As we see on reality TV and read about in blogs and magazines, there are collectors of just about everything these days. The remnants of everyday life seem to find a place in some collector’s storage shed, as seen in the American Pickers. Yet the treasures from the dream factories of Hollywood’s Golden Age, those material things seen on the silver screen by millions around the world, and by generations after generation, have been the most fragile collectible of all. These things are the costumes, the “second skin of the actors.” They were often re-used or modified. They hung in studio warehouses for years until they were in tatters. When the racks were too full they were sometimes dumped as trash. When the studios were in financial straits in the 60s and 70s, the better costumes were often auctioned, while others were sold in bulk. Paradoxically, it was during this time in the 1960s that classic film was being rediscovered, and for many, it had been the staple of their youthful daytime TV viewing. A younger generation was attracted to Hollywood with ideals. Many had artistic skills and some got jobs working in the studio wardrobe departments. It didn’t take long to see that the old studio system was unraveling, and the wardrobe department, along with several of the other “crafts” was an early casualty. Within this environment, several young men began in earnest to collect the movie costumes that the studios considered surplus. To these idealists, the costumes represented the essence of the characters: the actors; and the movies themselves. Debbie Reynolds had also begun collecting, but she had the deep pockets and the connections that made it easier for her. The others, with a young costumer named Kent Warner priming the pump, entered a feeding frenzy. The idealism that had started the group’s quest to save Hollywood’s costume heritage eventually turned into a realization that the costumes represented a source of quick cash, when those with easy access to the costumes could sell them to those that didn’t. And from there, things entered a downward spiral.
Several years later, Hollywood costume collecting entered a new phase. Larry McQueen, then and now, represents the very best of what a collector, without great financial means, can accomplish. Larry has, with great dedication, dogged perseverance, skilled research, a wealth of knowledge, the highest ethical standards, and along with the guidance and help of his late mentor Bill Thomas, developed an outstanding collection of classic Hollywood costumes.
I am very gratified to be able to offer herewith my interview with Larry McQueen.
What got you interested in film costume? Was there someone who particularly influenced you?
That is a simple question. Bill Thomas (not the costume designer of the same name). I met him when he was around eighteen or nineteen and he had this – what I thought was a very exotic hobby – working with and collecting film costumes. We would see each other from time to time and he would tell me the stories of working with Debbie Reynolds and the original band of “Robin Hoods.” I wanted to get involved and to meet them, but Bill always kept me at a distance. At first, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t want me to get involved, but later I realized that it was probably the best thing he ever did because I wasn’t involved with the negative aspect of what they did. The band of collectors was turning on each other and was forgetting their original mission for collecting these things. Bill told me that “his greed for these things was destroying his love for them.” In 1984, Bill sold the majority of his collection. It wasn’t until 1989 that Bill and I agreed to start “The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design.”
Do you recall your first acquisition? Your first major acquisition?
My very first acquisition was purchased from Kent Warner through Bill. It was a helmet and chain mail worn by Ingrid Bergman in “Joan of Arc.” It was probably in the late 70’s and I thought it was the most incredible thing until my apartment was broken into and it was taken. It was a fairly standard break-in and I’m sure that whoever took the item had no idea what it was.
In 1989, Bill and I agreed to go into business together and start a collection. It was because of the gown worn by Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” (this is the royal gown with all the heavy beading and rhinestones shown in the V&A exhibition). The gown went for a substantial amount of money at the time and far more than either of us could afford separately. Since we had no intention of ever selling it, The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design was created.
As youth we are first stimulated visually by film, but do you recall if your first attraction to costume was tactile or visual?
My first recall of costumes was when I was in fifth grade. The class went to see a theatre production of “The King & I” and I was fascinated with the theatricality and fantasy world it created. From that moment on, I knew I would be involved with theatre and I went on to get a degree in it. Life sometimes changes the directions of your plans, but I’m still involved with the theatre of costume exhibitions.
Do you have favorite designers or perhaps favorite stars or films? How do you approach your collecting strategy?
I don’t have a favorite designer, but I do have a designer that I very much respect and who does not get the attention that I think he deserves. Travis Banton. Perhaps it is because of his lack of a couture line and perhaps it was because of his alcoholism but, his creations were extremely beautiful and perfectly expressed the high glamour of the 1930’s and 40’s.
My fascination with collecting costume is the art of costume design. I do not have an affinity for a particular star or film. I, of course, have my favorite actors and films. But, when I collect, I choose pieces that tells my particular story- that I have decided to tell- of costume design while taking into account the value associated with the stars and films. I try to tell that story from the pieces that come available to me and not obsess on the pieces that I can’t afford or may not still exist.
Continual price increases are a trend in Hollywood costume collecting, and Hollywood memorabilia values in general. Are there other notable trends you see?
The trend I most notice, especially as a collector myself, is the shift from private collectors to corporate collectors. I noticed this happening first with Planet Hollywood who was trying to amass an immense collection of movie memorabilia for the restaurants and Hotel. As the years continued, the prices continued to rise. With the Debbie Reynolds auction, prices again took a giant leap forward. I still continue to collect well-chosen pieces, but certainly not at the pace that I used to.
Fabric and paper are the most fragile of collectibles. How do you preserve your costumes?
I take the care of the costumes as much as a responsibility to me as acquiring them. Any expense associated with the care of the costumes comes out of my own pocket so, I often find myself forgoing acquiring a costume so that I can afford to take care of the costumes that I already have. I try to follow museum standards for their care by boxing the costumes to avoid the stress of hanging, using acid free boxes and tissue and/or unbleached muslin and keeping them in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. It’s a never ending process and I certainly take more time in the organization and the care of the items than I do in the collecting of them.
You have generously loaned some of your costumes to exhibitions in the past. Can you tell us about some of these items and exhibitions for us?
The goal, from the conception of “The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design” was to exhibit the costumes and share them with the public. Our very first international exhibition was negotiated on the evening after Bill passed away. Regardless of what was going to happen, Bill wanted that meeting to occur and knew that our dream was entering the next phase of exhibition.
We made the decision a long time ago that the pieces deserved to be shown in museums, because we felt they were artwork. So, for the most part, I only allow the pieces to be shown in museums with the proper facilities and care. There was one photo session when I did allow a piece to be worn, but it was for a prominent photographer, magazine and actress and I was there to control every aspect. When I first met Bill, he himself did fashion shows with people wearing the costumes. But during one such exhibition, one of the models stepped on the train of the costume and tore it off at the waist. Even though I do enjoy seeing the pieces “move” as they were originally designed to do, it is not worth the damage that can occur.
I have been honored to have shown many of the costumes in museums around the world, the most recent being at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. I have worked with museums in Japan, Germany, Italy and Australia. I am often amazed that “foreign” markets often respond far more enthusiastically than American audiences. It is probably because that is how they learned about our culture, by watching films. I am often amazed that they know films- especially some of the classic films and actors far better than American audiences. I am so pleased that the pieces are now being recognized as artwork.
Costumes were sometimes altered at the studios for later productions, or may have seriously deteriorated. Do you believe in restoring a costume to its original look?
This has always been a major consideration. When purchasing a costume, I try to collect pieces that are still in good condition, retain the original “magic” and will withstand the rigors of exhibition. If they are to be considered artifacts, they should be treated as such. I am always having discussions with museum experts concerning conservation vs. restoration. I have changed over the years and made decisions to restore costumes that could not otherwise be shown. I have no problem with accessorizing the costumes with articles such as shirts, ties or shoes that are missing so that they will better reflect their original appearance. But, I do take issue with replacing the majority of the fabric and basically re-making the costume. It then becomes a copy of the original. And most importantly, it comes down to documentation and disclosure. I see so many pieces on display or on the market that are not real and I feel they diminish the pieces that are.
Do you have any preferences for historical (period) or contemporary costumes?
My personal preference is certainly period costumes because of the drama and theatricality of them. But, I also appreciate the representation of the styles that have occurred during the various time periods. I often purchase a costume because it fits into a particular time period and better tells the story of fashion trend in history and in film. So many things have changed in fashion and the films often reflect those changes, even though it may not have always reflected it accurately.
With the loss of much of Debbie Reynolds’ collection through sales on one hand, but with plans for the Academy’s Museum on the other, do you see a place for an institutional collection of Hollywood costume?
The demise of the Debbie Reynolds collection was one of the most unfortunate things that has happened in the world of collecting film costumes. My answer is so short because I could actually go on for hours about it. It was definitely an end of an era and a missed opportunity. I only hope that the museum world will understand and appreciate this “art form.”
Is there a question I neglected to ask you that you’d like to answer?
I was very fortunate to have gotten involved with this field when I did. When I started, only a small handful of people understood or appreciated what these pieces were. I have often stated that “I was at the right place, at the right time.” Not only in the ability to acquire pieces, but to have the opportunity to do my part in creating the field. Bill always told me that this industry that we were helping to develop would someday “turn around and ‘bite’ us.”
Also, even though it was a financial stretch to acquire the pieces that we did back then, and even though there was “deception” or misrepresentation in the market, it is nowhere near the market of today. It is certainly a market where the buyer needs to be informed and aware.
Can you watch a film without analyzing the wardrobe, or if it’s a classic film and you missed the credits, identify the costume designer?
The way that I watch films has certainly changed. When watching a film I do notice when there is a costume that is extremely beautiful or one that I realize is extremely important to the action of the film and secretly desiring that I had that costume. But, since I do so much research on film costumes for a living, I usually can turn it off and switch modes and just enjoy the film itself.
Thank you Larry for sharing your time and knowledge with us.
Larry is active as a consultant in the field of Hollywood costume – in identification, valuation, exhibition, preservation, and related fields. He has worked with several major auction houses as a consultant in appraising and cataloging film costumes. He has also worked with Paramount Pictures on their auction in 1992 and with MGM/UA studios consulting on their costumes. Similarly, he has worked with Debbie Reynolds and the Western Costume Company. He has lent items from his important collection, and served as consultant to several museums around the country and around the world. His last museum involvement was with the major exhibition at the V&A in London: Hollywood Costume, now on tour. Larry loaned several major pieces for this exhibition, including the Greta Garbo Queen Christina gown mentioned above. Larry related to me how he had traveled to London for the Grand Opening. Between the jet lag and the nervousness, he couldn’t sleep, and instead entered into a long conversation in his mind with Bill Thomas about Larry’s long road to to get there, and to have Hollywood costumes be featured at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. I think Bill would have been very proud.