Adventures in Movie Costume Lust

by Eleanor M. Farrell

Dateline: June 15, 1995

We costumers -- intrepid creatures! -- are not embarrassed to admit that we frequently go to movies mainly because of the costuming. (Sometimes it's just as well....) But getting the chance to see film costumes up close is a rare treat, especially in the Bay Area. A half-dozen pieces by Eiko Ishioka from Bram Stoker's Dracula appeared in Macy's windows when the film opened, and the Rosicrucian Museum in San Jose has one of the headpieces from Stargate, but there are no film-related museums or collections to compare with those in Los Angeles.

But, hey! L.A. isn't that far away, after all! The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, a wonderful research and resource facility for the study of fashion and related industries, recently put on a fantastic exhibit of costumes from recent Oscar-nominated films. Being able to examine the detail work on the Stargate capes or the intricate workmanship on gowns made for The Age of Innocence gives one a new appreciation for the effort and imagination that goes into film costuming. The FIDM Oscar exhibit is an annual exhibit, usually from mid-February through March, with pieces from the previous year's best film work. If you get a chance to visit L.A. (or if you live close by), be sure to check it out!

Viewing these marvellous creations can easily lead to greater depths of depravity, such as wanting to own them. Fortunately (or unfortunately), this is a real possibility, as movie costumes are frequently auctioned off to collectors. Prices for costumes can vary greatly at auction, depending on the film, star, designer, etc. For the collector, however, in addition to the thrill of the hunt, one can also get very nice pieces at sometimes very reasonable prices. Butterfield & Butterfield is the largest auction house on the West Coast, with offices in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. B&B has two or three "Entertainment Memorabilia" auctions each year, usually in their L.A. facilities, and -- best of all -- everything in the auction is put on display for a few days beforehand and anyone can stop by to take a look.

Last week I flew down to L.A. to head up a scouting party for a friend who was interested in the costumes from the 1990 Hamlet. We were escorted through the display -- which also included Elvis's induction notice and a belt that must have weighed forty pounds, plus some to-die-for sketches by Walter Plunkett of alternate costumes designs for Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind -- by a volunteer who was as interested in getting a good look at the Hamlet costumes as we were. So we got to pull out everything, spread the costumes out on the table, and fondle them at will: yes, even the black leather pants worn by Mel Gibson in the duel scene! Although these costumes, designed by Maurizio Millenotti, look gorgeous on screen, they are even more spectacular close up. The quality of wool, silk, linen and leather fabrics and the meticulous workmanship of the trims (lots of piping and braid) and embroidery had us all moaning in the corner of the room. (Imagine: even the cloaks for Rosencrantz and Gildenstern -- not exactly major characters -- were fully lined and French seamed!) The twelve or so lots -- some of which contained two complete outfits -- from this collection sold for $160 to $1800. Very dangerous, indeed: one of our party decided to bid and has now become a collector herself!

For the less adventurous or more financially constrained, there are, I almost regret to say, other opportunities to view and purchase film and television costumes. Several stores in the Los Angeles area obtain pieces from studios and production companies, which they sell to the public. It's a Wrap (3315 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank) recently obtained 600 wool capes used in the opening funeral scene of Immortal Beloved. At $25 each, they were a steal, and small theater companies and Ren Faire folk snapped them up. A friend scored a villager outfit from Stargate, and I bought a red wool and leather suit jacket, made in France and used in a soap opera I'd never heard of, for $45. Studio Wardrobe (3953 Laurelgrove Ave., Studio City) has a similar business, but also caters to collectors. They are currently selling most of the principals' costumes from Rob Roy, including some gorgeous hand-embroidered 18th century men's outfits worn by the sartorially superior but dastardly villains. (Kilts worn by extras went quickly, I heard.)

Vintage clothing stores are often approached by film costumers and rent and sell pieces, as well. Vintage Silhouettes (1420 Pomona Street, Crockett), has sold or rented costumes and accessories for such productions as Little Women, Maverick, The Shadow, and The Age of Innocence. Items used in films are later sold, and the movie history recorded on the tags often make them more desirable to customers.

Check out our book review of Shopping LA, a great resource for finding costume-related stuff in Southern California (plus some mail order sources).

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