The late Oscar-winning costume designer Mary Wills created wonderful movie costumes as well as exuberant and beautiful costume sketches in the process. That her work is largely forgotten today is unfitting for such a great artist and costume designer. This especially and for someone who made so many contributions to significant movies in Hollywood history. Posted here are some of the costume design sketches that show her amazing talent for the notable films that she designed.
Mary Wills was the first woman admitted to the Yale Art and Drama School, where she earned a Master’s Degree. She was born in Prescott Arizona, and moved to Los Angeles after receiving her Master’s degree. She started designing costumes in 1944 at RKO with Belle of the Yukon. She then designed Song of the South for Walt Disney. She then began working for Samuel Goldwyn in 1948, where she designed costumes for Enchantment starring Teresa Wright and David Niven. Soon she was being referred to as The Fabulous Miss Wills at the Goldwyn Studio. The above sketch is for another film, and shows a smart linen travelling suit she designed. She was equally at ease designing contemporary or historical costumes, and for men as well as women. The first big production that Ms. Wills worked on at Goldwyn, and a critical success, was Our Very Own, released in 1950. The film starred Ann Blyth, Jane Wyatt, Farley Granger, Ann Dvorak, and a young Natalie Wood. A costume sketch for Jane Wyatt is shown below.
The costume sketch below is a design for a swim suit for Ann Blyth in the same movie.
One of Miss Will’s most memorable films was Hans Christian Andersen. For this film she designed the costumes for Danny Kaye and the rest of the cast, excepting the ballet costumes. Shown below is a costume design sketch for Danny Kaye in the leading role. Using her artistic talent, Mary Wills was able to add subtle background scenery to many of her sketches, presenting a vignette for the context of the costume.
Since filming took place on a Hollywood sound stage, her colorful and realistic costumes for the market scene in Copenhagen helps bring to life the sights and sounds of the old city. Shown below is a costume design sketch for a flower seller and her daughter. Miss Wills’ sketches give the appearance of living characters, as if she had actually painted them seated at an easel in the market square. The film was nominated for a Best Costume Oscar in 1953.
And another pair of characters bringing their milk and goat to market.
Mary Wills was also a skilled designer of historical costumes for film. After moving to 20th Century-Fox, she began working on a major historical costume film.The sketch below is for a costume worn by Joan Collins in the role of Beth Throgmorton in the 1955 film The Virgin Queen, starring Bette Davis. The fabric swatches selected for the costume are still attached to the sketch. Mary Wills received a Best Costume design nomination for this film, as did Charles Le Maire who headed costume design at 20th Century-Fox.
Below is a remarkable costume sketch for Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth in the same film.
Mary Wills also designed the Rogers and Hammerstein musical film Carousel, from 1956. The costume sketch below is the design that Shirley Jones wore in her first scene with Gordon MacRae when they each sang “If I Loved You.”
Below is the deign for Shirley Jones’ friend Carrie played by Barbara Ruick, also from the first scene where they go to the circus and meet Billy Bigelow ( Gordon MacRae ).
And a design for one of the many characters in the movie.
Mary Wills won her costume design Oscar for the 1961 film The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. This was a Cinerama production starring Yvette Mimieux, Russ Tamblyn, Laurence Harvey, Claire Bloom and many others. The costume sketch shown below was created for Yvette Mimieux in the Dancing Princess sequence. Miss Wills had a flair for designing dance and folk costumes, a talent she used later in her career designing for the Shipstad & Johnston Ice Follies
Also below is another sketch for Yvette Mimieux as the Gypsy.
And Mary Wills could also design costumes for films that had a darker side, such as the first Cape Fear, and The Diary of Anne Frank. The costume sketch below is for Polly Bergin in Cape Fear, co-starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
Mary Wills worked on two major films that she didn’t get film credit for; Funny Girl and Camelot. In Funny Girl, she designed the spectacular Ziegfeld show-girl Brides costumes and the costumes for Omar Shariff . Her last film work was for The Passover Plot in 1976, for which she also received an Academy Award nomination.
Before her final retirement to Sedona, Arizona in the mid-1980s, she designed costumes for special productions such as the The New Buffalo Bill Wild West Show and The Nutcracker on Ice. Mary Wills died on February 11,1997 in Sedona Arizona. Her work lives on in film, and her name should live on too. She brought a high level of artistic talent and integrity to her creations, breathing life into the costumes she designed.
Thanks to Marri Champie for these sketches.
14 thoughts on “COSTUME DESIGN SKETCHES BY MARY WILLS”
As a professional costume builder/technician/artisan, I love seeing her renderings. You can tell just exactly what she wanted. Surprisingly, that’s not that common. Thank you so very much for sharing!
Thank you Patty for your comment on the artistry of Mary Wills.
I seldom commit to watching a movie, but was bored and tapped into The Prince of Players. The costumes were incredible, so I Googled it. So glad I did. I have never heard of Mary Will. I knew of Edith Head as a top designer, but I have to say, I’d put Miss Will up in the same class. Sorry I didn’t learn of her sooner. Thanks for sharing all this info. And it’s very understandable that Mary Will received an Academy Award nomination for this film.
Thanks for your comment Sandy and I’m so glad you discovered Mary Wills. She was an excellent costume designer and designed fabulous costumes for all the movies she worked on. I would encourage you to watch others – perhaps Hans Christian Andersen, The Virgin Queen, Carousel, or Our Very Own. These are some of my favorites.
We had the great pleasure of meeting Mary Wills a few years before she passed. My husband was her Federal Express driver in Sedona, Az. She let us “hold” the Oscar one day. She was a wonderful Lady, my husband often took his break to visit with her. She invited him and I and our two daughters over.
She would often send him home with movies that she would get and that he delivered. His route changed and we lost touch with her.
Hope she passed peacefully.
Tom & Connie Kinghorn
Hi Connie. Thanks for sharing your experience with Mary Wills with me. I never had a chance to meet her but I understand that she was a wonderful and obviously a very talented woman. I’ve communicated with her daughter, and met her granddaughter. I’ve held her Oscar also as we had an exhibit of her work at the Coronado Library. Her costume design sketches are beautiful and her work lives on in the movies she designed for.
I have a couple of framed sketches by Mary Wills and would like to get them to someone to better understand who they are of (they are of a figure skater and know she did sketches for the Ice follies and Dorothy Hamill’s Nutcracker. They were the property of an Olympic figure skater who was in the Ice Follies so they may have been of her – not sure. Appreciate any direction or idea regarding who might be able to help or if you can that would be great. I’m in the Los Angeles area. thanks, Michael
Hi Michael – Yes, Mary Wills did design for the Ice Follies as well as for several movie studios. I wouldn’t be able to identify the particular skating star, and unless that is on the design itself, this may be very difficult to do.
Since the sketch is framed it may hide info on the border or at the back of the sketch. If you want to forward me a photo of the sketch (preferably without any flash), I can forward this to Mary Wills’ daughter. There may be a small chance she recognizes the person. email@example.com
My older cousin was Mary Wills. She as so flamboyant and memorable. Thank you for the article, would love to see more of her work.
Thanks for your comment Kristi. Mary Wills was a very accomplished and talented costume designer. She worked on many notable
films and with great actors and actresses. She should be better known today, which I’m afraid to say is also the case with several other costume designers of that era.
Your sketch Collection is a treasure. I’d never heard of Mary Wills. Shall be seeing “Carousel” on the big screen soon. Will take note of the costumes. Thanks for yet another terrific post.
Thanks Inge. She never received a lot of publicity although she was very talented and as skilled as any of the top costume designers.
I hope you enjoy Carousel, a different kind of 50s musical.
Wow, I love those sketches, especially Yvette as the dancing princess and the Ann Blyth swimming suit. Plus, Mary Willis chose such diverse films to design costumes for; there’s not much similarity between lle of the Yukon, Song of the South, and Enchantment. Fascinating post!
Thanks for the comment Rick. She had the talent and skill to design for those diverse films. Her sketches for Diary of Anne Frank were of course fitting for the setting but her sketches too were very evocative and done in darker tones. At Samuel Goldwyn she did it all, then at 20th Century Fox she was part of a bigger team.