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Fashion 87 : Curator Has New Script for Old Movie Costumes

December 11, 1987|MARY ROURKE | Times Staff Writer

One of Vanessa Redgrave's cloaks is under reconstruction. She wore it in "Camelot," the movie, 20 years ago, but it's been lying in pieces in a storage room most of the time since then. Until Edward Maeder got hold of it.

Maeder is the curator of textiles and costumes at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and he's spent the past 4 1/2 years getting ready for Dec. 20. That day his exhibit, "Hollywood and History: Costume Design in Film" opens to the public.

Final Countdown

With the final countdown well under way, a team of conservators is still laying out the copper tiles that make up Redgrave's jigsaw puzzle-like costume, designed by John Truscott. It has to be glued and wired together, then hoisted into its display space.

Maeder estimates that, aside from time put in by museum staff, volunteers have donated about 4,000 hours to repair garments for the show. Beyond that, he has spent evenings at home watching old movies and making copies of such items as Little Lord Fauntleroy's jewelry from "The Prince and the Pauper" (costumes by Milo Anderson).

Most of the original accessories that accompanied outfits in the exhibit have been lost over the years, Maeder says. His modern reproductions will be identified as such on the exhibit labels.

He's not overly sympathetic to such losses. He believes that Hollywood costumes get no respect. "Studio heads couldn't care less about costumes," he says. "They're MBAs who see dollar signs and balance sheets. Costumes are considered just old clothes."

There seem to be plenty of stories to back up his theory. He tells one about a silver lace gown Norma Schearer wore in "Marie Antoinette" (1938, costumes by Adrian). Later it was spray painted black for a TV commercial.

It stayed that way until a private collector bought it at auction and painstakingly removed the paint with a toothbrush. He recently donated the dress to the museum.

A beaded silk outfit that Linda Darnell wore in "Forever Amber" (1947, costumes by Rene Hubert and Charles LeMaire) has seen several lifetimes as well. At one point, Maeder says, it was enlarged to almost twice its size so that an extra could wear it in another movie. For his exhibition, he returned the dress to its original form.

Clothes from some classic films have spent years in costume rental shops. "Until just recently, you could wear Elizabeth Taylor's 'Cleopatra' costumes for Halloween," Maeder says.

Exhibition's Replicas

Hats and jewelry haven't usually survived the years. The exhibition's replicas were made using movie stills as guides, and they will be given to the costumes' owners once the show is finally dismantled. (After it closes March 6, it will travel to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts through August, 1988.)

Maeder's stories of use and abuse include some famous legends. One has it that during a fire at a major studio in the 1930s, people took armloads of costumes and threw them into the flames. "To solve their storage problems," he says.

More recently, and more easily documented, is the episode that started with costumes that were missing from a Warner Bros. wardrobe room. Some of the pieces later turned up at an auction in New York. Just before they went on the block at Sotheby Parke Bernet in 1984, Warner Bros. executives learned about the items from their collection, alerted Sotheby's and got everything back.

But this isn't a show about Hollywood scandals after all. "It is a study of aesthetics," Maeder says. He intends it as a history of the changing standards of beauty and style. And even that is not the history you might expect.

Maeder shows us cave dwellers from "One Million BC" (1940, costumes by Harry Black) who wear stylish shoulder pads, just like eveyone else did when the movie was made.

Creative Cleopatra

Instead of a dress of finely pleated linen like the real Cleopatra would wear, Claudette Colbert dressed in bias-cut gold lame for a 1934 version of the Egyptian queen's story.

Even the museum mannequins are true to Hollywood illusion. They are made up as the actresses were, in the fashionable cosmetic look of the day. Full, red lips, heavy eyebrows, teased hair, it all depended on the era when the movie was made, not the period when the story first occurred.

"Stars don't want to look odd," Maeder explains. "If clinging to historic accuracy will make them look unattractive, they won't do it. It has always kept historic accuracy out of movies."

Costume exhibits often start ready-to-wear fashion trends. Maeder wonders what items from his show might inspire designers. "Anything excessive," he predicts. "Anything with an artificial shape. When the world is falling apart, you need fantasy."

The show includes 50 costumes, hundreds of designer sketches, movie stills and publicity photographs. The Costume Designers Guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences helped organize the exhibition, and it will be accompanied by a catalogue co-published by the museum and Thames and Hudson, London.

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