How Big Was Marilyn Monroe? Why Costumes Are More Valuable Together Than Scattered

As promised in my earlier post on the Debbie Reynolds auction, I've written a longer, analytical piece. The full article appears on Bloomberg View. Here's the lead: 

Marilyn Monroe Lorelei Lee red-sequined gown profile We should never again hear anyone declare that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12, a size 14 or any other stand-in for full-figured, zaftig or plump. Fifteen thousand people have now seen dramatic evidence to the contrary. Monroe was, in fact, teeny-tiny.

The 15,000 were the visitors who turned out over eight days to oooh and aaah at the preview exhibit for the June 18 auction of Debbie Reynolds’s extraordinary collection of Hollywood costumes, props and other memorabilia.

The two comments heard most often in the crowded galleries were (to paraphrase), “Wow, they were thin” and “It’s such a shame. These things should be in a museum.”

The two remarks are in fact related. The former demonstrates the truth of the latter.

When the auctioneer’s final hammer came down at 1:20 in the morning, the world lost a treasure. The collection Reynolds assembled over 40 years will now be fragmented and dispersed. “It was a melancholy day for Los Angeles and the rest of the country,” wrote Christian Esquevin on his Silver Screen Modiste blog, expressing a common sentiment. “We will never see the likes of this collection again.”

The movie business has never particularly valued its historical artifacts. Hollywood, notes director John Landis, treats costumes and props as “industrial waste,” to be recycled or discarded but not displayed or preserved. It also keeps an embarrassed distance from the enthusiasts who treasure such relics. Unlike, say, science fiction, the mainstream movie industry doesn’t embrace cult followings. And Los Angeles is notorious for its paucity of institution-building philanthropists.

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

[Photo of Marilyn Monroe red-sequined gown by Virginia Postrel. Full Flickr set here.]

Selling Off Hollywood: The Debbie Reynolds Collection Of Costumes, Props, And Memorabilia Goes Up For Auction

Debbie Reynolds Hollywood costume memorabilia collection auction introduction
Debbie Reynolds introduces the auction

I spent Saturday at the giant auction of costumes, props, and other Hollywood memorabilia that Debbie Reynolds had collected over decades in hopes of establishing a museum. (The financial collapse of her most recent attempt led to the auction.)

The headline story was that Marilyn Monroe’s famous “subway dress” from The Seven Year Itch sold for $5.658 million—a hammer price of $4.6 million plus a 23% buyer's premium of $1.058 million, not to mention an additional $551,655 in sales tax.

That dress, however, was only one of 587 lots that included not only other iconic costumes—most notably Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot dress and hat from My Fair Lady, which is more important in the history of design than Marilyn’s dress and went for $4.551 million—but also props, cameras, concept drawings, posters, and an archive of W.C. Fields contracts, letters, and notes for jokes. At the auction’s end, an auction house employee reported that the total sales topped $18 million. (The final total was in fact $22.8 million.)

I'll publish something more analytical later, but I thought I’d share a few notes here. (For more detail, here’s a good report on the procedings. Silver Screen Modiste blogger Christian Esquevin, with whom I spoke as we waited for the doors to open, provides smart context and good costume photos.)

Debbie Reynolds Joseph Maddalena introduce Hollywood memorabilia auction Paley Center Beverly Hills June 2011
Joe Maddalena introduces Debbie Reynolds

On Friday, Joe Maddalena, the owner of auction house Profiles in History, was confidently predicting that the auction, which started at noon, should be over by 7:00 p.m.. Instead, it lasted until 1:20 a.m. One reason was the complexity of the setup: two websites for Internet bidding, a large phone bank taking phone bids, and a downstairs gallery for the overflow crowd that couldn’t be accommodated in the main Paley Center auditorium; gallery bids came in by phone to a representative in the auditorium.

But the main reason for the late hour was that the bidding went so high, meaning each sale took longer than usual. Even with an opening bid of $60,000 for Charlie Chaplin's bowler hat, compared to the catalog estimate of $20,000-$30,000, it took a lot of $2,500 increments to reach the final $110,000. (The delays were particularly excruciating for the 13 W.C. Fields lots early on, which sold for relatively modest amounts sometimes arrived at in $50 increments.) The auctioneer did not speed-talk, making sure instead that everyone who might bid did so. He therefore allowed not only for technical delays but for lulls while people contemplated additional bids.

Grace Kelly dresses To Catch a Thief The Swan Debbie Reynolds Collection auction
She's a princess!

When the bidding lulled, Debbie Reynolds generally piped up with a wisecrack to get things going. Her standard was, “I paid more than that.” Sometimes she pitched the lots’ qualities, QVC-style: “That's a leather seat. It’s really beautiful.” “That’s real mink.”

She touted the stars who’d worn the garments: “She's a princess.” “The great Danny Kaye.” During a series of low-interest lots from The Great Caruso, her reminder that “She was an opera star” was such a refrain that it became a joke between Reynolds and the auctioneer.

She also deployed sexual innuendo: “You know what you could do on that couch,” “You don't know what Ty Power did in there,” and the audience favorite: “Mae West didn’t even have a chest like that.”

At one sad moment, however, Reynolds reversed her usual plea. After the first few bids for lot 280, the pastel rainbow-hued ballgown worn by Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart, she said, “It’s from me—don’t bid!” (Someone else was bidding on her behalf.) No luck. Paddle-holder #247, a Korean (not, as widely reported, Japanese) man who was the dominant bidder actually present in the room, persevered and eventually bought the dress for a hammer price of $3,000. It was one of his cheaper purchases of the day.

[Photos by Virginia Postrel. Permission to use freely granted with credit and link back to]

Royal Weddings: Where Traditions Matter

Wmabbey When your family church is Westminster Abbey, chances are you won’t be allowed to make up your own wedding vows. Your vows will likely come from the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its eloquence is so memorable that its phrases have become part of our language (“to have and to hold from this day forward”), as have phrases from the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. All these works were written at a time when eloquence was highly valued, and they were conceived with highly-memorable auditory beauty as a goal.

And although (Sir) Elton John has been invited to the upcoming royal wedding, the music for the ceremony will not be pop songs, but sacred music written for the church over the centuries by some of the greatest composers who ever lived. These include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and many more. 

The extraordinary nature of the building, the language, the music, the boy’s choir, the costumes, and all the rest will combine to proclaim to the world that this is no commonplace occasion, but the addition of someone to the status of royalty.

Americans often take a certain pride in having cast off a system that includes inherited positions of royalty and nobility, yet we also remain fascinated and slightly envious of it. Being “royal” is perhaps the world’s most exclusive group. Unless you are born a member, your only chance of getting in is to marry into it. 

A royal wedding needs to be a highly visible, tradition-filled public event because it is a rite that makes the pair not only a couple, but a royal couple. The ceremony establishes a legitimate place for that couple’s children in the lineage of the royal family. The question of  lineage is not a division of wealth or child custody that can be sorted out by divorce lawyers or pre-nuptial agreements. When inherited title is involved, you are either born with it or not, and the traditions for determining that are centuries old. 

Ideally a royal marriage will prove enduring and loving. But this is not always the case, as Britain’s current royal family has demonstrated. Even the highly troubled and ultimately contentious marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, however, dutifully provided the royal family with two legitimate heirs before a fed-up Queen Elizabeth suggested they negotiate a divorce. 

 [Photo of Westminster Abbey by Wolfiewolf. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Choosing Representatives For Cosmetics

Taylor-swift-covergirl A small battle takes place each day at the dental office where I get my teeth cleaned. One dentist likes rock music, and if he gets there first, the radio is set to a oldies rock station for the day. If the other dentist gets there first, she sets the radio to a country-western station. 

Last week, hearing the music, I assumed that she had gotten there first, but it turned out that on that day she had rebelled against the system. The radio had been on the rock station for several days, and deciding she could not take hearing Cher one more day in a row, she had changed the channel.

Because music often serves as a cultural marker, I assume that cosmetics companies think carefully before choosing singers as representatives. CoverGirl has chosen country singer Taylor Swift (seen above) as one of their current faces, and it would be fascinating to know the demographic considerations that were discussed when they were considering her.

LadyGagaVivaGlam Viva Glam has chosen Lady Gaga as a current representative. In this advertising photo for them she looks far less made-up than she usually does in public appearances. Nonetheless, it reveals a different approach to makeup—reflecting the more over-the-top notion of glamour that Lady Gaga favors. She already serves, for example, as do Cher and Madonna, as a favorite singer for drag queens to impersonate.

Carrie Underwood, another country singer, has a contract with Olay cosmetics, and she seems an apt choice to appeal to a demographic of slightly more mature women than would Taylor Swift or Lady Gaga. It must be fascinating to hear the frank pros and cons that are brought up when cosmetic companies are discussing decisions about product representation. Appealing to their target customers is no doubt big business in terms of sales.

The Glamour Of The "Oscar Moment"

Cate Blanchett holding Oscar 77AA_T4554a

The Academy Awards show is ridiculous. Guests arrive in broad daylight wearing the most formal of evening gowns. Presenters, including some of the world's most accomplished performers, read their lines with the studied cadence of high-school commencement speakers.

In contrast to the Super Bowl, a beauty pageant or "American Idol," nothing happens on stage that affects the outcome of the competition. The production numbers are just padding. And, of course, the speeches are boring, the show is too long, and comedies never have a chance.

Yet the Oscar ceremony somehow manages to be compelling. In a good year like 2010, its U.S. audience tops 40 million, according to Nielsen Co. In a bad year like 2008, it tops 30 million. By contrast, the recent Grammy ceremony, which offers far better musical numbers, won its week with only 26.7 million viewers.

The Oscar show's appeal can't just be the fun of water-cooler criticism. You can get all the information you need for that from Twitter or the next day's newspaper. You don't need to sit through the awards ceremony.

Virginia holding Oscar In fact, as the marketing efforts of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences suggest, the glamour of the Oscars lies not in the movies the show ostensibly celebrates, but in the "Oscar moment." Watching the Oscars gives viewers the chance to imagine being singled out before the whole world as special, beloved and really good at their jobs.

To promote the show, the Academy is giving fans in New York City two different chances to pose holding Oscars, either virtual statues or, at Grand Central Terminal, real ones. There, "the big payoff is that you get to go on stage and have your Oscar moment," says Janet Weiss, the Academy's director of marketing. Some people, she says, even show up in gowns and tuxes.

Read the rest here. That's my photo to the right, taken on Friday in Grand Central.

[Cate Blanchett photo courtesy of M.P.A.A.S.]

Hearing Jackie (and Where To See Her Smoking)

After being dumped by the History Channel and scorned by other skittish networks, The Kennedys miniseries has found a home after all, on the little-known ReelzChannel. The WaPo's Lisa de Moraes has an amusing report.

Buried in The Hollywood Reporter's original article on History's decision to scuttle the show was the news that, in exchange for its discretion, one of the network's parent companies might get access to rare recordings of Jackie Kennedy's voice.

Caroline Kennedy has a book deal with Disney's Hyperion publishing division, which announced in April 2010 that it will publish a collection of previously unreleased interviews with the late Jackie Kennedy timed to the 50th anniversary of the first year of JFK's presidency this fall.

Caroline has agreed to edit the untitled book, write an introduction and to help promote it, including making an appearance on Disney/ABC's Good Morning America, among other outlets. As part of the promotion for the book, Caroline is expected to reveal some of the 6.5 hours of previously unheard audiotapes of the former First Lady that form the basis of the book.

MSNBC's snarkier BLTWY fills in some background:

Had the History Channel not bowed to her influence, their mother company would have likely lost out on an another Kennedy venture; a volume containing six and a half hours of hitherto-secret interviews that her mother, Jacqueline, did with worshipful historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1964. The audio book, due out in September, will let you hear Jackie speak in her breathy, Vassar voice about her husband's early campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis and “married life in the White House,” according to Hyperion Books.

Considering that Jackie once forbade hagiographer William Manchester from even revealing that she smoked, you have to wonder how much she'll spill. “I seriously doubt that she would open her heart,” says Kennedy biographer Edward Klein. “And, if there's anything remotely embarrassing, I think Caroline would expunge it.”

The Kennedys' glamour is an important income-generating asset, so I, too, doubt we'll be hearing anything revealing. But we will hear something, which in itself is unusual.

One of the world's most photographed women, Jackie mostly let her carefully crafted image speak for her. (Here's a rare photo of Jackie smoking.) Only a few public traces of her voice remain, most of them from the 1960 campaign or White House years. And unlike the graceful photos, they seem dated, calculated, and a little strange.

The most famous, featured at the top of this post, is her White House tour, broadcast on CBS. There she speaks in ingratiatingly tones, masking the fact that she's didactically instructing both her interviewer and the general public, who don't share her high-end taste or her knowledge of decorative arts. By contrast, when interrogating Dr. Benjamin Spock in a 1960 campaign ad, she plays a subtly flirtatious, slightly dim student. In another campaign video, introduced by Myrna Loy, she acts the normal American wife and mother, just like the women watching. "Now I think politics is one of the most rewarding lives a woman can have--to be married to a politician," she affirms.

New recorded interviews promise to undercut Jackie's mystery. Because the recordings date from 1964, when she was still playing the perfect husband's perfect widow, they also threaten the new post-feminist image crafted for her in the recent booksfocusing on her publishing career.

Fashionable Hair: Inspired By...?

LewisPhillipsfamilySomeday someone may see a picture of you and likely smile or laugh when they realize that you were wearing your hair in the fashion of the age, most likely inspired by your favorite actor or singer. I offer as evidence this picture of my maternal great-grandfather and great-grandmother and their children. All of the women are wearing the 1920s-fashionable Marcel wave. With the string of pearls all of them probably felt as up-to-date as film star Mary Pickford, shown below with the same look (except that Mary smiles and dares to bare her shoulders). My grandfather, the only male offspring, has his hair slicked back in the fashion of Rudolph Valentino.

Mary-pickfordLooking at high-school and college yearbooks from a few decades gives us the perspective to see just how conformist we sometimes can be. My wife laughs when she sees that most of her friends were wearing the same hair style that she was. Many of the boys in my high school wore some version of Elvis Presley’s or James Dean’s hair, hoping somehow that their charisma would magically transfer to us.

Hamill Tina Fey has admitted having a girl crush on Dorothy Hamill (shown here receiving an Olympic skating medal). Fey got a Hamill-style haircut, plus wore a big Dorothy Hamill button. Hamill’s wedge cut flowed so beautifully when she skated that some commentators have lamented the lack of something similar at the last Winter Olympics.

How about DG readers? What actor, singer, or athlete had the glamorous hair that you and many classmates aspired to? For inspiration, here’s a site showing many 20th-century hairstyles, and another showing 10 of the most popular hairstyles.

There's Something About Paris

At a dinner party last night, I had a conversation about glamour with someone I’d just met. As is almost always the case in such conversations, two names came up: Grace Kelly, the exemplar of glamour, and Paris Hilton. Paris is rich, famous, sexy, and photogenic, but pretty much everyone I've ever talked to about glamour has volunteered her name as an example of someone who is not glamorous. She’s the counterexample people use to tease apart the difference between glamour and celebrity, wealth, fame, sex appeal, or beauty. Paris may be glamorous to some people, primarily young girls, but—in my experience at least—most adults find her anything but. Instead of admiration, Hilton evokes scorn and derision. Even people who think she’s hot don’t find her glamorous.

Her latest venture, this beer ad, has even attracted condemnation in Brazil. AdRants reports:

No less that three investigations into the ad have been launched. It's too “sensual." It encourages excessive consumption. It’s sexist and disrespectful to women. All of this from Brazil. Where booty is supposed to reign supreme. What gives?

There’s some protectionism at work in the Brazilian beer market, but Paris is also an easy target. As Kay Hymowitz observed in a smart 2006 piece in City Journal, “hating Paris Hilton is fun.”

Yet in Glamour: A History, Stephen Gundle writes that Hilton is “indisputably glamorous.” I think that shows he has the wrong definition of glamour. But maybe I’m missing something. Is Paris Hilton glamorous? Why or why not? To whom? Please weigh in on the poll, and comment below.

Giorgio Armani Gets His Superhero Moment

In 2008 Giorgio Armani sponsored the Met’s annual Costume Institute gala and the related exhibit, “Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.” It was an odd pairing. At the press preview, Mr. Armani, who built his career on understated elegance, marveled at the over-the-top concoctions of designers like Thierry Mugler, Gareth Pugh, and Alexander McQueen and acknowledged the irony of his own role. “The curators must have worked very hard to find something in my past that belongs in this exhibit,” he said. It was clear, however, that for all his dedication to “a fashion that is worn,” he was enjoying the exuberant creativity behind all those impractically superheroic clothes.


Left: Thierry Mugler, fall/winter 1995-1996, Photograph courtesy of Chris Moore. Right: Thierry Mugler, fall/winter 1997-1998 Photograph © copyright Patrice Stable. Both courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. Lady Gaga photo from Giorgio Armani press materials.

And now we have Lady Gaga wearing Armani haute couture to the Grammys. Strange, but perhaps not as strange as it immediately appears. Aside from recycled press releases, there hasn’t been much commentary on how music’s most flamboyant performer teamed up with a designer known for his restraint. But I can’t help thinking that Armani wanted his own superhero moment.

Left: Gareth Pugh, spring/summer 2007 Photograph courtesy of firstVIEW. Right: Alexander McQueen, fall/winter 2007-2008 Photograph courtesy of Chris Moore. Both courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute. Lady Gaga photo from Giorgio Armani press materials.

For the best look at Lady Gaga’s Grammy costumes, check out this New York magazine slideshow.

See a slideshow of Armani Privé's Spring 2010 collection, inspired by the moon, here.

What To Wear To The Grammy Awards?

The awards season provides various fashion spectacles, and the Grammys are usually the most outrageously flamboyant. This is especially true now that music videos and elaborately costumed stage acts have become part of the popular music business. Artists coming to the Grammys have to choose who to come as—their onstage persona, or a person glamorously dressed to attend a fancy awards ceremony.

Commedia Lady Gaga has become so known for outrageous costumes that she would risk disappointing her fans by attending in more traditional attire. Her costumes are so singularly outré that it would difficult for others to wear similar clothes without seeming to imitate her. Her Grammy costumes were on most of the worst-dressed lists that I saw on the internet, but viewing her outfits as clothing rather than as costumes misses the point. She costumes herself onstage and offstage as “Lady Gaga.” Her costumes remind me of the commedia dell’arte tradition, in which characters like Columbina wear masks and heavy makeup, as seen in the carnival photos at left and below. Like Gaga, the Columbina figure was typically portrayed as bold, experienced, and frankly erotic.

Vbeauty Country-western women, on the other hand, are free to dress like glamorous movie stars. Their performance costumes range from jeans to beautiful evening gowns, and in their videos they are much less prone to place themselves in surreal environments calling for surreal costumes. Taylor Swift attended in a lovely gown that would have been appropriate for the Oscar red carpet.

Rock and rap stars have an interesting problem. With some notable exceptions, their performance costumes tend to emphasize anything but fashionable haute couture clothing. They usually perform in some variation of urban street clothing, sometimes made over into something flashy for the stage. So for them to “dress-up” in a way that suggests a Vogue or GQ sense of style might seem to distance them from their fan base.

Some performers solve this problem by not trying to “dress-up” at all. Others manage to put together outfits that retain a sense of “street,” but still look stylish. Unfortunately, in other cases their efforts to “dress-up” end up making them look like night clubbers, pimps, hookers, drug dealers, or people on their way to a prom in a horrible dress or tux. Others, such as Rihanna, have a personal interest in high fashion, and use awards ceremonies as a reason to wear their finest. All of the women mentioned can be seen in the following video:

[Photo of the bird couple by Nahlinse. Photo of the masked woman by Alaskan Dude. Both used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]