Focus On: Western Costume Specialty Masks
By Valli Herman
Were it not for the large letters over the door that spell out “HATZ,” it might be hard to find the millinery department amid the warren of clothing racks, storage shelves and workrooms at Western Costume Co. in North Hollywood.
Just look for the heads. Rows of antique wooden hat blocks, their rounded surfaces rubbed smooth with years of use, line the shelves and tables. Interspersed are dozens of Styrofoam wig forms, many that, of late, are sporting a new addition to the accessories collection—fanciful masks.
There’s a whole masquerade ball’s worth of floral fantasies befitting a Venetian lady, and a forest full of fuzzy creatures—a rabbit, skunk, tiger, raccoon, peacock and cockatoo, along with bugs and bees beautifully rendered in sequins, beads and brocade.
Though Western Costume owns miles and miles of garments, the collection was a little light on couture-level fantasy masks. That was a light bulb moment for Head Milliner Kerry Deco and Kacy Treadway, an artist and specialty costume maker, who crafted the masks during a rare slow moment last month.
The masks are like a sampler of the specialty costumer’s craft. Treadway started with a special-ordered industrial felt that was sized with a lacquer that made it stiffer and workable. She also layered lace on top of jacquard wovens, took apart petals of ancient silk flowers and stacked them to make new frilly textures. No animals were harmed to make the faux fur and feather faces and ears.
The team was inspired by the success of a similar project. A year ago, the team crafted a collection of “kinda creepy” hats and accessories to amplify their clown costumes. “We used vintage sequins and found items to create those hats,” said Deco. “‘American Horror Story’ rented every one. I know that’s what’s going to happen with these. Someone is going to need an entire masquerade ball scene. They’ll take them all and be done.”
The artisans followed a process established by retired Head Milliner Harry Rotz.
“He was the one who set the precedent to go through stock and create collections within the stock,” Deco said. Like Rotz, the milliners reused and recycled the many odd bits that are stuffed into drawers and shelves around the massive costume house—especially in the button room.
Buttons of every imaginable kind are stored in rows of wooden drawers that likely date to the 1900s. Adjacent shelves have trims like you’ve never seen. Cabinets contain plastic bags of sequins, ribbons, bows and bits of fancy fabric collected from everywhere. “Maybe a dress fell apart and they saved the appliqué,” Treadway said.
The milliners aren’t the only ones who can cull the stock.
“It’s an invaluable resource for designers.” said Deco. “It’s like a magic Mary Poppins bag. You go back there and pull out things and it’s, “This is exactly what I needed!’”