By Christopher Turner
The most expensive costume in Hollywood history is one that you probably don’t even recognize. Worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film Lady In The Dark, the heavily jewelled and mink fur dress takes the title of most expensive costume to create, costing about US$35,000 at the time to make (about half of that was for the mink), which would be about US$575,000 today. According to the gown’s designer, the legendary costume designer Edith Head, the dress couldn’t be made today without a limitless wardrobe budget.
Lady In The Dark was a hit 1944 musical film directed by Mitchell Leisen, based on the 1941 musical of the same name by Moss Hart. The film starred Rogers as Liza Elliott, a magazine editor who, although professionally successful, finds herself on the edge of a breakdown while juggling her feelings for three prospective suitors: Charley Johnson (Ray Milland), Kendall Nesbitt (Warner Baxter) and Randy Curtis (Jon Hall). The film was a critical and commercial success, and was nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Cinematography, Best Music and Best Art Direction), although it ultimately lost all three categories.
The visual centrepiece of the film, of course, is an elaborate gown worn by Rogers for the ‘The Saga of Jenny’ sequence in the musical, which was staged in a circus. The costume includes a mink overskirt lined with jewels and a matching jewelled bodysuit that together weighed over 35 pounds! Rogers actually wore two versions of the dress during filming: one for singing and static close-ups, and a lighter version for when she filmed the dancing scenes. The original dress had thousands of faux jewels applied to create the shimmering effect, but when Rogers tried it on, it was too heavy to wear during the dance scenes so they had to create a second dress, replacing the jewel-lined mink overskirt and matching jewelled bodysuit with a sequin-lined mink dress and sequined bodysuit.
Head is credited as the designer of the dress, with strong influence and a design concept from Mitchell Leisen, the film’s director and a former costume designer himself.
According to Head in her 1983 biography Edith Head’s Hollywood, “As Liza Elliott in Lady in the Dark, Ginger was the fashion editor of the world’s greatest fashion magazine. Her costumes were superlative. She was constantly having daydreams that she was a glamorous sexpot instead of a tailored-editor type and the dreams created a perfect plot excuse for fabulous gowns.”
Specialists agree with Head that due to the craftsmanship of this costume, a duplicate couldn’t be made for a film without an unlimited wardrobe budget.
The costume was donated to the Smithsonian and was then acquired by the British Film Institute (BFI) for its costume collection at the Museum of the Moving Image, which existed on the South Bank in London between 1988 and 1999. The dress can now be found on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, part of a collection that is made up of British, European, American and Japanese films and that covers costumes from the silent film era to the mid-1990s.