"Western's strength is American clothing of the '20s through the '50s, maybe the '60s," Landis says. "If you were doing anything — a gangster movie, film noir, any period film — you would just have to walk around to know it'd be your first stop."
Although Marks likes to frame it as a wider period of "anything from the 1200s up to about 2000," he says that's about as contemporary as they get. "We stay period, for the most part, and the studios stay contemporary."
Another of Western's strong suits is garbing the masses — being able to transform thousands of background actors into authentically costumed occupants of a Parisian train station circa 1931 (as Western did in"Hugo"), a modern-day naval carrier (for"Battleship") or the halls of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce ("Mad Men"). Costuming a period movie's low-profile players may not seem as glamorous as dressing the principal actors, but since each weekly costume rental averages $100 to $200, it does make good business sense.
Marks won't discuss revenue of the privately held company (of which Haber has been the sole owner since 1995), but says 2011was the best year it's had in 20-plus years, pointing to the boom in period television as a major factor. "We did a lot of those shows — 'Mad Men,''Boardwalk Empire,''Magic City,' 'Playboy' and 'Pan Am.' If those had been contemporary shows, we probably wouldn't have been on their radar."
Western's collection of period costumes is complemented by a 50,000-volume research library stocked not only with books but also with personal papers, costume designers' sketches and vintage issues of style magazines such as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and Godey's Lady's Book.
Just beyond the library is a small room containing Western's crown jewels, part of the 6,000-piece "star collection" archive. It's a rarefied fraternity of frocks that includes Rudolph Valentino's robes from "Son of the Sheik," Plummer's jacket from "The Sound of Music," Leigh's buckboard dress from "Gone With the Wind" and the striped prison garb from "Papillon."
Those iconic pieces hammer home just how much the company has become part of the fabric of Hollywood over the last 100 years.
For the last few weeks, the company's 60 employees have been hard at work putting together a selection of looks that will convey Western's place in the pantheon of costume design as effectively as the clothes in that room do. These will be part of a gala event Wednesday in conjunction with the Costume Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that will include a panel discussion and pageant-like presentation of costumes.
Some models will be wearing the genuine article (a fur-trimmed polka dot jacket worn by Bérénice Bejo in "The Artist"is expected to make an appearance, for example). Others will be garbed in replica wardrobe pieces. Shoemaker Mauricio Osorio spent the better part of three workdays re-creating from grainy screen shots the brown suede lace-up boots Errol Flynn wore in 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood," using a 100-year-old industrial-size Singer sewing machine that, in all likelihood, was the same one that stitched together the first pair.
Research librarian and archivist Bobi Garland is quick to point out that when it comes to authenticity and accuracy, no expense has been spared. She holds aloft a photo of Leigh's green velvet "curtain dress" from "Gone With the Wind" — perhaps one of the most recognizable dresses in cinema history and now residing in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She motions to the belt of heavy, braided cord.
"We're re-creating this dress for the event," she says, "right down to the perfect tassels."