Original costume design sketches provide a fascinating look into how fashion, whether from the Jazz Age or from the Renaissance, was molded into the the service of a film character. And more, the sketches themselves turn into a rabbit hole for entering into the bygone world of film production during the golden age of Hollywood. I’ve been collecting these relics from the old studio system for over 25 years. One hundred of the more interesting ones are on exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum & Galleries for the Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection. The exhibition will be open from June 11 through November 1, 2014. FIDM is located at 919 South Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. The costume sketches will be complemented by several of FIDM’s own Hollywood costumes, plus original studio wardrobe workbooks and muslin pattern pieces. And on special loan from the late costume designer Mary Wills’ daughter Marri Champie, her Oscar statuette from the Best Costume Design for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. One of her costume sketches from this film, and several of her other films, are represented in the exhibition. FIDM Museum Curator Kevin Jones has worked tirelessly along with the Museum staff to bring this exhibition to life.
Costume sketches may look beautiful, but they were the working tools of the studio. They were the product of the studio’s in-house designer, in the case above, from Irene Lentz Gibbons at MGM, designing for a model to wear while parading in Easter Parade in 1948. A sketch artist, Virginia Fisher, made the illustration. Sketches were done in watercolor, either on paper or on illustration board. They were made to look good because they had to impress the film’s producer and director, who would have to approve the sketch. For a lead actress, she would have approval rights also. Often their initials are on the sketch – so the sketch was passed around from sketch artist to designer to producer to director to star until everyone was happy. If they weren’t, the sketch was modified or started over. One sketch on exhibit, a beauty from designer Orry-Kelly, has fox fur trim at the shoulders boldly crossed out in pencil.
Once approved, a costume sketch has still more work to do. It now goes to the studio Wardrobe Department, where the costume on paper becomes a costume in 3-D. It now became the job of the cutter-fitter to translate the sketch into muslin patterns, these in turn would be used to cut the chosen fabric for the costume. Before the costume was sewn, however, muslin pieces were pinned for fit on a dress form made to the star’s size, which was then used to sew the costume by the seamstresses. A fitting was done on the star by both the Head Fitter and the Designer. Embroideries and other decorations were then added. The sketch above was designed by Orry-Kelly for Kay Francis for an unknown Warner Brothers film circa 1934. a very sporty golfing outfit.
The costume sketch above was designed by Edith Head for Betty Hutton in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, 1944, directed by Preston Sturges. It was illustrated by a sketch artist rather than Edith herself. There are several costume sketches from Edith Head in the exhibition, and yet many of them look very different one from another. This is because Edith used several sketch artists in her long career, and they had very different styles. Even for costume designers that were very good illustrators, the time pressures of the job did not usually allow them to do their own costume sketches (with a few notable exceptions).
The costume sketch above was a design by Mary Wills for Joan Collins as Beth Throgmorton, Sir Walter Raliegh’s love interest in The Virgin Queen, 1955. The star of the film was Bette Davis, who is also represented in the exhibition by a sketch from the same movie. The designers that did their own illustrations had very distinctive styles. Mary Wills, was one, and others included Adrian, Orry-Kelly, Kalloch, Irene Sharaff, Donfeld, and Theadora Van Runkle, all during the time of the old studio system.
Most every costume sketch is interesting, many are gorgeous, and a few are simply iconic. Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., designed by Edith Head, in the costume where she goes back to visit the Paramount studio and meets with C.B. DeMille, that’s iconic. But even iconic images develop gradually. The costume sketch for Gloria Swanson is shown above, and it even has Billy Wilder’s approval initials. But before it was worn on the set, the skirt was modified, the muff became all white, and Gloria Swanson wore a hat with a feather stuck in it, an idea of Swanson’s that recalled the silent age of film. Of all the designers, Edith Head was always the most obliging about modifying her designs to accommodate an actress, and consequently, her costume sketches are frequently different than the costume’s on-screen appearance.
Here’s another sketch by Mary Wills, for Ann Blyth in Our Very Own, 1950, one of those fabulous films of the 1950s. This design if for a very unique bathing suit, both a striking costume sketch and an eye-catching and fetching piece for the beach.
Helen Rose became MGM’s top designer after Irene left to start her own line in 1948. This is one of her designs for Edie Adams in Made in Paris, 1966, which is actually one of Rose’s last films. This film did continue the tradition, started in the 1920s, of having fashion shows as part of the film’s plot, designed by the film’s costume designer. This one of course designed by Helen Rose. By 1966, the studio system of having long-term contract designers was coming to a close. Helen Rose left MGM in 1966 to start her own fashion line.
Jean Louis was another of the very talented costume designers working in Hollywood that began in couture. Above is his design for Shirley Jones in Bedtime Story, 1964. In the mid-sixties, Hollywood films, and film fashion, was in transition. The movies were caught during changing tastes and needing to appeal to different demographics. Fashions were changing too. Film fashion was no longer, with few exceptions, starting fashion trends. Film fashion would now have to look at the street. Hollywood’s designers would have to be younger, or at least design younger.
Sex was coming back into the movies, not seen this much since the pre-code Hollywood films of the early 1930s. The costume design above is for Natalie Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, designed by Edith Head.
Donfeld was one of the young designers in the field. He had a deep respect for the veteran designers. Like many of them he used one name – combining Don and Feld, his real names, into his working name. He had a very active career in the 60s and 70s. Costume sketches sometimes never make it into the final film. The costume sketch above was designed by Donfeld for Ann-Margret as Melba in The Cincinnati Kid, 1965. Sam Peckinpah was the film’s first director, but producer Martin Ransohoff didn’t like some of his overly sexy scenes and fired him. Norman Jewison was hired to take over. The costume designs were done over too and the costume sketch above along with several others didn’t make it into the film.
Donfeld also designed the costumes for for Prizzi’s Honor in 1985, for which he received a Best Costume nomination. The sketch above is for Angelica Huston. Donfeld was the right choice to blend the 1940s style film noir costume into the 1980s aesthetic.
The Designing Hollywood exhibition at FIDM is not arranged chronologically but rather thematically, into five categories. These are Studios, Film Genres, Designers, Wardrobe, and Stars. If you live in, near or can visit the Los Angeles area, please plan to view the exhibition. These costume sketches, or others, are rarely on view.
The sketch at the top is by Dolly Tree for Greta Nissen