The Museum of Brisbane in Australia recently completed a hugely popular exhibition based on the Nicholas Inglis collection, Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood. As its title denotes, it was devoted to the costumes designed and worn on the screen during Hollywood’s Golden Age of film, from the 1920s through the 1960s. The exhibition ran from November 2014 through May 2015. Over 200,000 people visited the exhibition, one of the most ambitious the Museum of Brisbane ever held. To say the least, Nicholas Inglis is a passionate classic film fan and serious, even fanatic, classic film costume collector. The fortuitous story of how the Museum and the Collector collaborated (although they were in the same city these things do not just happen in museums), is told in this interview. The exhibition was initiated by Museum Deputy Director Christopher Salter when he approached Nicholas Inglis about a possible exhibition, which started a three year project, which also involved co-curator Dr. Nadia Buick. I recently spoke with Nicholas about the exhibition and asked him for an interview for the Silver Screen Modes. Nick and I have been communicating long distance for many years over the subject of classic Hollywood costume design and designers, and have both been collecting in that field. I also had the privilege of writing an essay for the catalogue of the exhibition, which completely sold out. Here is Nick’s interview, along with a sampling of his own photos. Many more can be found at Nick’s own blog The Vintage Film Costume Collector
What is it about the Golden Age of Hollywood that appeals to you so much?
I have always had a love for the film classics of the 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. As a teenager I used to write to the performers for autographs. I also grew up watching the film classics. My Aunt owned the Dawn theatre at Chermside (Brisbane) so I got to watch some amazing films there as well. For me the Golden Age of Hollywood represents a time in movie making that no longer exists, a time when movies were special, they were an event for those going to the movies and were made with performers who were stars in every sense of the word. It was also a time in movie making when the quality of the talent both on screen and behind were at the best and when the studios had the resources to make films that were the best of their kind and indeed that today continue to be seen and enjoyed.
There were 69 pieces are on exhibit as part of the exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane. How many pieces do you actually own?
There were 300 costume pieces in the collection. I have never really stopped to count them and it was only during this process of bringing the collection out to display that the whole collection was catalogued in such a way that it was counted and documented. The collection also includes stage worn pieces, posters, autographs and other film related memorabilia.
Is it difficult to maintain a collection of that size?
The costumes are stored in a facility, in acid free boxes and tissue paper. They are reclined to give them the best chance of survival. Being fabrics they do have a shelf life so it is important to ensure you are doing everything you can for them in terms of their ongoing survival. Luckily you can also fit a number of costumes in a storage box thanks to their being fabrics and can be layered. They are not stored on mannequins.
Do you intend to extend your collection beyond the Golden Age of Hollywood?
I have collected and purchased from what could be described as more modern day films. I really only venture into that side of things if it is a film I have loved or have enjoyed a great deal. I have costumes worn by Bernadette Peters and Aileen Quinn from the film “Annie” and I have pieces worn by Robin Williams and Nathan Lane from “The Birdcage”. I also have a Nicole Kidman period costume from ‘Portrait of A Lady”. I am happy to say that I also have costumes from an modern day Australian classic with a trio of costumes worn by the main stars in the film ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”. So really for me sometimes it is a matter of I don’t know what I may want to add to the collection until I have seen it!
How much involvement did you have in selecting the pieces shown for the exhibition?
When the museum approached me, they asked to see all the pieces that made up the collection. From there they then went away and put together a proposal of pieces that represented the story of not only my collection and how it came to be here in Brisbane but also in relation to the history of film in the Golden Age as well as the costumes which made this era so fascinating. I did hint a number of times in relation to the pieces which were perhaps favourites and they were included in the exhibit. It was a wonderful selection of pieces from my collection and the museum and the curators Christopher Salter and Nadia Buick have done an amazing job in putting together this feast for the senses.
What did you want people to get out of seeing the exhibition?
I wanted people to see not only the great craftsmanship and talent that went into the making of the costumes that were used during this era, but also to give people an understanding of what it was to be a star in the Golden Age of Hollywood and how the studios spared no expense in terms of creating these treasures for the screen. Coming up close to the pieces you also get an idea of the detail and time that it would have taken to put these pieces together and only to be seen on screen sometimes for just a few minutes. I am also happy to say that visitors to the exhibition have also gone away wanting to connect with some of the films that are represented so hopefully I am sparking a whole new generation of people wanting to see and enjoy some of these great films.
Was it difficult to choose which ones you would include and which ones you wouldn’t?
It was at first difficult knowing that only a limited number of pieces would be in the exhibition but it was really never the case that they could all be. There was just too much to show. The museum did have trouble in choosing what would go in for that very same reason, that there was so much too choose from. Some amazing pieces didn’t make the cut but hopefully that will be for another exhibition. What was used for the exhibit was a wonderful selection and representation of my collection.
You’ve been collecting since 1995. Have you ever missed out on a piece you particularly wanted?
Yes and it happens quite a lot. There are dedicated auction and houses around the world that specialize in entertainment memorabilia and when the auctions or sales come along, pieces are highly sought after and in demand. I have missed out on a many a piece over the years. There is one piece in the exhibition for example, a Carmen Miranda costume from the film ‘Nancy Goes to Rio’ and made at MGM studios in 1950. I had to bid on the piece three times over a number of years and at three different auctions until I was able to acquire it. So third time lucky!
You have various pieces from particular actresses such as Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. Is there a particular actor or designer you are drawn to when hunting new pieces?
When you are collecting for a number of years, you do eventually start to step back and ask what is it that you are missing or what is it that would you like. There are a number of performers that I am still searching for, a Marlene Dietrich costume piece for example. I seem to be drawn to some performers more than others and do have multiple costumes from stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Lana Turner, Susan Hayward and Maureen O’Hara. I expect there is something about them as performers that drives me to add pieces from their films.
If I was to mention a designer, Walter Plunkett is a favourite. He designed for some film classics including ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Singin in the Rain’. He was the best of the best when it came to period design in film which is an area of film making that I love. There are a number of pieces in the exhibit designed by Plunkett including an amazing period gown worn by Lana Turner in the MGM film ‘Diane’ and a Katharine Hepburn costume from the original film version of ‘Little Women’ made in 1933 at RKO studios.
What’s the most expensive piece you’ve ever bought?
I have been a very lucky collector when it comes to being in the right place at the right time. I have bought from private collectors and have found items on auction sites such as eBay. A pair of boots for example worn by Judy Garland and made for her role as Annie Oakely in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ 1950 were on display and were an eBay purchase. I picked them up for $200. I also have a photo of Judy Garland wearing the boots which were also on display. So it is really a matter of looking for those hidden treasures!
Have you ever bought something sight unseen and it’s turned out to be a complete disappointment?
Quite often the pieces you are buying have had a number of lives, some can be as old at 80! And where the have been or where they have been stored since leaving the studios is seen in terms of their state today. They do come torn, altered, dirty, discoloured, or even as has happened on some occasions, literally falling apart in your hands. The thing about costumes is that they were made for a limited purpose, to be seen on screen for a short period of time and for the actor to perform their role. After that the costumes went back into storage to be used again on another actor, or redesigned or resized for alternate use. Costumes have been stored in attics, been hanging on hangers for 50 or more years, and have time has taken its toll. It is only in the past 40 years really that collectors have seen the need to preserve as much as is possible of what has remained of this film history.
What are some of your favorite pieces from your collection?
I have always had difficulties answering that one. It is hard to pick a favorite. I do have favorite genres such as the movie musicals or the period films so I drawn to those and you can see that from the exhibit. I do have a Barbra Streisand piece as worn in the film ‘Funny Girl’ which I love for a number of reasons including that it is a film favourite, that it just looks amazing, and that it came from Ms Streisand herself. There are occasions when performers are able to retain pieces from their films and Barbra did just that. It is great to have that history trail to go wit the piece. The piece is also in the exhibition.
How do you acquire pieces for your collection?
See above re: the auction houses, internet auction sites, from other collectors and people who were at the original film studio auctions.
What happens to the collection when it’s not on exhibit?
When not on show, the items are in storage, preserved and protected from the elements, and until they can come out again and to be enjoyed.
Since the Exhibition has finished at the Museum of Brisbane. Do you intend to show it elsewhere?
I would dearly love to continue this journey of displaying pieces for the public to enjoy so I am hoping that museums across the country not only get to see the exhibition but also hopefully take an interest in displaying these amazing pieces of Hollywood history. The exhibit has been very successful with over 200,000 visitors to the exhibit since it opened in late November 2014. It is wonderful to see so much interest in the collection!
What are some of the pieces you own that people didn’t get to see in the exhibition?
Some other pieces that are not in the exhibition include a Mae West period gown designed by Travis Banton and worn in her 1934 film ‘Belle of the Nineties’. Another rare piece is a costume worn by Theda Bara in the 1917 silent version of the film ‘Cleopatra’. The film itself is now considered lost however it is amazing for me that the piece survives and that I have been able to find so many photos of the costume being worn by Theda Bara. There is certainly enough pieces for further exhibitions and a few times over! There is also so much in terms of the collection that displays can be put together based on so many different subjects.
Do you collect anything else or are Hollywood costumes your only specialty?
This area is more than enough!