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.

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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.


Mary Wills - Our Very Own, 1950

The costume sketch below is a design for a swim suit for Ann Blyth in the same movie.


Mary Wills - Our Very Own


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.

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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.


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And another pair of  characters bringing their milk and goat to market.

Mary Wills - Hans Christian Andersen

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.


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Below is a remarkable costume sketch for Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth in the same film.


Mary Wills - Bette Davis Virgin Queen 2


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.”


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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 ).


Costume sketch by Mary Wills of Barbara Ruick as Carrie

And a design for one of the many characters in the movie.


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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


Mary Wills for Yvette Mimieux in The Brothers Grimm


Also below is another sketch for Yvette Mimieux as the Gypsy.


Mary Wills Yvette Mimieux in The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm


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 Polly Bergen Cape Fear

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.


Mary Wills Funny Girl Brides
Funny Girl Ziegfeld Follies February Brides


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.


Mary Wills at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio circa 1948

Thanks to Marri Champie for these sketches.



Dolores Del Rio, Ramon Navarro, and Conchita Montenegro

Long before there was Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, or Eva Mendez, the 1930s Hollywood silver screen blazed with the talents and hot looks of Latina movie stars Dolores Del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Conchita Montenegro. Dolores Del Rio was in the first ranks of movie stardom in the early to mid 1930s. Her radiant beauty was a magnet for the camera, and she starred in several major movies for Warner Brothers and RKO. Also pictured above is Ramon Navarro, born in Mexico and a lead actor for MGM in the 1920s. He played as Judah Ben Hur in the first Ben Hur, as well as the hero pilot in The Flying Fleet and other films.

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Dolores Del Rio starred in the films The Bird of Paradise (1933), Flying Down to Rio (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Madame du Barry (1934), and In Caliente (1935). She had started her Hollywood career in silent films such as Trail of ’98 and Ramona (both 1928).  In the photo above, Dolores Del Rio models a sequin gown designed by Orry-Kelly. Below is a photo showing the classic beauty of Dolores Del Rio. The “Del” in her name became capitalized in the U.S, although she was born in Durango, Mexico.

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Del Rio’s second husband was Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s Art Director. He made the art deco and moderne style of set designs popular in the MGM films of the late 1920s and 1930s. He also designed the famous Oscar statuette for the Academy Awards. After they married in 1930, they lived in this beautiful California moderne style house which he and architect Douglas Honnold designed in the Santa Monica mountains.  Del Rio and Gibbons are pictured below in their living room. The very large windows were innovative at the time. One can imagine the fabulous parties they held there, attended by all of the great Hollywood stars of the era.

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Dolores Del Rio and Cedric Gibbons in their living room.


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Another popular Mexican actress in the 1930s was Lupe Velez, shown above.  She had acted in Vaudeville, and started her Hollywood career in silent films. She starred with Douglas Fairbanks  in The Gaucho in 1927, and was in C.B. de Mille’s The Squaw Man in 1931.

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In the photo above Lupe Velez models a gown designed by Walter Plunkett for the RKO film, Strictly Dynamite in 1934. The gown is of white crepe with diagonal lines of crystal beads. Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio were both early customers of designer Irene Lentz at her first two shops. It was through them that Irene developed a following in the Los Angeles film communitity, a following that soon became a flood. Irene later married Cedric Gibbons’ brother Eliot and thus became the sister-in-law to Dolores Del Rio.

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In the photo above Lupe Velez wears an Adrian designed gown for an MGM film. The gown features open Dolman sleeves held with brilliant circle clips along the arms. Lupe Velez reached the height of her popularity in the film series, The Mexican Spitfire,filmed at RKO in the early 1940s.

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Conchita Montenegro shown above was a beauty from Spain, a dancer and model who came  to Hollywood with a contract at MGM in 1930. In those days MGM made Spanish language versions of their films and Conchita starred in several of these.  She played a Spanish dancer in Strangers May Kiss, at MGM along with Norma Shearer.  She also starred opposite Leslie Howard in MGM’s Never the Twain Shall Meet in 1931.

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Conchita Montenegro left MGM and went to the Fox studio to make movies there. She starred with Warner Baxter in The Cisco Kid in 1931.

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The beautiful costume sketch above for Conchita was designed by Dolly Tree. It was probably designed for The Cisco Kid, although Dolly Tree designed costumes both at Fox and at MGM during this period.

Raquel Torres Los Angeles 1929 Aug 15

The photo above shows Raquel Torres in 1929. Miss Torres had a German father and a Mexican mother. She starred in two films in 1929 including The Bridge of San Luis Rey. She continued to make movies in the early 1930s.

This early flowering of Latina actresses was short-lived. By the late 1930s the importance of the roles offered the stars became less rewarding. Lupe’s Mexican Spitfire movies were popular but stereotypes became common. Both Dolores del Rio and Lupe Velez returned to Mexico to make films, and del Rio became just as big a star in her home country. Lupe Velez died young in 1943. Conchita Montenegro too returned to her native Spain. The movie La Otra, made in Mexico and starring Dolores Del Rio and Victor Junco, was re-made in the U.S. in 1964 as Dead Ringer, starring Bette Davis.

La Otra (1946, Mexico) aka The Other One Directed by Roberto Gavaldón Shown from top: Víctor Junco, Dolores del Rio
La otra (1946, Mexico) aka The Other One. Directed by Roberto Gavaldón.
Starring Víctor Junco and Dolores del Rio. Photo courtesy Photofest.

Another generation of Latina actresses came along in the 1940s and 1950s, and then another after that. While roles in film are there, they are always too limited. We are fortunate however, to still have the chance to see the trail-blazing early stars of the silver screen.

An earlier version of this post appeared in my blog the Silver Screen Modiste in 2011