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Closet to the stars turns 100 Western Costume helps Hollywood get into character with period-perfect wardrobes

  • Los Angeles Times
  • Published Monday, June 25, 2012, at 12 a.m.

— To the casual passerby, there’s nothing remarkable about the 120,000-square-foot former printing plant fronting a sun-baked stretch of Vanowen Street in North Hollywood, Calif. There’s nothing to indicate that, just beyond the double doors, gangsters are earning their stripes, “Mad Men” are being made and entire armies are getting outfitted in a rabbit warren of rooms flanked by a cavernous warehouse crammed with period clothing from multiple eras.

Few would guess that, just upstairs, Christopher Plummer’s jacket from “The Sound of Music” is rubbing elbows with Vivien Leigh’s Walter Plunkett-designed buckboard dress from “Gone With the Wind,” not far from a feathered headdress once worn by Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief.” The latter’s outsized plumage brushes against both a dress worn by Mitzi Gaynor in “South Pacific” and the colorful jackets worn by the brothers Gibb in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

There’s a tumult of top hats, tank tops, tunics, ’20s-era trousers, breastplates, bowlers and beads that have circulated in and out of the low-profile building to high-profile appearances on television and movie screens, theater stages and video-game consoles for nearly 100 years.

Saturday will be exactly a century since L.L. Burns and Harry Revier signed papers establishing a business to supply Los Angeles’ fledgling motion picture industry with stages, props, sets and costumes. The business, in short order operating under the name Western Costume Co., would eventually become one of the largest costume houses in the world, responsible for sewing the sequins on Dorothy’s ruby slippers, making Leigh’s dresses and Clark Gable’s suits for “Gone With the Wind” and providing clothes for hundreds of thousands of screens, dating from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1914 feature-length film “The Squaw Man” to the current season of AMC’s “Mad Men.”

“Western really represents the pantheon of Hollywood,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, David C. Copley chair for the study of costume design at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “(It) is the cultural and institutional memory of the field of costuming in Hollywood.”

Consider the breadth of her own experience with Western. Landis initially worked with the costume house in 1976 while designing the wardrobe for her first movie (1977’s “The Kentucky Fried Movie”), later turned to Western Costume’s head tailor Ruben Rubalcava to make the prototype for Indiana Jones’ costume for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and was back just a few weeks ago to pick up a re-created pair of “Wizard of Oz” ruby slippers for an upcoming exhibition titled “Hollywood Costume” she helped curate for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Since its co-founding by Burns, who is often characterized as a “trader in American Indian goods,” Western Costume Co. has had numerous owners (from salvage operators to a coalition of movie studios) and relocated several times. But the most critical change came in 1988 when Paramount purchased Western, which was located adjacent to the studio’s lot on Melrose Avenue, for the real estate beneath it. Ten months later, Paramount sold the company — sans the land and building — with the stipulation that the new owner move the vast collection within a year.

That new owner — AHS Trinity Group, a trio of businessmen composed of CAA co-founder Bill Haber, author Sidney Sheldon and businessman Paul Abramowitz — tapped a costumer by the name of Eddie Marks to coordinate the colossal 30-day move over the hill to the current North Hollywood location in 1989.

“Those were some of the toughest years — 1989 to 1992,” says Marks, who has been president of the company for the last 20 years. “Business was down, the company was sold, and part of the deal with Paramount was that the company had to move.”

On a recent tour, Marks points out eight miles of hanging pipe stacked two stories high that contains 3.5 million to 5 million pieces of clothing, pairs of shoes, hats and accessories. Most of the apparel is divided among three airplane-hangar-like rooms. One holds women’s period costumes, another has men’s period costumes, and the third contains all manner of uniforms, from those of ancient Rome to the U.S. Navy’s most up-to-date camouflage. A map tacked near the entrance of the uniform room describes the contents of one rack with notations such as “Togas,” “Ancient,” “Arabic,” “Egyptian,” “Roman,” “Greek,” “Armor,” “Vikings,” “Kitchen,” “Hospital,” “Confederate Civil War” and “Union Civil War.” What can’t be found in the stacks, Marks explains, can be custom-made in one of the adjoining rooms, which include a men’s tailor shop, a women’s made-to-order workroom, a millinery shop and a shoe and boot shop.

Western is not the only local costume house serving the entertainment industry (other major players include Palace Costume Co., American Costume Corp. and Costume Rentals Corp.), but, over the years, it has carved out a niche.

“Western’s strength is American clothing of the ’20s through the ’50s, maybe the ’60s,” Landis says. “If you were doing anything — a gangster movie, film noir, any period film — you would just have to walk around to know it’d be your first stop.”

Although Marks likes to frame it as a wider period of “anything from the 1200s up to about 2000,” he says that’s about as contemporary as they get. “We stay period, for the most part, and the studios stay contemporary.”

Western’s collection of period costumes is complemented by a 50,000-volume research library stocked not only with books but also with personal papers, costume designers’ sketches and vintage issues of style magazines such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Godey’s Lady’s Book.

Just beyond the library is a small room containing Western’s crown jewels, part of the 6,000-piece “star collection” archive. It’s a rarefied fraternity of frocks that includes Rudolph Valentino’s robes from “Son of the Sheik,” Plummer’s jacket from “The Sound of Music,” Leigh’s buckboard dress from “Gone With the Wind” and the striped prison garb from “Papillon.”

Those iconic pieces hammer home just how much the company has become part of the fabric of Hollywood over the last 100 years.

Research librarian and archivist Bobi Garland is quick to point out that when it comes to authenticity and accuracy, no expense has been spared. She holds aloft a photo of Leigh’s green velvet “curtain dress” from “Gone With the Wind” — perhaps one of the most recognizable dresses in cinema history and now residing in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. She motions to the belt of heavy, braided cord.

“We’re re-creating this dress for the event,” she says, “right down to the perfect tassels.”

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