By Valli Herman
Costume collectors are the first line of defense between a costume’s destruction and its immortality. They know that in collecting, provenance is at least as critical to value as intrinsic beauty. Studios and wardrobe departments are models of efficiency in creating costumes, but chaotic keepers of them. To the studio accountants, they are disposable assets that are costly to store, maintain, and most importantly, to document accurately.
“Collectors must be recognized, celebrated and honored for their passion, their investment, their determination, and their unique contribution to the preservation of popular culture,” says Dr. Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Costume Designer, CDG President emeritus, and Director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and TV. “Without collectors, costumes would have been rented to their extinction or deteriorated beyond recognition. The first President’s Award given by the CDG was to Debbie Reynolds, a great champion of Costume Design and so much more,” Landis adds.
Collectors give costumes an unexpected encore career, important exposure to new audiences, and a sometimes money-making existence beyond the screen. Collectors also create awareness of the expert craftsmanship, cultural history, and storytelling value of film and television costumes. Unless carefully curated, restored and exhibited, a portion of Hollywood history would be lost.
“Movies are emotional. We are attached to the people in the story. The costumes are often the only artifact that remains from a production.” Landis says. “They are keystones of popular culture.”
You can almost feel the mystique and glamour of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the downtown loft where costume collector Larry McQueen has assembled some of the finest designs worn by some of the most famous names in show business. Recently, his space also has become a working photography studio where the historian and archivist is documenting a portion of The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design, his world-class treasury of vintage and modern film and television costumes worn by Angelina Jolie, Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, and many others.
With the dining table and chairs pushed aside, McQueen has made room for light stands, a backdrop, and a set of mannequins. He has taught himself how to light and process the photos of his collection, portions of which have been featured in international showcases, including Landis’ groundbreaking Hollywood Costume exhibit.
Being a costume collector is more than a hobby or a passion. For McQueen and other collectors, it is a lifestyle that constantly challenges them to master the new skills needed to authenticate, preserve and restore costumes so that their glory lasts for future generations. “My life is all about finding good deals on acid-free tissue,” he jokes. He is partly serious, because it is a lot of work to expertly maintain and exhibit vintage clothing.
For Hollywood Costume, a traveling exhibition of historic and contemporary costumes that launched at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, McQueen readied a fragile, heavily beaded dress and stole worn by Marlene Dietrich in Angel designed by Travis Banton. For a month, he sat with a beading expert to learn how to restore the complex pattern. “I became obsessed with this dress. For five to seven hours a day I sat and beaded this dress, four inches at a time, for a year,” he says.
McQueen has stitched, steamed, accessorized, and photographed 135 of the 600 or so costumes that he has collected since the 1980s. Most are stored in neat rows of acid-free boxes and tissue in two narrow side rooms. It has been decades since many were last in front of a camera.
Yet many items from his collection are indelibly etched in the collective unconscious: Marilyn Monroe’s scandalously sheer sequin dress by Orry-Kelly for Some Like It Hot, Theoni V. Aldredge’s exquisite flapper dresses for Mia Farrow from The Great Gatsby, and for the contemporary crowd, Sophie de Rakoff’s pink skirt suit that Reese Witherspoon wore in homage to Jackie Kennedy in Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blue.
McQueen, who has worked as an archivist for law firms, auction houses, and MGM, and as an actor, is unique as a collector not because of how many he owns—which is substantial—but because of what he knows, which is priceless. McQueen’s archivist skills add to the scholarship of Costume Design and movie history. Part of his collecting pleasure comes from discovering the historic references—accurate and inaccurate—on costumes and props. His experienced eye identifies priceless pieces scattered in junk shops, and fakes passed off as the real deal. His level of skill at costume restoration and storage is rare, except at museums.
“Costumes are notoriously expensive to keep properly,” notes Landis. “So-called ‘archives’ may be a chain link cage, a locked room, a museum-quality facility, or a mix of all three. Acid-free archival boxes must be rotated every couple of years, and trained and gloved textile conservators have strict parameters regarding the preservation of clothes. There can be no confusion between restoration and conservation and stabilization. Costumes need a specialist who knows the meanings of these words. Gravity is an enemy, hangers murder clothes over time. It is said that whether rented or preserved, costumes must pay for their room and board.”
While many collectors focus on preservation and restoration, costume collector Greg Schreiner brings historic costumes back to life in a stage show. In Hollywood Revisited: A Musical Revue, actors and dancers wear authentic costumes as Schreiner, a concert pianist, narrates details about the costume, the designer and the scene in which it appeared.
Of the more than 300 pieces in his collection, Schreiner puts a handful in his show, such as a mink-trimmed gown worn by Bette Davis in All About Eve and Mae West’s black, embroidered gown from Belle of the Nineties. Though in some circles, it is sacrilege to subject a vintage gown to use on stage, Schreiner rescued the garments from worse fates. He began collecting decades ago, when costumes were rarely considered valuable artifacts.
Schreiner’s fascination with Marilyn Monroe ignited his costume collecting. He bought three of her gowns before rising prices put them out of reach. His collecting began in earnest in the 1980s, shortly after MGM auctioned costumes for five and ten dollars. “The studios thought they were just old rags to get rid of,” Schreiner remarks. Costumes from the MGM auction became Halloween costumes and some became part of Debbie Reynolds’ famous collection. As costumes became more sought after, private auction houses and the Internet also began selling notable examples, too.
“That’s when I decided I would collect other stars because at that point I had fallen in love with the whole idea of Costume Design,” he says. When asked what inspired him to collect, Schreiner answers, “One, that it represented one of the great old stars of Hollywood. Two, the amazing construction I was seeing in these costumes was phenomenal. Three, because of the amazing designers who have created what I consider pieces of art. I wanted to save a few of them for posterity. Then I woke up one day and I had 350 of these costumes. And that’s when I decided to put a show together, as a tribute to the Costume Designers and their incredible work.”
Costume designers could add to the historical and cultural value accorded to costumes by identifying their work. “When I was president of the CDG, I encouraged our membership to add labels to their costumes for each production,” says Landis. “After all, there is no contractual obligation for Western Costume or any other manufacturer or rental house to have labels in clothes. Costume Designers have the opportunity to add their labels. In an industry where designers receive little support and credit, it’s a great way to stake a creative claim.”
Labels sometimes make costumes theft bait, especially if they are in circulation for rental. Though better documentation would make authentication immeasurably easier, they also must be returned to good condition. That is where rock ‘n’ roll costume collector and dealer Breanna Livie comes in.
“I love the preservation, that’s my favorite part,” says Livie, who also documents and restores motion picture artifacts for collectors worldwide as vice president of Eastern Costume Inc. and The Golden Closet, which is located in the Eastern Costume warehouse. She is something like Hollywood costume royalty: Livie’s grandfather, Charlie James, and Costume Designer Luster Bayless started United American Costume Company in North Hollywood, and her grandfather along with her father, Jim Livie, started Costume Rentals Corporation. Livie’s uncle, Frank Allegro, is vice president of Western Costume Company.
She has dedicated a chunk of her career to saving costumes and painstakingly authenticating them. “You do have to have a particular kind of knowledge just to appreciate them,” she says. “And more times than not, I will put more time into researching and documenting items. I like to make sure that everything matches up, stitch for stitch.”
As an industry insider, Livie and her staff are regarded as a solid resource for collectors and designers who want to understand the provenance and construction of a costume and even studio history.
“There are people who collect, but don’t do it the way we do. We have a direct connection to actors, directors, designers,” she says. Sometimes, the original creators are the only valid source. “They can say, ‘Oh, we only made three of those and that’s not the zipper we used. That’s my biggest thing–I sell 100 percent authentic movie costumes and props,” says Livie, who has a talent for determining if and how costumes have been altered.
As a broker, she has developed reliable indicators to gauge the market for costumes, including, “anything used in some kind of plot point change.” The clothes a character wears when he dies typically are important, which is why she is eager to see Game of Thrones sell costumes to collectors.
“The interesting thing about episodic television is by season 4 you will know if it will be a hit or not. Mad Men is going to be huge and we have a collection of some of the most famous pieces,” she adds.
Collectors like McQueen and Schreiner worry that no one will care what stars like Mae West wore because younger generations will not know who she is. New collectors are emerging who value contemporary work, however. Livie is already seeing the demographics of collectors changing from the established 40 to 60 year-olds to 20 and 30 year-olds. “They’re interested in the movies they grew up with,” she notes. She sees potential in the costumes Marilyn Vance designed for John Hughes‘ 1980s classics Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Sixteen Candles. Though it is tempting to buy costumes for their inherent beauty, Livie aligns with the idea that it is the story, not the clothes, that make the costumes.
“I don’t take just anything,” she says. “The last big show I did was The Sopranos.” Livie lent her skills to a 2008 Christie’s Pop Culture auction of 25 of Tony Soprano’s costumes to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. The garments earned $187,750, far beyond the $36,500 estimate. “His boxers sold for $5,000,” she explains. A total of 62 costumes, including those of other lead characters, raised the auction total to over a quarter million dollars.
Costume auctions bring in more than a return on financial investment; they can build audience loyalty and longevity. “Buyers think, ‘I can own a piece of that show.’ It just expands that fan base and it brings them in and makes them a part of the show,” says Livie. “It elongates the interest and the phenomenon in my opinion, I’ve seen it time and time again.”
Collectors do not have to be industry insiders, Landis explained. “People collect their favorite television and film ephemera, by genre, or by movie star. Corporations collect items as décor within a marketing plan. In my experience, all collections, even those assembled by corporations are the idea and the passion of one person. There are very few individuals who purchase for investment, like the business partners who own a pair of ruby slippers tucked into a safety deposit box. What other costumes will provide that return on investment?
As long as there is an audience there will be collectors. Collecting is about romance and desire, about falling in love, about losing your head and making a crazy decision about a hat. Viva collectors!”