Helen Rose – An American Movie Costume Designer

To continue this blog’s ongoing series on fashion and costume designers, in this post I will discuss the career of Helen Rose who was an American costume designer at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio during the 1940s to the 1960s.  She created costumes for some of the most glamorous film stars, such as Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor.  In fact they love her designs so much that on their wedding days both ladies wore bridal gowns made by Helen Rose.   (Special Note: In keeping with the theme of An Elegant Bride blog, the classic Helen Rose movie costume designs detailed in this post would be a great inspiration for a classic wedding style for either a bride and/or bridesmaid dresses)

A brief history of the life and career of Helen Rose

Helen (Bromberg) Rose was born on February 2, 1904 in Chicago, Illinois; her parents were William Bromberg and Ray Bobbs.  Perhaps because her father was part owner of an art reproduction company and her mother was a seamstress, at a young age Helen showed an artistic talent for drawing and fashion design and she convinced her parents to enroll her in the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  She would be hired by the Lester Costume Company to create costumes for vaudeville shows and when her family moved in 1929 she went with them to Los Angeles, California.

Eventually Helen went to work for Fanchon and Marco which was a company that designed costumes for theatrical shows.  After that work experience she was quickly hired to design costumes for the Ice Follies, a touring ice show founded in 1936 which featured elaborate production numbers.      

In the early 1940s Helen worked briefly for 20th Century Fox designing movie costumes mainly for the studio’s musical productions.  Then, in 1943 she was hired by MGM where she would eventually be promoted to the chief designer, she worked at the studio for over forty years. She created costumes for over 200 films for some the most famous movie stars at MGM, including Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr, Lana Turner, and Esther Williams.  Helen was nominated ten times for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design, she won twice for “The Bad and the Beautiful” in 1952 and “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” in 1955.

Helen Rose receiving her Oscar for “The Bad and the Beautiful”

Helen’s influence on the bridal industry was noted when she designed the movie wedding dress for Elizabeth Taylor in “Father of the Bride” (as well her real life 1950 wedding)  Helen also received international attention when she designed the bridal dress for Grace Kelly’s wedding in 1956. 

In 1958 Helen opened her own ready-to-wear line of clothing and she sold her designs to upscale department stores such as Bonwit Teller, Marchall Fields and Joseph Magnin. She also licensed her designs to be sold through Spadea and Advance patterns during the 1950s. 

Helen left the MGM in 1966, by that time studios were using store-bought clothing for their movies and long term contracts were no longer given to studio designers

On a personal note, Helen married Harry Rose on December 28, 1929 and had a daughter named Judy.  She died at the age of 81 in Palm Springs, California on November 9, 1985.

Movie costume designs of Helen Rose

During her forty years working for the studio Helen was especially known for creating lovely costumes made with chiffon which was known to be a very difficult fabric to work with but she liked it because it moved beautifully and would photograph well as it picked up the lights on the studio sets.

So, starting in chronological order I will focused on two very different actresses that Helen designed costumes for, the elegant Grace Kelly and the sexy Elizabeth Taylor. 

Helen created perhaps one of the most iconic wedding dresses of the 1950s for Elizabeth Taylor in the “Father of the Bride” film (1950).  The dress featured elaborate layers of satin fabric creating a full skirt which was tapered to a tiny waistline and a high neck finished with a rounded collar and bodice of beautiful lace. (Special Note: This original wedding dress style was made available to the public through the Alfred Angelo bridal store during the 1950s)  

By 1956 Helen had worked with Grace Kelly on many of the actress’ films for MGM, the 1956 film “High Society” would be one on Grace’s last films for the studio.  She had recently become engage to Prince Rainer and she would be leaving her acting career behing in the United States to start a new life as a Princess in Monaco.  As a funny coincidence, “High Society” was a film in which Grace played a spolied rich girl who was about to be married. Shown in the photo below is one of the dresses designed by Helen and it was a light gray and pink evening chiffon evening gown beautifully embellished with floral embroidery and beading cascading from the shoulder to the hem.      

The second dress worn by Grace that Helen designed for the film was for the wedding scene, the dress was made of silk organza worn over a white underdress.  It featured a full skirt with bellowing sheer sleeves and a pink ribbon tied at the waist and accented with fabric florals that matched the embroidered flowers on the bodice and skirt.  To complete the look, Grace wore a wide brimmed white hat covered with layers of fabric and tulle and a pair of white wrist length gloves. 

Just like Grace, throughout Helen’s years at MGM she worked with Elizabeth Taylor on numerous movies.  In the beginning she created modest dresses for the young ingénue who was at the start of her longer film career but later when Elizabeth began taking on more mature roles in her films her style changed dramatically. 

The movie costume created by Helen for Elizabeth Taylor for “Cat on a Hot Tin” (1958) was a sexy white chiffon dress with a plunging neckline shown in the photo below.  (Special Note: This dress would become a best seller for the Helen Rose clothing line which she started in 1958.  I’m sure many husbands were happy that their wives could dress just like the sultry Elizabeth Taylor!)

Famous wedding dresses designed by Helen Rose

Helen Rose set the bridal trends for generations to come with her movie costume designs for Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly as well as the bridal gown designs for their real life weddings in the 1950s. 

Elizabeth Taylor had finished filming the “Father of the Bride” but just before the movie was officially released she married Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1950 in Beverly Hills, California.  As a wedding gift to the bride MGM had Helen Rose make the bridal gown, it took fifteen seamstresses and embroiders three months to complete at the cost of $1,5000.

The bridal gown used 25 yards of ivory silk satin and featured a full skirt with an illusion bodice embellished with beads and pearls.  The veil was made of 10 yards of silk net and was attached to a Juliet cap covered in pearls.  (Special Note: The dress sold for $188,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2013)

Unfortunately the couple divorce after a year and it would be the first of Elizabeth’s 8 weddings over the next 40 years, she had 7 different husbands but she married Richard Burton twice. 

After her short marriage to Hilton, Elizabeth married Michael Wilding on February 21, 1952 in London, England.  (Special Note: Elizabeth actually held dual citizenship because she was born in London and moved with her parents to California in 1939, both her parents were originally from Kansas and had lived in England for 10 years)

Helen Rose also designed Elizabeth’s wedding dress for her second wedding, it was a jacket with a white collar and cuffs and three-quarter sleeves worn with a matching flared skirt. 

Helen Rose designed the movie costumes worn by Grace Kelly for the four MGM films she starred in and they had developed a great friendship.  When Grace became engaged to Prince Rainer of Monaco she entrusted Helen to create not one but two wedding dresses!  She designed one for the civil ceremony that took place on April 18, 1956 in the Throne Room at the Prince’s Palace and one for the religious ceremony which took place the next day at the Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Monaco.  (Special Note: Both wedding dresses were a special gift to the bride from the MGM Studio)

Grace’s civil ceremony wedding dress was made with a pale pink taffeta with a ivory French Alencon lace overlay which was further embellished with pink embroidery and featured a round collar jacket and a full skirt, to complete her ensemble Grace wore a Juliet cap and gloves.       

For the religious ceremony, which took place on April 19, 1956, Helen Rose created a beautiful wedding dress made with 25 yards of vintage Brussels rose point lace and silk faille taffeta that featured a fitted bodice, high neckline, long sleeves and a full skirt.  The chapel length veil was made of tulle and attached to a Juliet cap embellished with pearls and fabric orange blossoms.  (Special Note:  The iconic wedding dress and accessories were donated by Grace Kelly to the Philadelphia Museum of Art) 

For more information on the wedding of Grace Kelly and Prince Rainer of Monaco, please click on the link.