A Creative Encore for Costumes
Rentals Acquire Fascinating, Mysterious Histories
By Valli Herman
The cheetah-print YSL boots that Russell Brand wore to wreak havoc in “Get Him to the Greek” are kept behind locked doors in the Universal Studios Costume department’s Gold Room, a curated repository for the choicest pickings of costumes and accessories for rent to the trade.
The boots may be immortalized on film, but they’ll also likely be reincarnated as the footwear of some rocker in a music video, or perhaps a pimp in a crime drama. Though about 480,000 items in the 37,000-square-foot department are bar coded and computerized via Rental Tracker Pro, the boots and about 40,000 other accessories culled from Universal movies and NBC television shows aren’t included. Their rental history exists mostly in the memories of the department staff, including department manager Poppy Cannon-Reese, a former Costume Designer.
Across town in Century City, rental histories aren’t tracked by automated systems at Fox Studios, which includes Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and the Fox Television production arm. Instead, much of that information resides with Mike Voght and Victoria Snow, former costumers who have managed the studio’s costume department for nearly 25 years.
Computerized tracking systems give costume departments a measure of control over their inventory, and for historians and collectors, some proof of provenance. As important, looking at a costume’s rental history is like seeing an X-ray of the costume design creative process.
“Stylists and costume designers will come in and piece a costume together from an entire department or different looks from different areas,” said Snow, Fox’s costume department supervisor. “You might have a little from sci-fi, and little from fantasy, a little from ‘Eragon’ and a little from ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ It’s not a specific genre, but it’s a collection of oddities.”
“Most Costume Designers don’t want a specific costume from one movie to end up in their movie,” said Voght, department manager. “They want to put their own spin on it.”
If you’re a real eagle eye, you might spot wardrobe from the fantasy Medieval movie wardrobe of 2006’s “Eragon” or the futuristic wear of 2004’s “I, Robot” in other movies, said Vogt, “But I couldn’t specifically say which films they’ve been used on.”
At Universal, the silvery silk blouse Meryl Streep wore in “Death Becomes Her” also did a turn in an upcoming season of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
“It’s actually a fairly recognizable piece,” said Cannon-Reese. That’s great for collectors, but not always so wonderful for working professionals.
For costume pros, a more desirable item might be less pedigreed, but more able to perform its function at a glance. Those chameleon-like costumes can blend into innumerable scenes, then return to the wardrobe warehouse, ready for many encore performances. They’re like the character actors of costumes.
For example, at Universal, a lofty, purple fake fur maxi coat with a patriotic red, white and blue lining has appeared a documented 17 times since 2009, including the television comedy, “The Kroll Show” and a Miller Light commercial in 2014. Though records show it was rented by the production company for a Nicki Minaj music video, the system doesn’t track if it appeared on screen.
Even with a sophisticated, scannable bar code system, documenting a costume’s history is more art than science. Names of productions may change, ensembles can be broken apart and duplicates can be mistaken for originals.
Universal installed the bar code system in 1993, and tagged items as they were checked out for rental. Only when Cannon-Reese came aboard as manager in 2011, did the department begin recording acquisition origins, most of which are NBC television shows or Universal films.
There’s a vivid mini-dress sequined like a Joan Miro painting that has led the life of a popular party girl–flitting from one grand event to another. Since 2002, it’s appeared in at least 24 productions, including “Chelsea Lately,” “Beverly Hills, 90210,” commercials for Heineken, Samsung, Smirnoff and because the records aren’t clear, perhaps “Whitney Houston: The True Story.” The dress, which was likely made in the 1980s, may have an even longer history that predates the bar code system.
Costume houses are in the business of extracting every bit of value from their wardrobe assets, which is partly why Cannon-Reese has organized the department into categories that are expensive to produce–and often in high demand. There’s a room for Asian and Medieval wear, a section for Santas and elves and stock grouped by type and era. The 27 aisles of costumes, with double or triple rows of racks, stretches from the 1920s to the present.
“The real value of a costume house is in the period clothes because you can’t find those items in a store. It’s cheaper to rent them than to buy or make them,” Cannon-Reese said.
It’s also wise to keep up with production schedules for sequels and spin-offs. She grouped the costumes from the 2012 film “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which earned Costume Designer Colleen Atwood an Oscar nomination, so that it was easy for the designer to return and fill in looks for the 2016 prequel, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War.”
“We kind of specialize in the character stuff, because NBC used to do a lot of comedy. You need a lot of character stuff –‘the gardener,’ ‘the policeman,’ ‘the woman in the kitten sweater’ kind of things,” she said.
Yet some costumes have such a tantalizing history, experts such as Hollywood memorabilia dealer Breanna Livie of The Golden Closet will go to extreme lengths to chronicle a garment’s past.
Months of research determined the winding route of a pink evening gown. In her 1985 music video for “Material Girl,” Madonna reenacted Marilyn Monroe’s performance in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” The vivid pink strapless dress was rented from Palace Costume Company and it was a copy of the legendary costume that William Travilla designed in 1953 for Monroe in “Gentlemen.” The recreated dress dated to 1976, when it was used in the Monroe bio-pic, “Goodbye, Norma Jean.” For nearly 30 years, the dress was rented and altered, drastically so in 2001, when it was used in “Blonde,” a TV movie about Monroe.
Livie and master tailor Gilberto Guzman of Eastern Costume Company documented the many alterations and restored the gown. They detailed how pleats were added, a bow’s width reduced, a skirt slimmed, a lining, darts and trim added.
The restored dress was sold to a British investment firm that started a Madonna Memorabilia collection, according to Livie, who supplied the vast majority of items for an exhibition that accompanied a Madonna world tour.
“They generated a ton of money, and then they sold the collection though Julien’s [Auctions] and it was a huge success,” she said.
Of course, determining the many uses and interpretations of costumes, famous and not, takes a lot of sleuthing. That layered past also shows that even though costumes are often treated like worthless rags, they’re priceless pieces of Hollywood history.