open terraces as a wonderful hideaway. A glamorous circular staircase beckoned clients upstairs to the luxurious salons and fitting rooms which featured no racks; elegant models paraded his low-key but high style clothes for such stars as Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Thelma Todd, Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis, Claudette Colbert, Norma and Constance Talmadge, and many others, with decorative china available for tea breaks.
The designer himself called the decorating scheme “glorified peasant,” though it instead rivaled the luxe look of any Hollywood set. Rugs, divans, burgundy satin hangings, a plaid desk, and lacquered cigarette boxes filled the main room, which also included a fireplace. The lingerie room resembled a real boudoir with French day bed piled with cushions and fur rug dyed poison green and bordered in black fur hung on its front. The Feather Room was decorated in pastel colors, while the Platinum Room was lined with silver paper resembling wrapping paper and silver and gray colors. This room attracted older women. Yellow paint highlighted the Brunette Room, which black highlighted the Blonde Room. Red-haired stars preferred the Blue Room, outfitted with Blue walls and hangings. The 1931 Picture Play called the studio “conservative modernism and luxury without ostentation, what is now called Hollywood Regency.
Howard Greer designs, New Movie Magazine.
Greer described hiring his models based on personality, not on figures or beauty, stating “Personality sells itself all over the world, and nowhere more than in clothes.” He believed that “men are in love with personality,” while “women dress to please each other.” While he bought his clothes off the rack, he designed one-of-a-kind fitted, chic pieces for his clients, which he worked up through sketches and by fitting on dolls. Ads at the time noted his focus on dresses, wraps, coats, furs, lingerie, and millinery, with daytime items starting at $95 and and evening at $135 each.
Hiring his own publicist to promote his “maison of haute couture,” Greer worked to build his reputation and his business, which lost money its first four years. Motion Picture magazine in 1928 stated that Greer designed “It for the Itless,” trying to glamorize non-pros, while his true mission remained “making Itty women Ittier.” The insouciant and witty Greer focused on color and slimming lines to create glorious wardrobes for the ladies who lunch crowd while also finding time to create contemporary costumes for such films as “Christopher Strong,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Love Affair,” “My Favorite Wife,” “Lady on a Train,” Spellbound,” and “Practically Yours,” featuring many of his friends and best clients. To remain inspired, he often traveled to Paris, London, Vienna, and Rome, and from 1935 – 1937 he lived in Paris, while partners ran the Los Angeles studio.
Los Angeles Times, Oct. 4, 1931: Greer’s shop at 6530 Sunset Blvd.
Eventually growing out of the space, Greer moved the boutique to 310 N. Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills in 1940, the new in-place for fashion, and began crafting hats to sell to the general public. By 1947, he moved the focus from couture to ready-to-wear, establishing deals with upscale department stores like Bonwit Teller, the May Company, and the like, one per city, in which to sell his afternoon, evening, and cocktail dresses. In 1950, Greer premiered swimsuit and wedding dress lines, after designing wedding gowns for such people as Bessie Love, Shirley Temple, and Gloria Vanderbilt. The personable designer spoke often to the press and attended showings and events wherever his product sold, establishing a loyal and dedicated clientele.
After 35 years in business, the “confirmed bachelor” Greer retired to Arizona and a quieter life. He passed away in 1974. Though not as well known as Adrian, Greer helped model the path that the MGM designer would later follow in establishing his own boutique and following his own rules.