City of Angels and Artifacts: Part 2

Hollywood costumes have long been a piece of a larger commercial enterprise. Whether well or poorly constructed, whether expensive or cheap, whether iconic or forgettable, film costumes are production assets.  From a commercial point of view, a costume that can deliver many times over is a worthwhile investment.  Hence, costumes are used, re-used, and reconfigured for maximum value.

During the classic Hollywood era when studios operated as “Dream Factories,” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City, California was a “city within a city” where stars had their own bungalows within strolling distance of sets and armies of stitchers, beaders, and cutters constructed the industry’s most opulent gowns.  Yet the studio eventually came to experience difficult financial times and by 1970 it auctioned off thousands of costumes and props just to stay afloat.  With the hope of preserving them for posterity, actress Debbie Reynolds was among those to buy pieces at the studio sale.  Over the next forty years she continued to collect.  Sadly, by 2011, she was forced to begin auctioning the collection and now those costumes are scattered across the globe.  In many instances the costumes—including the Cecil Beaton-designed Ascot gown worn by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964)—are now in private, anonymous hands where they remain hidden from public appreciation.  Thankfully some who purchased from Ms. Reynolds’ collection were kind enough to loan pieces for the Hollywood Costume exhibition.  Among those is the well-known white halter dress Travis Banton designed for Marilyn Monroe to wear in The Seven Year Itch (1955).  That dress worn by “the girl” fetched $5.5 million dollars at the 2011 sale.

Another significant auction was held in 1990 when Paramount studios sold more than 150 costumes at Christie’s.  Among the pieces sold was the ice blue strapless gown from To Catch a Thief (1955) designed by Edith Head and worn by Grace Kelly.  Other auctioned costumes included two worn by Marlene Dietrich: the Jean Louis gown from Blonde Venus (1932) and Travis Banton’s Angel (1937). 

It was Los Angeles-based private collectors who purchased the Angel gown at the Paramount auction: The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design.  Larry McQueen and the late Bill Thomas were The Collection’s founders and happily they were early advocates for the preservation and public exhibition of Hollywood costume.  Larry McQueen’s essay in the Hollywood Costume exhibition catalog provides a rich account of their collecting approach and history.

By the time they purchased the Angel gown in 1990, the costume was badly damaged as a result of its many transformations and efforts to conceal the alterations.

Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen with the Angel gown in 1990

Bill Thomas and Larry McQueen with the Angel gown shortly after they purchased it in 1990 (Courtesty of Larry McQueen)

Before deciding what to do the collectors consulted with artifact conservators.  Regardless of the object’s materials and manner of construction, conservators are ethically obliged to stabilize objects and prevent further deterioration.  This does not always mean engaging in the kind of invasive work sometimes required to restore an art object to its original appearance.  For example, in some collections, especially history-oriented ones, part of an artifact’s integrity is located in the visible evidence of an object’s physical transformations such as sweat stains left by the garment’s original wearer. 

Some collectors prefer to see an art object returned to its original state as closely as possible even when doing so means sacrificing the object’s evolving historical narrative.  Often it is a matter of striking a balance between some notion of “original authenticity” and preservation of an object’s historical journey.  While there is no consensus about when restoration is appropriate, such techniques are nonetheless employed.   

Ultimately The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design decided to restore the costume so that it could be exhibited to resemble its original production appearance as closely as possible.  Among those who worked on the project were Larry McQueen; the Getson/Eastern Embroidery firm, which had done the original embroidery work; the John David Ridge costume house; and the LA Fur Center. 

The gown could not be taken apart and beaded flat as it was originally constructed, so a special frame with a sling was constructed to allow access from the inside to the outside of the garment.  Beads and sequins were removed, sorted, and reattached.  The delicacy of the work and the costume’s three-dimensionality meant that only a four-inch area could be worked on at one time.  In the end over 3,000 hours went into the restoration of Travis Banton’s Angel gown. 

An undated closeup photograph of the stole before treatment

A closeup photograph of the stole while undergoing treatment (Courtesy of Larry McQueen)

A 2003 closeup photograph of the stole after treatment

A 2003 closeup photograph of the stole after treatment (Courtesy of Larry McQueen)

Thanks to the many angels who fastidiously restored the costume, visitors to Hollywood Costume can see the former “production asset” on exhibition as an artifact in a museum context.  The exhibition presents a rare opportunity to see Angel along with more than 150 Hollywood costumes in a single public space.

Gallery 1 of Hollywood Costume

Charlie Chaplin's Tramp costume and the Angel gown are among the pieces on exhibit in Hollywood Costume (Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

Hollywood Costume is a traveling exhibition organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum and curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hosting the exhibition through March 2, 2015, in the future home of its museum located at Wilshire and Fairfax in Los Angeles, California.  For tickets and additional information, visit:

Larry McQueen with pieces from The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design

Larry McQueen with pieces from The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design (Courtesy of Larry McQueen)

Many thanks to Larry McQueen who not only has saved and shared so many important Hollywood costumes but who has also graciously shared his research and photographs.


"City of Angels and Artifacts: Part 1":


References and recommended reading:

Bailey, Margaret J. Those Glorious Glamour Years. Seacaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1982.

Hollander, Anne.  Book review of Hollywood Costume: Glamour!  Glitter!  Romance!  by Dale McCarthy and Diana Vreeland (1977) in The Georgia Review, vol. 31, no. 3 (Fall 1977): 712-717.

LaVine, W. Robert and Allen Florio.  In a Glamorous Fashion: The Fabulous Years of Hollywood Costume Design.  New York: Scribner, 1980.

Leese, Elizabeth.  Costume Design in the Movies: An Illustrated Guide to the Work of 157 Great Designers.  New York: Dover, 1991.

McConathy, Dale and Diana Vreeland.  Hollywood Costume: Glamour!  Glitter!  Romance!  New York: H.N. Abrams, 1976.

Nadoolman Landis, Deborah.  Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design.  New York: Collins Design, 2007.

Nadoolman Landis, Deborah and Victoria and Albert Museum, eds.  Hollywood Costume.  New York: Abrams, 2013.













Add new comment