Many things come to mind when thinking about Hollywood costume, but few think about the venerable Western Costume Company, founded in 1912 when fledgling studios were start-ups in Hollywood. The company was started by Louis L. Burns. Burns had collected Native American clothing, jewelry, weapons and props for renting through a trading store and then started Western Costume Company to supply Western films made in the new film industry. Cowboy star William S. Hart was a regular customer, as was Cecil B. DeMille. Years later director John Ford became an investor. The first Western Costume location was in a small space in downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Figueroa. By 1924 a ten-story building was needed when Western was supplying D.W Griffith with all his costumes. It had 154 employees. It was located on Broadway in downtown LA. A Hollywood branch was also opened on Sunset Boulevard near Western.
The Great Depression hit many studios hard and Western Costume was also affected. Previously, a competitor, United Costume Company had also entered the business. Western Costume went bankrupt. Three brothers from the Oakland area, Dan, Joe, and Ike Greenberg bought Western and consolidated its locations into a new site in 1932 at 5335 Melrose Avenue in LA. It was next door to Paramount and RKO and near Columbia and the Goldwyn studio. Although Western was the go-to place for renting Western, period and foreign costumes, it had also developed into a full costume supplier, being able to design in-house and fabricate whatever film costumes were needed. Their particular strength was in male costumes, because many studios did not have a dedicated male costume designer. Not only costumes were supplied, but all manner of decorations and medals to match appropriate uniforms. Even Warner Bros. went to Western to have the costumes designed and fabricated for Errol Flynn in his many early swashbucklers including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Western had also costumed the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood in 1922. To support its costume design, Western developed a superlative research library from its early days in the 1920s. Books, fashion magazines and pamphlets were collected from the US and abroad, and continue to help costume designers to this day.
One notable costume designer that worked at Western Costume (although briefly) was Walter Plunkett. After a salary dispute at RKO, Plunkett left and joined Western in 1930, where he knew the Greenberg brothers from his high school days in Oakland. But he was missed at RKO and hired back in 1932, just in time to design for Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game. Other early costume designers produced excellent work at Western in the 1930s, including Laon (Lon) Anthony who designed many of Errol Flynn’s costumes,
Emile (Mrs.) Santiago, who could design for men or women, and Marjorie Best, who designed mostly for men but could also design for women, also worked at Western. Costume designer Milo Anderson, at Warner Bros. from 1933-1952, developed his interest in costume while working during his summer vacations at Western while a student at Fairfax High School in the late 1920s.
By 1938, Walter Plunkett was back working with Western Costume, where he could supervise the fabrication of costumes for the principal cast for a big 1939 production he was working on – David O. Selznick‘s Gone with the Wind. The costuming of GWTW is a saga in itself. Some 4000 costumes were required, including 44 for Vivien Leigh as Scarlett and 21 for Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. Confederate uniforms and other costumes for extras were rented from several sources. In addition to the logistical issues, the requirements of filming in Technicolor were a constant constraint in the use of certain colors (or white) in the costumes’ designs and fabrics. Another 1939 film burnished Western’s history. The company long had cobblers and a shoe department. And as M-G-M was preparing to make The Wizard of Oz, Western was asked to provide shoes for Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale. * With Adrian’s final design for the shoe, this would be a sparkling Ruby Slipper. While there have been different accounts of how the shoes were made, it is generally believed that Joe Napoli at Western Costume made Judy’s shoe from a custom last of red satin with a short heel. At M-G-M wardrobe, the sequins were sewn onto chiffon and then formed on the shoe(s) and sewn into the fabric. Adrian revised the bow design adding rhinestones and bugle beads. No one is sure how many pairs of Ruby Slippers were made.
Changes in ownership of Western Costume continued as the profitability of the company see-sawed in the 1940s. In 1943, the company was endangered and six studios joined to buy a controlling interest in Western: Universal, 20th Century-Fox, Columbia, Warner Bros, RKO, and Republic. This purchase led to John Golden managing the company and making changes to its operation and consolidation into two divisions: one for made-to-order. the custom creations of working with designers, and the other the rental operations. A new “Golden Age” bloomed as a series of major movies were costumed by Western.
Costume designer Irene Sharaff used Western Costume to fabricate the costumes she designed – these for whatever studio she was contracted with, even for M-G-M’s Brigadoon in 1954. Likewise, Sharaff worked with Western on the costumes for The King and I (1956) Best Costume Oscar, West Side Story (1961) Best Costume Oscar, and Cleopatra (1963) Best Costume Oscar. Two other classic films had their costumes made at Western Costume, one was Some Like it Hot (1959), Billy Wilder‘s movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon. Orry-Kelly designed the costumes, winning a Best Costume Oscar. The other classic is The Sound of Music, (1965) starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and Eleanor Parker, with costumes designed by Dorothy Jeakins, nominated for Best Costume. Costume designers were confident that their designs could be fabricated with expertise at Western, and this was done through the hands and supervision of cutter-fitters Elizabeth Courtney, Lilly Fonda, sisters Emma and Atti Parvin, and subsequently Tzetzi Ganev. and Nancy Arroyo. The talented men’s head tailor was Ruben Rubalcava and then Jack Kasbarian, with a crew of seamstresses, tailors, and dyers present for the jobs at hand. Embroidery was farmed out to Eastern Embroidery in Los Angeles, which Adrian also used for his fashion line.
Margo Baxley was hired by manager Al Nichol in 1957 to work in the Made-to-Order department. When Irene Sharaff came to have her costumes made for Porgy and Bess (1959), Ms. Baxley became Women’s Key Costumer for her film’s through 1961 while Bill Howard was the Men’s Key. For Porgy and Bess, Baxley had photocopies of Sharaff’s costume sketches and would get the fabrics that Sharaff had selected at Beverly Hills Silks. These would be in bolts, in which case only the amount of fabric used would be charged to that film. As it happened, the costumes and set for Porgy and Bess all burned in a fire at the Samuel Goldwyn studio on July 8, 1958. They all had to be recreated. Margo Baxley continued to work with Irene Sharaff at Western on Can Can, Flower Drum Song, West Side Story, Cleopatra and later at Fox with Sharaff at Western on Hello Dolly, as well as with designers Dorothy Jeakins, Orry-Kelly, and Walter Plunkett. Ms. Baxley also worked with Vittorio Nino Novarese on The Story of Ruth (see below about Eduardo Castro) Irene Sharaff used Lilly Fonda as her favorite cutter-fitter at Western. .
Andrea Weaver started at Western Costume in 1964 (aged 19) after finishing at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She kept calling Al Nichol for a job until he interviewed her and gave her a job, at first waiting on customers before Halloween. She also did orders called “put-ups.” She worked with costume designers and costumers and after some experience, with a senior costumer on the TV show Hollywood Palace and The Lawrence Welk Show. The cast members were fitted for their show costumes. After that costumer left, Andrea Weaver took over working with Designer Bill Thomas for Disney’s The Happiest Millionaire. Western also supplied the costumes for the riders on the Rose Parade floats. Weaver went on to became a successful costumer and costume supervisor after leaving Western.
Another costume designer that started his career at Western was Eduardo Castro. He was finishing up his last semester of graduate school at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh when he had an interview as a stock boy in 1976 at Western. As he recalls, he entered the lobby already intimidated, when the talented designer Ann Roth, in a gabardine pencil skirt and crisp white blouse and pearls exited the fitting room. At the same time, descending the staircase into the lobby was the colorful Theadora Van Runkle, wearing an amber and black silk print, floor length kimono. And as a collector of unique eye-catching jewelry, she wore several antique necklaces and amber bracelets, and rings. She had already designed Bonnie and Clyde, and The Thomas Crowne Affair. It wasn’t long before Eduardo Castro was working with both designers, learning from the best in their very different styles and approaches to costume design. Western Costume has also been the go-to place in LA for renting costumes for costume parties and Halloween (I had rented a Musketeer costume from one of the film versions around 1970). Castro dreaded the arrival of Halloween as he was scheduled to work the front counter to help the “hordes” find costumes. But he came up with pre-loading costume carts with themed costumes. As he described it, “The first costume I prepared was a set of tail coats from a 1954 film designed by Rene Hubert and Charles Le Maire called “Desiree” starring Marlon Brando, and Jean Simmons. The film was about Napoleon and there was a series of about twenty-five or so tail coats in royal blue velvet with heavy gold embroidery, they came with coordinating white brocade vests and matching breeches. The pieces were all in great shape and I rented those costumes like hotcakes!!!” At auction today such costumes could fetch thousands of dollars each.
It was not long after Eduardo Castro began at Western that he was put in “stock,” putting back all types of costumes and accessories from pirate outfits to Chinese robes to space suits. On the third floor there was an entire wall devoted to stored boxes for a biblical movie, The Story of Ruth (1960). There were so many boxes that it become a lazy way to drop in a costume or item by stock boys or costumers rather than finding the correct location. When the grand Tutankhamun exhibition came to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in February 1978, the costumers on the third floor decided to decorate their area with an Egyptian theme, using costumes and props. Castro found a special item among The Story of Ruth materials. He describes what happened next, “So I gathered a few bits and pieces to decorate my office, and I was particularly proud of this one unique gold lame piece, beautifully lined, that I draped over my window. A few days later, Al Nickel who headed the women’s department passed by my office and stood staring at the window I had decorated in absolute shock! He asked me if I knew what the piece was, I confessed I did not know. He said “Young Man !!!, Those are Elizabeth Taylor’s Wings from “Cleopatra” !!!, I have been looking for those for months !!!, Where did you get them?” I told him I found them peeking out of a box marked “The Story of Ruth”.
More changes were coming ahead for the company when its neighbor Paramount Pictures bought out Western in 1988. But Paramount wasn’t interested in the costume business – they just wanted the land to expand. Accordingly, Paramount sold Western to a business group of three owners, on condition that they move out the collection of costumes within a year. The “Trinity Group” was agent Bill Haber, author Sidney Sheldon, and Paul Abramowitz, the latter serving as president. Soon after, it was costume designer Ann Roth that recommended costumer Eddie Marks to Abramowitz, who appointed him vice-president. Together they moved the contents of Western Costume to 11041 Vanowen in North Hollywood. The last of 34,500 boxes were moved in May, 1990, then the old building on Melrose was demolished. In 1992, Marks became President.
Among its estimated three million costumes, some were treasures no longer suitable to rent or reuse. The company decided to put some of the most valuable costumes up for auction. The costume historian Glenn Brown was enlisted to go through the inventory and select costumes for the auction in July 1994 by Butterfield and Butterfield. He found 300 items, among which were Rudolph Valentino‘s burgundy and silver coat, likely from his last film, Son of the Sheik (1926), Orson Welles’ coat from Citizen Kane (1941), a set of costumes from the Van Trapp family from The Sound of Music (1965), various Errol Flynn jackets, breeches, and shirts from his swashbucklers at Warner Bros., and an Elizabeth Taylor bustier. A previous “Star Collection” sale garnered a total of more than $590,000, on the strength of a Vivien Leigh Gone with the Wind costume (the traveling suit she wore as Scarlett during her ride through Shantytown). It sold for $33,350.
The Western Costume Company has demonstrated its role in Hollywood movies’ history. What’s more, it is still in business today, now entering its 111th year of operation.
See https://www.westerncostume.com/1950s-tour-with-bob-moon for a tour of Western Costume in the early 1950s.
*Rhys Thomas, The Ruby Slippers of Oz: Thirty Years Later, Tale Weaver Publishing, 1989. p 63-70.