Travis Banton, Hollywood costume designer known for the "Paramount Look," the son of Rennie B. and Maggie (Jones) Banton, was born at Waco, Texas, on August 18, 1894. When he was two the family moved to New York. Banton's parents later joined him in Hollywood. During his early years in New York his talents developed in art, theater, and custom fashion design. He served in the navy during World War I, enrolled at Columbia University to please his parents, and studied at the Art Students League and the New York School of Fine and Applied Art. He worked on his own as a dress designer and at the fashion house of Lucile. While he was an apprentice with Madame Francis (or Frances) his designs were selected by Mary Pickford for her wedding to Douglas Fairbanks. After designing for Norma Talmadge in the East Coast film Poppy (1917), he soon distinguished himself with costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and other stage productions, an interest he resumed at the end of his life by dressing Rosalind Russell in the 1956 Broadway production of Auntie Mame. At the time of his death, Banton was designing for Dinah Shore's television show.
He won accolades for dressing some of the world's most popular and glamorous actresses during Hollywood's golden era. His best work was executed before the establishment in 1948 of the now-coveted Academy Award for costume design. In 1924 Walter Wanger brought Banton to Hollywood, where he was contracted by Paramount studios as an assistant to Howard Greer. Banton garnered instant acclaim for dressing star Leatrice Joy and mannequins in the style show for The Dressmaker from Paris (1925). As Paramount's chief designer between 1929 and 1938, followed by freelance film and TV work as part of his couture business, Banton dressed more than 160 films. He played a major role in creating images for movie greats Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Mae West. The essence of film-costume elegance appears in the visual classics of Dietrich vehicles such as The Scarlet Empress (1934) and Angel (1937). For the latter, Banton's staff labored weeks; one hand-sewn garment was a Fabergé-inspired gown of chiffon lavished with beading and bordered with Russian sable at a reported cost of $8,000.
Banton also designed for Tallulah Bankhead, Clara Bow, Kitty Carlisle, Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Ida Lupino, Pola Negri (see CHALUPEC, BARBARA A.), Merle Oberon, Gail Patrick, Sylvia Sidney, Lilyan Tashman, and Florence A. Vidor. Of the films he dressed, many are recognized as classics–1927: Wings; 1928: The Wild Party; 1930: Morocco; 1931: Dishonoured, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; 1932: Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, Night After Night, Trouble In Paradise, A Farewell to Arms, No Man of Her Own, The Sign of the Cross, Sinners In the Sun; 1933: Design for Living, I'm No Angel, Death Takes A Holiday, Bolero; 1934: We're Not Dressing, Rumba, Belle of the Nineties, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Gilded Lily; 1935: The Devil is A Woman, The Crusades, Goin' to Town, So Red the Rose, Anything Goes; 1936: Desire, My Man Godfrey, The Big Broadcast of 1937, Love Before Breakfast; 1937: Maid of Salem, I Met Him in Paris, Nothing Sacred; 1938: Made for Each Other, Fools for Scandal; 1939: Intermezzo, A Love Story; 1941: Charley's Aunt; 1946: Sister Kenny; 1947: Mourning Becomes Electra; 1948: Letters From An Unknown Woman; and 1950: Valentino.
Praising Banton's inspiration, imagination, and intensity, distinguished designers have acknowledged his influence. Edith Head, former Banton assistant at Paramount who went on to win a record number of Oscars, declared: "He was a god there...nobody [would] dare oppose him about anything, including the budgets...Travis was a marvelous designer. Any talent I might have would have lain undiscovered if he hadn't lighted the way for me. In my opinion, he was the greatest." In explaining his adaptations of two Banton dresses, Norman Norell observed that Banton "has been underrated and that his talent surpassed Adrian's, since Banton's costumes were timeless and established many famous images, as with the Mae West look." Two decades after the designer's death, Cecil Beaton praised the Angel creations and judged Banton "one of the most important of the golden years of Hollywood."
Though Banton has been lauded through the years for the originality, fine workmanship, and understated elegance of his costumes, scholars have neglected his genius as an image maker, both on and off screen, for celebrated women such as Marlene Dietrich. Banton's ability paralleled Adrian's acknowledged role as creator of the Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford (Lucille Fay Leseur) image. Banton helped invent the Dietrich look along with a unique apparel style that included male attire, like the tuxedo in Morocco (1930), the leather flight suit in Dishonored (1931), and the military uniform in The Scarlet Empress (1934). On her arrival in Hollywood, Dietrich's new svelte and chic silhouette was engineered by Banton. This contrasted with her pudgy appearance as star of The Blue Angel, a 1930 landmark film produced by UFA in Germany. Often credited, however, for the Dietrich look are director Josef von Sternberg and, to a lesser extent, Marlene Dietrich's lighting director, cinematographer, and stills and portrait photographer. This evaluation has relegated Banton to the pages of glossy coffee-table books. Yet Banton acted like a sculptor of cloth and flesh, influencing Dietrich's regimen of weight loss, massage, and exercise. In addition he advised her on demeanor, attitude, and body presentation. Banton's sketch pad and valued counsel likewise transformed Carole Lombard into a new persona of taste and class, reminiscent of Parisian haute couture, a world that he admired and emulated in private life. For the Mae West image, he produced a shapelier and more sexually explicit silhouette with a touch of parody that has been labeled high camp. Though he preferred sophisticated modern dress, his skill in interpreting historical periods inspired such trend-setting consumer adaptations as Claudette Colbert's garb in Cleopatra (1934).
Paramount rewarded these Banton products with salary, publicity, a private domain of artisan workrooms, and a luxury office. Convinced of the commercial value of screen fashion, Adolph Zukor, a former furrier, demanded costume excellence and reveled in the Banton fashion gems. The highly charged position, however, proved bittersweet and gradually took a toll on Banton's life. One studio crisis requiring Zukor's negotiation focused on Claudette Colbert, a longtime Banton admirer, and the costuming for Cleopatra. After rejecting two sets of costume sketches, she streaked Banton's third set of beautifully painted drawings with blood deliberately drawn from her finger to emphasize her displeasure. Another conflict involved a fitting with an ungrateful Nancy Carroll, who slowly ripped an exquisitely crafted garment from her body while Banton and his staff stared in dismay. Frustration and wounded pride escalated with each clash of taste with executives and actresses who were prone to costuming that Banton judged tacky, gaudy, and vulgar. During his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox (from 1939 to 1941), where he worked for Howard Greer, a feud began with Alice Faye, who resented Banton's references to Dietrich's good taste; Faye later acknowledged the successful costuming for Lillian Russell (1939). From 1945 to 1948 Banton worked as head stylist for Universal Studios. His erratic behavior involving absenteeism and alcohol shortened his life; in this he was not unlike other talented colleagues with emotional and alcohol-related problems, such as Orry-Kelly, Howard Greer, and Irene, who committed suicide at age sixty-one. Banton once quipped that he should have left movies when Adrian did in 1942. He agreed with fellow film and couture colleague Howard Greer that life amid all that world-famous glamour, luxury, and notoriety was not what it seemed and that he missed the theater, opera, ballet, shops, and cuisine of New York and Paris. Late in life he recalled that in Hollywood he had "loathed those endless barbecue things, deadly-dull afternoons spent staring at people wallowing in swimming pools...[in a place where] even the French champagne went flat as soon as it was poured." He admitted, however, to a certain ambivalence, for he needed the studio earnings that supplied the art, antiques, and extravagant lifestyle compatible with his tastes.
Throughout his troubled times women who were grateful for their metamorphosis remained loyal. Carole Lombard requested Banton's designs for her costumes at other studios, including her David O. Selznick pictures. Marlene Dietrich performed in the signature white top hat and tails until the end of her career. Merle Oberon summarized the feelings of this loyal following when she insisted that Banton dress her as George Sand in the 1945 film A Song to Remember. She explained that Banton "knew what the character ought to look like but also understood what an actress was happiest wearing, which is very rare for a costume designer. I never found it necessary to make a single change on any of his drawings." Banton died on February 2, 1958, in Los Angeles. He was buried on February 4 at the Little Church of the Flowers in Glendale, California. An extensive collection of Banton's drawings is housed in the Brooklyn Museum.