A Legacy Beyond Shoulder Pads
By Gina Silverstein, December 17, 2011
If Coco Chanel promoted the revolutionary freedom of the little black dress, it was Costume Designer Nolan Miller who gave women a sense of empowerment. His heavily shoulder-padded suits for the hit show “Dynasty” in the 1980s spawned a new kind of woman in popular culture – one who looked as if she could command a board room. Miller’s success was in part due to the collaboration he enjoyed with actress Joan Collins during the show’s eight-year run. Collins not only fearlessly played the ruthless character of Alexis, she was equally gutsy in her approach to costumes. Together, Collins and Miller wove a lasting impression on audiences and caused a sea change in how women dressed. Miller’s shoulder pads went beyond helping to define the silhouette as they had during World War II. His masculine shapes progressively became a symbol of women’s attempt to break the glass ceiling to get ahead.
The cultural effect at the time was virtually unparalleled. Miller says he especially knew he had hit upon something when he saw thirteen-year-old girls dressing up like Alexis and Paris couture houses mimicking his designs. Creating international fashion trends can be risky, though, and this was no exception. While the shoulder pads were huge in every sense of the word and undoubtedly helped to bring about financial opportunities with the launch of “The Dynasty Collection” for the masses, Miller’s costume designing could easily have been eclipsed by it. Fortunately, his exceptional talent and passion for costume design created a legacy that has outlasted any fashion trend. Since he designed for “Dynasty” at the zenith of a career that began in the mid-1950s, his early work begs to be explored to understand what led to the “Dynasty” phenomenon.
Since most people in their twenties are still discovering what to do with their lives, it’s striking that Miller knew at the age of six he wanted to become a Costume Designer, and more so because he was born into a rural Texas family in 1935 during the Great Depression. His family and friends thought costume designing was a pipe dream and often teased him. Undaunted, after high school Miller studied design at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles to learn the skills he needed to pursue his dream. One of the guest lecturers, Costume Designer Howard Shoup, would later offer encouragement when Miller left the school in 1953 and had difficulty finding work in Hollywood. The advent of television was killing movies and since the screens at that time were small with fuzzy black and white images, there was little need for costume designers. To pay the bills, the young designer found work at a Beverly Hills flower shop.
While arranging flowers part-time, Miller continued to look for design work, calling upon Costume Designer Walter Plunkett at MGM whom he describes as “an incredible talent” he very much admired. The veteran designer looked at his sketches and sent him to Al Nichol at Western Costume who in turn called Ret Turner at NBC. Turner hired Miller for the wardrobe department part-time, first to work on the live hour-long “Matinee Theatre” and later for variety shows, including the “Dinah Shore Show.” He was appreciative of the opportunity and considers the large casts with fast-paced and varied costume changes as a “great training ground.”
Back at the flower shop, Miller met Aaron Spelling who was still a struggling writer in the mid-1950s. The shop owner’s daughter was Spelling’s typist and he often came in to buy flowers for his first wife, actress Carolyn Jones. Miller became close friends with the couple and designed clothes for Jones’ personal appearances. A lifelong professional relationship began when Spelling began producing for Four Star Productions and collaborated with Miller on an episode of “Zane Grey” theatre with Joan Crawford in 1961. In 1965, they worked together again on “Burke’s Law” and its spin-off, “Honey West,” starring Anne Francis in the title role as a sexy, high-tech detective with a pet ocelot. Miller’s alluring outfits for her undercover missions and black body stockings for prowling around at night were perhaps a first glimpse at his genius for designing costumes for independent women. Unfortunately, the series only lasted 30 episodes.
By 1969, Spelling had left Four Star and formed the first of several production companies. He often used Four Star’s formula of hiring major actresses who were past their prime for films and had started doing television. Miller says Spelling would turn to him for costume design when “he wanted to make them think it was the good old days of Hollywood.” Two of these television movies were “Wake Me When The War Is Over,” (1969) starring Eva Gabor, and “The House That Would Not Die,” (1970), with Barbara Stanwyck. Meanwhile, Miller also worked as a wardrobe consultant for Eva Gabor on “Green Acres.”
The project that cemented Miller’s future with Spelling, however, was the hit series “Charlie’s Angels.” The 1976 pilot and five subsequent seasons gave Miller another opportunity to design for a female private investigator but this time there were three of them, initially played by Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith. The trio wore disguises while working undercover on the beach, skating rink, racetrack and other “covert” locations. Miller infused the characters with influences of the French Riviera, which had not been seen by most Americans. His costumes often pushed provocativeness as far as the censors would allow, especially with Fawcett. Each actress had clearly defined roles reflected in their costumes – Fawcett was the sexy one wearing fashion-forward or revealing outfits such as crepe de chine blouses, braless. Jackson was the smart, tom-boy angel usually dressed in no-nonsense attire and turtle-neck sweaters. And Smith was the sweet, beautiful sophisticate who often wore tasteful, classic gabardine suits. Miller says he occasionally got caught up in the beauty of the girls, and especially had a soft spot for Smith. One day Spelling called him from the projection room and asked why he had put her in a fur coat. Miller told him it wasn’t an expensive fur coat to which Spelling retorted, “Well, she doesn’t look like a police woman in a fur coat.”
The show – and its costumes – offered escapism at its best during a time marked by an oil crisis and post-Watergate political apathy. But, the feminist movement was also in full force and feminists blasted Spelling and Miller for pushing sexism thinly veiled as progressivism. They especially targeted the braless Fawcett and the women’s “undercover” romps dressed in bikinis as gratuitous. The show survived the criticism in large part because it didn’t take itself too seriously and became a huge rating success.
About this time, Spelling offered Miller a contract and took full advantage of the designer’s talent. Although he was free to consult on other projects, Miller usually had little time for them. “I was happy but of course under contract they just piled everything on me,” he remembers. In addition to designing two or three series simultaneously, Miller estimates he did thirty television movies and mini-series while under contract. He employed teams of costume supervisors and costumers who helped him organize, shop, cut, sew and fit but with the amount of workload, Miller had to use expert managerial skills just to keep it all together. There were years when he rushed between several studios every day. “It was strange,” he says. “I was doing all those shows and I didn’t even think about it. I just was doing it.”
The series that Miller designed concurrently with “Charlie’s Angels” were Spelling’s “Hart to Hart” (1979–1984), “The Love Boat” (1977–1986) and “Dynasty” (1981–1989). All three offered audiences exotic and glamorous worlds to dream about. In “Hart to Hart” a millionaire couple moonlighted as amateur detectives and cracked cases with the help of their butler/chauffeur. Although it bore some similarities to “Charlie’s Angels” with its investigator theme, the Harts, played by Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers, were older, rarely in disguise and lived in an upscale Los Angeles neighborhood. For the bon vivant character of Jonathan Hart, Miller kept Wagner in sophisticated casual wear and tailored suits, and when the script called for it, tuxedos. “No one was easier to please than Bob Wagner,” Miller says about the relationship. Powers, as Jennifer Hart, was often dressed in chic pantsuits and silk blouses, and for evenings of espionage, understated yet elegant gowns and cocktail dresses. When Miller needed to move on to other projects, Costume Designer Grady Hunt took over for the last three seasons.
Another concurrent series, “The Love Boat,” sailed to the top of the ratings for most of its nine-year run and made household names of the series regulars at the time. Miller easily dressed the “employees” of the Pacific cruise ship in day and evening versions of classic starched white uniforms emblematic of the high seas. The romantic comedy storylines, though, required dressing large groups of passengers, often cast with screen legends to reach an older “cruise ship” audience. Miller designed for hundreds of guest-stars who paraded up the gangway, including Connie Stevens, Betty White, Ginger Rogers, Dina Merrill, Carol Lawrence, Janet Leigh and Lana Turner. In a two-part musical episode in 1982, he created costumes for Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Della Reese, Van Johnson, Cab Calloway and Ann Miller (no relation). Miller, who was pushing sixty, sang and tap-danced her way to the captain’s table in a hot pink sequined dress with a chiffon cape and break away skirt that revealed a fringed leotard. In another vivacious number, she donned a multi-colored one-shoulder dress with floral accents and a feathered parrot hat.
In 1981, the first season of “Dynasty” was low-key, Miller remembers. John Forsythe, who had just finished up as the voice of Charlie in “Charlie’s Angels,” was in the role of Blake Carrington, a wealthy Denver oil tycoon who marries his former secretary, Krystle, played by Linda Evans. The ex-secretary had difficulty transitioning to her new lifestyle so Miller dressed the character very simply in the beginning. Evans was easy to work with and went along with the choices he offered. The next season, Joan Collins arrived on the scene as Alexis, the former Mrs. Carrington, and was a tour de force. With Collins “the fireworks started” and it became more interesting for Miller. “I had a really, really good rapport with Joan Collins,” he explains. “She always had ideas. I had ideas.” He was designing made-to-order clothing night and day to keep up, and received four Emmy nominations for his efforts between 1983 and 1986.
While Miller worked with average budgets for most of the Spelling shows, “Dynasty” was in a league of its own. “It spoiled me a great deal because I don’t think there will ever be another television show with a budget like that for clothes,” he says. “(Spelling) wanted everyone to look good and he understood that it cost money.” Miller’s weekly expenditures reached $35,000 and when there was a special episode such as a wedding, he spent more.
In 1985, at the height of “Dynasty’s” popularity, the “Moldavian Massacre” season finale was watched by 60 million viewers. With a budget of $150,000, Miller created costume grandeur among the chaos. The episode centered on Blake and Alexis’ daughter, Amanda, played by Catherine Oxenberg, who was in Moldavia marrying its crown prince. Miller designed an exquisite wedding dress for Oxenberg of heavy Italian silk satin with hand embroidered ivory and white flowers and pearls. After terrorists interrupt the ceremony with a hail of bullets, the entire cast lay on the floor of the chapel, including the bride-to-be. It was a cliff-hanger that Entertainment Weekly recently named as one of the most unforgettable in the history of prime-time dramas. Despite the carnage, knock-off versions of Miller’s dress appeared in weddings everywhere that summer.
The year before, in 1984, Miller launched his own women’s apparel line, “The Dynasty Collection,” based in part on the costumes he had been designing for Collins and Evans. Although Hollywood’s flirtation with fashion has become more common as evident in Janie Bryant’s “Mad Men”-inspired collection for Banana Republic and Trish Summerville’s “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” line for H&M, Miller was one of the first to do it profitably on his own without a retailer attached. “I really had never thought very much about designing for the public,” he admits. “But then I did a suit collection, which became very successful.” To meet the demand, the factory was cutting about 35,000 suits per season. Miller also designed a jewelry collection for the QVC shopping network for twenty years until the summer of 2011.
In 1987, well into the “Dynasty” run, Miller had the opportunity to design for one of his favorite projects outside of Spelling. In “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” a Lorimar Pictures mini-series based upon the best-selling novel by Dominick Dunne, he designed for Ann-Margret. Miller created thirty changes for the actress that covered the 1940’s through the late 1950’s, resulting in an Emmy nomination.
Miller was also nominated for an Emmy two years before, in 1985, for designing Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes in the television movie “Malice in Wonderland.” He shared the honor with Costume Designer Mina Mittelman, who designed for Taylor’s co-star Jane Alexander. Miller and Mittelman were challenged with a narrative spanning decades from the 1930’s until the 1960’s, based on the rivalry between gossip columnist Louella Parsons (Taylor) and actress-turned-columnist Hedda Hopper (Alexander). Hopper was known to wear flamboyant, whimsical hats throughout her life and Alexander could have easily stolen the show. To provide balance, Miller dressed Taylor in elegant wide-brimmed millinery that she wore with panache.
“Malice” was just one of many collaborations he had with the legendary actress on television movies. Miller designed her western period costumes in “Poker Alice” (1987) and 1950’s-era costumes in “Sweet Bird of Youth” (1989/uncredited). And, in 2001 his trademark gowns were worn by a group of aging performers played by Taylor, Collins, Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynold’s in “These Old Broads.” Miller recalls that before meeting Taylor, he had a running joke with his secretary whenever he left his Beverly Hills couture workshop. “If Elizabeth Taylor calls while I’m gone,” he would say, “tell her I’ll be back.” It went on like that for years until one day, Miller returned to the shop and saw a message with Taylor’s name and number on it. Thinking it was a joke he called the number anyway and when the actress answered, he almost dropped the phone.
Miller ended up designing personal clothes for Taylor, who enjoyed dressing like a star. She would ask to have a gown made in one day as if “you waved a magic wand and there it was,” he says. Taylor especially liked shimmering details, floral embellishments and silhouettes that set off her figure, which Miller delivered in spades, though usually not in a day. In 1985, he created a black velvet gown with floral embroidery made of silver beads and rhinestones for the actress to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes. Christie’s recently sold it, along with other Miller dresses, in an unprecedented auction devoted to Taylor’s wardrobe. Miller designed another gown in 1987 for the actress to wear to the 59th Annual Academy Awards. Taylor had asked him for something in pale pink because he says, “She was going with someone…and he gave her pink diamond earrings.” The result was a spectacular silk taffeta dress with a corsage bodice, shirred bustline, floral accents at the waistline and gigot three-quarter length sleeves.
Miller became friendly with the star and on visits to her home, often saw her sitting on the floor playing with her dog and grandkids in down-to-earth moments that were the antithesis to her public persona. “Then you saw her when she became Elizabeth Taylor,” he says. “(She’d) put on the diamonds and the furs. She just dazzled you.” He believes there was no one like her and there never will be. “You just had to meet Elizabeth once and you were in love,” he adds.
He freely admits that he was fickle, though, and whatever actress he was working with was the one he fell in love with. Even so, Miller avows Barbara Stanwyck was always his greatest muse. They met at the flower shop after he had repeatedly showered her with gardenia deliveries – her favorite – in a near obsessive school-boy crush on the self-assured, wise-cracking actress twice his age. Apparently charmed by his determination, she invited him into her life and their friendship lasted until her 1990 death. Along the way, he worked with her on episodes of “The Dick Powell Theatre” (1962), “The Big Valley” (1965/uncredited) and “Dynasty” (1985), along with the MOW’s “The House That Would Not Die” (1970), “A Taste of Evil” (1971) and “The Letters” (1973/uncredited).
When Spelling spun off “The Colbys” from “Dynasty” in 1985, he asked the 78-year-old actress to play the matriarch of the wealthy California family. Stanwyck agreed as long as she didn’t have to work past six o’clock. With an above-average costume budget to work with, Miller stuck to silhouettes for Stanwyck that emphasized her broad shoulders and narrow hips. He designed high-necks and long sleeves to cover her age, and occasionally used beaded floral appliqués to add glamour to her character. Before her death, Miller created the “Stanwyck Gardenia Silvertone Pin” in Austrian crystals for his QVC collection, as a lasting homage to how their friendship began.
Another legendary actress, Susan Hayward, respected him as a designer to such a degree that she called upon him in 1974, as she was in remission from brain cancer, to create a gown for her last appearance. Hayward, who had been through chemotherapy, was to be a presenter at the 46th Annual Academy Awards but had lost all of her hair and wasn’t in very good shape. Miller recalls her telling him, ‘This is the last time I’ll ever be seen in public and I want to look good.’ He would sketch for a while, cry, sketch, and cry some more. “It was the roughest thing,” he says. “And we finally got her together.” Max Factor provided a red-dyed wig, and Van Cleef and Arpels loaned a diamond necklace and earrings to complement the sequined, dark green chiffon gown that Miller had designed. Actor Charlton Heston, who was presenting with Hayward, later said she was so weak he almost had to carry her onto the stage. Nonetheless, the venerable actress managed to make a stunning appearance – then died less than a year later.
Miller, who won the Costume Designer’s Guild “Career Achievement In Television Award” in 2000, offers a nuanced assessment of his career as a designer. “You know, when you’re assigned a project you do the very best you can,” he explains. “Sometimes it turns out great and sometimes you think ‘oh I wish I could do this over again.'” Although he is grateful for the opportunities he had with Spelling and other television producers, he regrets not having designed for more films, which were his passion. In 1967, he thought he was going to design gowns for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” but Costume Designer Jean Louis got the job. It was heartbreaking, yet in a gentlemanly nod to Louis’ skills, Miller acknowledges, “You can’t get any better than that.” One of the few big-screen films he did land was the comedy “Soapdish” in 1991, which he describes as “great fun.” Miller had a large costume budget for the all-star cast including Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Robert Downey Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg.
The last series that Miller did with Spelling was the short-lived “Pacific Palisades” in 1997. By then, he was no longer under contract with the producer, who was using another designer for his teen and young adult-themed shows “90210” and “Melrose Place.” Miller’s work had shifted mainly to designing personal clothing for screen legends and jewelry for the QVC collection. Their life-long friendship continued, however, and for a number of years Miller took up residence in the Spelling’s palatial 57,000 square-foot mansion. The pair briefly reunited professionally in 2006 for the television movie, “Dynasty Reunion: Catfights & Caviar,” for one last encore. Most of the old cast was brought back and Miller, who had been a vital part of “Dynasty’s” success, played himself in the role of “Dynasty Costume Designer.” A month after it aired, Spelling died at the age of 83.
Miller’s costume design and the shows he worked on continue to influence fashion on the world stage. Designer Jean Paul Gaultier has freely admitted in the press that he was infatuated with “The Love Boat” in the 1970’s, and later created an entire Spring 2000 ready-to-wear collection that paid campy homage to its costumes. And in Fall 2009, many of the major couture houses, including Dolce & Gabbana, introduced updated shoulder pads and gigot sleeved dresses that took their cues from Miller’s 1980’s “Dynasty” costumes and his fashion collections.
When asked how he would like to be remembered, the self-effacing designer muses, “He did shoulder pads for Dynasty.” Looking back on his life and legacy as both a costume and fashion designer, Miller affirms that he definitely prefers designing costumes. “I love dreaming up what they should be wearing in a period,” he explains. “It’s just more exciting than putting someone in a suit to go to lunch.” He believes he was successful, in part, because of an innate ability to make stars feel relaxed and happy with what they were offered. “I had a great rapport with the stars that I worked with,” he says. “It was more comfortable to work that way when you were friends with them.”
When Miller talks about his life’s work, the passion that drove him from such inauspicious beginnings is still apparent more than a half-century later. Even so, the Texas country-boy who dreamed of designing costumes for Hollywood and made good on it seems humbled by his accomplishments. “I just thank Lady Luck for being so kind to me,” he says with a sparkle in his eye. “I had a great time and have wonderful memories and I wouldn’t change them for anything.”