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Obituaries

Van Smith, 61; costume designer on John Waters films

December 11, 2006|From the Washington Post

Van Smith, a costume designer and makeup artist who was the resident "ugly expert" on the films of John Waters, died Dec. 5 at his home in Marianna, Fla., after a heart attack. He was 61.

He "totally understands the look of 'inner rot' that I demand and could come up with the perfect look for each character without my ever having to say a word," Waters wrote in his 1995 book, "Shock Value: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste."

Smith became a regular part of Waters' film repertory group, Dreamland, starting with "Pink Flamingos" (1972). The movie, starring 300-pound transvestite actor Divine, is about a woman eager to out-filth competitors.

On a constricted budget, Smith found simple ways to make actors look outrageous. He shaved Divine's hairline deep into the actor's forehead to make room for excessive eye makeup and dressed Divine in a fishtail red gown.

The effect, Smith later said, made Divine resemble a cross between busty glamour girl Jayne Mansfield and Clarabell the Clown.

His destructive makeup techniques included using dirt to obscure a natural glow or letting egg white dry on an actor's face, Smith said in "Shock Value."

In "Desperate Living" (1977), he designed a shower curtain dress for actress Liz Renay. In "Cecil B. DeMented" (2000), he put Melanie Griffith in a Chanel jacket that he reformatted with a biker mystique.

Walter Avant Smith Jr. was born Aug. 17, 1945, in Marianna, a Panhandle town where his father was a municipal judge and his mother a bookkeeper.

In 1968, he graduated with a degree in fashion arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

At the time, he resided at a Baltimore apartment complex where "everyone lived," Smith told a Waters fan site, referring to those who became fixtures on Waters' film sets.

When he was not sharing Waters' vision of film as "action against good taste," Smith was a New York fashion illustrator, Baltimore antique store owner and Florida animal rescue volunteer.

He also was the creative force behind "The Simply Divine Cut-Out Doll Book" (1983).

More recently, he cared for his mother, Eloise Smith, of Marianna.

She survives him, along with a brother and a sister.

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