1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Rene Hubert: A Swiss costume designer in Hollywood

March 19, 2021

Rene Hubert styled costumes for everyone in Hollywood, from Marlene Dietrich to Gloria Swanson. An exhibition is bringing the designer's work back to life.

Costumes by Rene Hubert for 'That Lady in Ermine' staring Cesar Romero and Betty Grable.
Costumes by Rene Hubert for 'That Lady in Ermine' starring Cesar Romero and Betty GrableImage: 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation/Everett Collection/picture-alliance

Dream jobs are hard to come by. But Swiss costume designer Rene Hubert found his, first in Paris and later in Hollywood. At the height of his career, he had the private telephone numbers of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Ingrid Bergman and Gloria Swanson and was seen around town with them.

Yet Hollywood has a short memory and Hubert would have probably remained a footnote to Tinseltown history without one man. Over 20 years ago, Rolf Ramseier was contacted by the designer's neighbor. He had two large boxes and two portfolios full of sketches, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and Academy Award nominations. The neighbor had rescued it from the trash after Hubert died.

René Hubert: The Clothes Make the Star - Rene Hubert working on sketches in his Paramount studio in 1932
Rene Hubert working on sketches in his Paramount studio in 1932Image: Collection Cinémathèque Suisse

Ramseier, who collects autographs, had never heard of the designer. But a glance was enough for him to know he was holding something special. He bought it all with a promise to take care of it and one day create an exhibition to keep Hubert's memory alive. He kept that promise, and now the Museum für Gestaltung Zurich is dedicating an exhibition to the designer's work.

From a small Swiss town to Hollywood

Not many Swiss designers made it big in Hollywood. Rene Hubert was not like any other designer.

Born in the small town of Frauenfeld in 1895, he went to school in St. Gallen before going to Paris to study painting in 1916 at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. In Paris he started doing costumes and sets for theaters and music halls. He also worked with fashion designers. 

His life changed forever in the fall of 1924, when he met American actress Gloria Swanson. At the time she was shooting a movie in France. She was one of the most famous women in the world and a well-known clotheshorse. She wanted Hubert to come to California and work on her movies. He went, and over the years got credit for at least seven of her films. He dressed her privately for years and became a lifelong friend.

Film star Gloria Swanson who first discovered Rene Hubert and brought him to Hollywood - Timothy A. Rooks
Film star Gloria Swanson who first discovered Hubert and brought him to HollywoodImage: Glasshouse Images/JT Vintage/picture alliance

At the time, studios were building up their costume departments and spending more time and money on realistic costumes to transform actors into characters. For Hubert the timing was right. He was extremely versatile and produced in many different styles; soon he became known for his authentic historical designs. 

Freelancing as a way of life

Besides working for Swanson, he freelanced at different studios for the next 40 years: Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox and United Artists-Korda. He also worked for theaters and independent films, constantly traveling back and forth to Europe where he took jobs in London, Paris and Berlin.

By freelancing he was free to move around. But at a time when studios controlled nearly everything, he often missed out on their most important films. Still with each studio releasing over 50 movies a year, there was plenty of work. 

Rene Hubert - Marlene Dietrich in "The Flame of New Orleans" 1941
For Hubert, Marlene Dietrich was a close friend and a good clientImage: Courtesy Everett Collection/picture alliance

"As a versatile freelance designer, and later at Twentieth Century Fox, Hubert had the opportunity to collaborate with great Hollywood directors like Ernst Lubitsch, and popular stars like Betty Grable, whose extravagant musical comedies are not as well known today," Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of UCLA's David C. Copley Center for Costume Design, told DW.

Sure enough, he is credited with around 200 films, mostly in the 1930s and 1940s. He worked with directors Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Vincente Minnelli, Rene Clair and Alfred Hitchcock. He designed costumes for stars like Tallulah Bankhead, Deborah Kerr, Norma Shearer, Yul Brynner, Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando, 7-year-old Shirley Temple and Marilyn Monroe in one of her first roles.

René Hubert -  1936 film 'Things to Come,' based on the work of H.G. Wells
Long before 'Star Trek', Hubert imagined the future in the 1936 film 'Things to Come,' based on the work of H.G. WellsImage: Collection Cinémathèque Suisse

From black-and-white to color

When sound films were introduced at the end of the 1920s, everything on the set had to be quiet — including the costumes. They couldn't rustle or disturb the recording. For Hubert this was not a problem. Later he overcame the challenge of transitioning from black-and-white to color films.

By 1950, Hubert had more or less left Hollywood behind and was back in Switzerland. That same year he became the in-house designer for Swissair. There he created three successive uniform collections for the cabin crew and reworked the interiors of their planes. He also designed clothing and accessories for department stores and worked with shoemaker Bally.

René Hubert worked as a design consultant for Swissair. Here is what the first class cabin of a DC-8 looked like in 1960.
Hubert worked as a design consultant for Swissair. Here is what the first class cabin of a DC-8 looked like in 1960Image: ETH-Bibliothek Zürich/Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz

Lost, found, rediscovered

He still took on a few special film projects. For this later work he got two Academy Award nominations. The first for best color costume design for 1954's "Desiree." The second for best black-and-white costume design for 1964's "The Visit." He was 70 and it was his last film.

Busy until the end, Hubert died at home in 1976. He was 80.

When asked why Hubert should be remembered, Landis said he "was a marvelous designer, artist, collaborator, whose witty costumes reflect his intelligence, sense of humor, exquisite taste and love of color. He contributed to what was best about the Golden Age of Hollywood — a time and place that entertained the world when the world needed inspiration the most."

Timothy Rooks
Timothy Rooks One of DW's team of business reporters, Timothy Rooks is based in Berlin.