Iconic Glamour Images From Blade Runner And Basic Instinct

[This post is by new DG contributor Cosmo Wenman.--vp]

Virginia recently tweeted and posted on Facebook asking, "What photos should absolutely be in a book on glamour?"

While putting together this collection of recommendations from pop-culture, I sought out the two photos below, of Sean Young in Blade Runner and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But it wasn't until I saw them side by side that I realized how similar they are. Not only do both women know how to hold the hell out of a cigarette, but the images' contexts are nearly identical.

Both are from interrogation scenes in which the women are suspected of concealing their true natures. Both characters are extremely poised and confident, and both become romantically involved with their interrogators. There are several other parallels as well. I put together a comparison:

These twin scenes are following the same formula and mix of glamorous elements: smoking (even the question of permission to smoke), composure and confidence, deception, emotional distance, and danger. Is there an older film noir scene both these movies are paying homage to?

BTW, Virginia told me she thinks the Sean Young photo "is a little too calculatedly retro for my purposes. It lacks sprezzatura. It's more like an imitation of glamorous photos from the '40s." I think it evokes glamour, but I know what Virginia means - Sean Young's character does look almost artificial...

DG Q&A: Christian Esquevin Of Silver Screen Modiste

Christian Esquevin Silver Screen Modiste I've been enjoying Christian Esquevin's Silver Screen Modiste blog, which he started in December 2010, for the past six months or so and, thanks to a Google search, knew that he lives in Southern California (he's director of library services for the city of Coranado). So when I went to the Debbie Reynolds auction, I made a point of looking for him in line. Sure enough, Christian arrived not long after I did. In our conversation there and in his subsequent blog posts on the auction, he provided valuable insight for my Bloomberg View column. I also learned that he has a large collection of costume design sketches, which are a beautiful art in themselves. Christian kindly agreed to share a few sketches (don't even think of reusing them without permission), as well as some thoughts on the art and history of movie costumes.

DG: How did you get interested in Hollywood costumes?

Christian Esquevin: My interest came relatively late. My great-aunt had been the head cutter-fitter at the RKO studio during the 1930s. Although I had heard some of her stories growing up, it was not until she bequeathed me many of her photos and costume sketches that I became interested. This interest grew into a passion as I researched many of the unknowns about these beautiful items.

Adrian Silver Silver Screen to Custom Label by Christian Esquevin DG: You've written a book about Adrian, who with Edith Head is probably the most famous Hollywood costume designer. What makes his work particularly significant?

CE: There were, and are still, many great costume designers for films. Adrian, I believe, was a genius. He combined his artistic and fashion abilities with the needs of the movie character and the actor playing the part to make indelible images. I truly believe that along with costume designer Travis Banton he created the modern look of glamour.

You can actually look at a photo of some of their creations and say that there was no precedent for such a look – that’s where modern glamour started. Take any of several photos of Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, or Carole Lombard for example. The look of knock-your-eyes-out glamour is there, and it’s still the look today. And with Adrian, you can look at fashion at the time (late 1920s and 1930s) and draw the connection between his costume designs for the stars on film and what women wanted to wear around the world. His looks have been knocked-off for so long that people nowadays can no longer make that connection. Yves St. Laurent was heavily influenced by Adrian in the 1960s, but it’s YSL that gets the mentions.

Los Angeles is always being compared unfavorably with other cities in fashion creation and influence. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Los Angeles and Hollywood were where fashion trends were started, and that was due to the influence of costume designers like Adrian.

Irene EasterParade costume sketch DG: You're now writing a book on Irene, Walter Plunkett, and Helen Rose. What should people know about them?

CE: These three costume and fashion designers were as influential and accomplished in their day as Dior or Schiaparelli. They all led fascinating creative lives designing the looks of movie-star icons, yet who hears of them today?

If your resume stated that you created the costume designs for Gone with the Wind, Singing in the Rain, and King Kong among many others, as it would for Walter Plunkett, people would be impressed. Or that you designed Grace Kelly’s wedding gown, much of Elizabeth Taylor’s early wardrobe, and for such stars as Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Cyd Charisse, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds, and many others, people would take notice.

As for Irene Lentz Gibbons, known simply as Irene, it was said at the time that she dressed everyone in Hollywood. [The sketch to the left is one of Irene's designs for Easter Parade.--vp] Since she worked both as a costume designer and a fashion designer with her own boutique and then her own fashion business, she really did work with many leading ladies. Her customers and stars included Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young, Carole Lombard, Dolores Del Rio, Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo, and many others. When you look at her gowns and suits you’ll quickly see why she was so admired. They are impeccable and drop-dead gorgeous. While each of these designers is fascinating in their own right, they all worked at MGM at the same time for a period. What a combination – a unique time and place in history that will never be repeated. I just couldn’t leave that story alone.

DG: You collect costume design sketches. How do the clothes change from sketch to actual garment to what we see on film? What's the difference from medium to medium?

CE: I’ll talk about the process during the classic, “studio system,” which is what I’m most familiar with. At that time the studios employed virtually all the talent they needed on a long-term basis. In the wardrobe department this was a vertical integration, so that a designer had one or more “cutter-fitters” they worked with, and seamstresses working under them. These skilled cutter-fitters made muslin patterns based on the costume sketch a designer created. And consider that the costumes fabricated could be Elizabethan, classic Roman, or satin glamour gowns.

The costume sketch itself could be rendered by a sketch artist that had the artistic ability to paint figures and costumes. In these cases the sketch artist had to develop a close working relationship with the designer. Some designers wanted to do the sketch themselves. Adrian, for example, did not want anyone else “interpreting” his designs.

After the cutter-fitter used the sketch to devise patterns, the seamstresses would sew the final fabric based on the individual pattern pieces and then sew them for the fitting. Beaders and embroiderers would also base their work on the sketch.

Still, changes came about in the movie-making process. So some costumes were later modified from the original sketch for the movie. Edith Head liked to change her costume designs as she went along. Adrian wanted his costumes to look just like his sketch.

What is particularly fascinating about having an original production-made costume sketch is that this is an artifact that was handled by the stars, the director, often the producer, and the artisans that made the costume itself, as well as the designer. These pieces often have approval initials from these individuals, as well as budget information on the back. They are unique pieces of Hollywood film history.

DG: Can you share a few of your favorite sketches with our readers and tell us a bit about them?

CE: I have many sketches, and each is special in its own way. Although they have traditionally been called “costume sketches,” they are really water-color paintings, with more attention taken than would a pencil sketch. They were nonetheless working tools, and equally important, they represented the costume designer’s original design. I emphasize this because there are also pieces floating around that were often done many years after a film had been made. These were often done by the designers themselves as commemorative illustrations, or because they did not possess the original sketches, and were made for some of their fashion shows. Since these were done as show pieces, they are typically exact reproductions of how the costume looked on film. But even as working tools, the sketches are usually beautiful – they had to “sell” the director and star on that look.


I have picked a few that I like and I think will be of interest to the viewers, or that illustrate a point I want to make about costume designing and sketches. One of the icons of the movies is Sunset Blvd. with Gloria Swanson. The costumes were designed by Edith Head. This is the costume sketch for Gloria Swanson’s opening scene in the film. It’s interesting because it’s not a regular dress but rather what was then called a hostess gown or hostess dress which was worn over pants. You only notice that when she descends the stairs in the movie. As with many of Edith’s designs, the final costume was changed in that the interior lining was no longer a plaid but rather a leopard print.

Edith Head sketches

Here is another Edith Head costume sketch, done for Betty Hutton in Preston Sturges’s The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek in 1942 (left). Edith Head sketches are pretty rare from the early 40s. Over her long career her sketches look quite different. That’s because she used different sketch artists over time and each had their own artistic style. Also, many costume sketches are never signed. When it was a real production sketch, everyone knew who the designer was, so it was not necessary to sign the piece. Sometimes that makes identifying a particular sketch difficult. The next sketch is also by Edith Head from this period, but there is nothing to identify who it was for or for what film.

Mary Wills costume sketches Virgin Queen Hans Christian Andersen

The next two are costume sketches designed by and rendered by Oscar winning costume designer Mary Wills. The first was done for Joan Collins in The Virgin Queen in 1955. Joan played Beth Throgmorton in the film. A fabric swatch is attached. This costume was one sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction. The next one was also from Mary Wills and was done for “extras” in the outdoor market scene in Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye. This is one of many sketches Mary Wills did for a variety of outdoor vendors that made the scene really come to life. The sketch looks more like it was painted on an easel at the actual Copenhagen market than a costume sketch in a studio.

Donfeld 1
This sketch by Donfeld (Don Feld) was done for Angelica Huston in Prizzi’s Honor. Donfeld’s sketching style was very distinctive, with exaggerated long limbs. This sketch was probably done later than the actual film production sketch.

Costume sketch Rose - Paris
Here is a costume sketch designed by Helen Rose for Edie Adams in Made in Paris in 1966. The sketch was actually rendered by Donna Peterson, Rose’s long-time sketch artist. Some sketches actually showed two views of the costume, or with and without a jacket or coat.

Costume sketch Travilla Valley of the Dolls

This sketch was done by William (Billy) Travilla for Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls in 1967. Travilla is famous for his costume designs for Marilyn Monroe, a couple of which sold for several millions at the Debbie auction.

DG: Are there any contemporary films whose costumes you particularly admire?

I really liked the costumes designed by Coleen Atwood for Alice in Wonderland last year. This was a challenge because of the fantastical nature of the story and the well established look of most of the characters, but she did a great job. Another “fantasy” type movie was The Tempest, with costumes designed by Sandy Powell for Helen Mirren, Felicity Jones, and the other cast members. Powell really created the fantastical look of these characters based on the Shakespeare play.

For more contemporary costume I liked A Single Man, with costumes by Arianne Phillips and directed by Tom Ford. You’d expect the best costumes to come with a Tom Ford movie, and these did not disappoint both for the men’s and women’s wardrobe. And for those period costumes that are close to the “Mad Men” rage, there’s Revolutionary Road, designed by veteran costume designer Albert Wolsky for Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. The one dress that has made the biggest splash over the last several years is Keira Knightly’s green satin, backless gown from Atonement, designed by Jacqueline Durran. The movie was set in the 30s and 1940s, and this gown is really right out of the classic movies of that era.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour?

The original meaning of glamour was “to enchant” and that’s what it’s still all about. The person or the dress of glamour is one that captures attention and holds it in a mesmerizing and basically pleasurable way. It is strictly visual, so you know it when you see it without being able to describe it. That’s one reason why new looks in fashion or glamour occur.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

There are several, including classic icons such as Jean Harlow, Loretta Young, Marlene Dietrich, Gene Tierney, and Catherine Deneuve, and more contemporary ones like Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, and Marion Cotillard.

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

It is a luxury, but also a necessity in that it’s a human need that many people pursue.

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

There are many, but I’ll mention Dinner at Eight, The Women, Shanghai Express, To Catch a Thief, and The Thomas Crowne Affair (with McQueen & Dunaway).

[Questions 5, 6, and 7 omitted.]

8) Most glamorous job?

I think that even creating art, music, beauty, or fashion involves toil. Creating glamour is work, and displaying glamour oneself becomes a role. The most fun is being the person watching glamour.

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't

Parties. I would make an exception for the “masked ball” parties that were held in France by such bon-vivants as Carlos de Beistegui during the first half of the last century, for which I was regrettably not around.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized

Formal dining outdoors for lunch.

11) Can glamour survive?

It will, but it’s always in short supply.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

No. But It helps if you’re born in the right milieu. Mostly you acquire glamour through cultivation. Some people acquire it through the expertise of others. Garbo was glamorous on the screen, but it was Adrian that created that glamour for her.

[Sketches are owned by Christian Esquevin and used with permission. Do not even think of republishing them without permission. Tumblr counts as publishing.]

Leaning Boards: Behind-the-Scenes Support For Classic Hollywood Costumes

I first read about leaning boards in Ronald L. Davis’s The Glamour Factory: Inside Hollywood's Big Studio System. Davis writes, “For the screen, clothes, above all, must be photogenic. Comfort and practicality were of little concern. Many of [Adrian’s] gowns were too tight for actresses to sit in, requiring them to recline on ‘leaning boards’ between takes.”

Leaning boards Jean Harlow Dinner at Eight Katharine Hepburn Walter Plunkett Sea of GrassJean Harlow in Dinner at Eight (left) and Katharine Hepburn with costume designer Walter Plunkett in Sea of Grass

This bit of film history struck me as the perfect example of how the grace you see on the screen is created by hiding the -- in this case, literal -- support behind the scenes. But I'd never seen a photo of a leaning board, and imagined that perhaps there weren't any, until Christian Esquevin included one in this Silver Screen Modiste post about MGM's costume operations.

Rosamond Pinchot as Queen Anne in The Three Musketeers, RKO 1935 leaning board Were there more? I asked Christian. There were, indeed, and he kindly scanned some to share with DG readers. In the two above, the leaning board is doing what Davis suggested in his book, allowing actresses in very tight dresses to rest without sitting. (Closely examined, the Hurrell photos from Dinner at Eight reveal that Harlow was sewn into her Dinner at Eight dress, sans underwear.)

In the third photo, of Rosamond Pinchot as Queen Anne in The Three Musketeers, the costume is not so much tight as heavy. The same is true of the photo Christian featured in his blog post. There, Jane Halsey is wearing a 102-pound beaded costume for The Great Ziegfeld.

That got me to thinking. Nowadays, Lycra makes tight gowns a lot easier to move in (though wrinkles are always a potential issue). But what did Natalie Portman (and the rest of the cast) do between takes while wearing those elaborate costumes in the (execrable) Star Wars prequel? Are leaning boards still around?

Tomorrow we'll have a Q&A with Christian Esquevin, including some wonderful examples from his collection of costume design sketches. Tune in.

[Photos from the collection of Christian Esquevin.]

Bill Cunningham: The People's Fashion Photographer

Editor's note: New contributor Dorian Electra is a student at Shimer College in Chicago, who is best known for the playful videos she produces and stars in, including her breakout viral hit, a love song to economist Friedrich Hayek.--VP


“He who seeks beauty shall find it” is the personal motto of 82-year old fashion photographer Bill Cunningham. He’s been riding around on his bicycle, photographing fashion on the streets of New York City for roughly half a century. And although his name and reputation are well established in the fashion world, his personal “fashion philosophy” is by no means conventional.

In the movie Bill Cunningham New York, Bill comes off as a mysteriously simple character, a happy man who loves what he does and does what he loves. But there’s more; in fact, there are many complex and profound ideas wrapped up in the way Bill views fashion and culture, all of which inform the pictures he takes.

When photographing runway shows in Paris, he says, “If it isn’t something a woman could wear, I’m not interested.” His down-to-earth, fun-loving attitude makes fashion approachable to all. He praises daring and originality in clothing choices above all. He’s not afraid to call an outfit boring, no matter who’s wearing it. He may ignore a celebrity on the street wearing a multi-thousand dollar gown in favor of a bag-lady digging in the garbage, whose overlapping patterned shawls and head-scarves he thinks are “marvelous.”

Bill Cunningham’s straightforwardness stems from his ethical commitment to honesty and to celebrating individual creativity. He takes a firm stance against fashion magazines’ “In & Out” lists for attempting to dictate from the top-down what’s “in fashion” and what isn’t. Part of his opposition is moral and the other part is practical. He understands that no matter what magazines and designers decree, real fashion—what is actually “in”—can only be determined from the bottom up, by what everyday people actually wear.

To me, it seems that Cunningham’s incredible ability to capture weekly street-style trends is made possible by his understanding of how culture works. Bill’s photographs show us that in the city, fashion is a silent dialogue between people on the streets. Some respond to the latest designs from Paris; others adopt and revise the looks of those around them, incorporating good ideas from anywhere they can be found. People’s clothing choices are also often responding to the conditions of the local climate and Bill traces these complex and spontaneous orders with skill and grace (see “Boiling Point,” documenting the woven, eyelet fabrics of the hot New York week of August 14, 2009).

In de-emphasizing the role of “top-down” dictates from the fashion elite, Bill Cunningham helps us see how we, as everyday people, have the opportunity to participate in the fashion world. “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses,” he says, “I’m interested in clothes!” He calls our attention to the role each of us has as a potential contributor to the silent dialogue of fashion with the choices we make in front of our mirrors each morning.

Click here for a list of when and where the film is showing.

London Gets Its Turn At Hollywood Glamour: "Glamour Of The Gods" At The National Portrait Gallery


A beautiful exhibit of classic Hollywood portraits is currently on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London. (In December, it moves to the Bendigo Art Gallery in Victoria, Australia.) The exhibit, which draws its photos from the John Kobal Collection, originated at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which provided the images for this slideshow, which originally ran on DG in 2008.

The photos all present idealized versions of the stars--but what a range of ideals they represent, from the refined elegance of Grace Kelly to the sultry seductiveness of Rita Hayworth's Gilda, from Vivian Leigh in hyperfeminine white ruffles to Marlene Dietrich tough and dominant in a crisp blouse and slacks. And those are just (a few of) the women. Click the slideshow link for a selection.

Reviewing the London exhibit in The Independent, Matthew Bell praised it for giving visitors a hint of the effort behind the effortlessness:

The most interesting image isn't on the wall. It's tucked in a cabinet and is of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne, marked up for retouching. A backroom worker has criss-crossed the areas that need work – stubble and hairy hands for him, crow's feet and a flabby jawline for her. If you have been duped into believing in the fantasy of Hollywood, this snap brings you down to earth.

Like Debbie Reynolds's late-lamented costume collection, the John Kobal Collection originated with MGM's previously mentioned mother of all garage sales. In the '60s and '70s, when Golden Age glamour was out of fashion and studios were dumping their archives, Kobal bought and preserved prints and negatives, befriended aging stars and photographers, and documented their stories. Most of the classic images you see reproduced today come from his archives, now licensed by Getty Images.

The George Hurrell photos occasionally featured on DG are exceptions. They're courtesy of our friends at the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, which has just put together a beautiful new site, including a blog, at GeorgeHurrell.com. If you like classic Hollywood glamour photography, be sure to check it out.

MGM's "Diamond" Chandelier Earrings: An Example Of Studio-Era Hollywood Recycling

Greta Garbo smiling by George Hurrell © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive This rare photo of Greta Garbo smiling belongs to the Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive, maintained by DG friend Louis D'Elia. It was taken by the great Hollywood portrait photographer George Hurrell in his one and only session with Garbo--a shoot to promote her 1930 film Romance.

Garbo did not like the antics Hurrell used to get his subjects to relax and look natural, and refused to work with him again. (Clarence Sinclair Bull became her photographer of choice.) But she did crack a smile when Hurrell tripped over some equipment, and he managed to capture the moment.

Myrna Loy by George Hurrell © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive

I examined the photos from this shoot when I wrote a catalog essay for a 2006 exhibit of Hurrell photos from the Pancho Barnes collection. (A version of that essay later appeared in The Atlantic.) While working on the essay, I noticed that the earrings in the Garbo photos reappeared in one of my favorite Hurrell portraits, this one of the woman Hurrell himself considered his "most mysterious" subject: Myrna Loy.

Remembered today mostly as the comedienne star of the Thin Man movies, for many years Loy was cast as an "exotic," thanks to her almond eyes. (For an amazing collection of Myrna Loy photos, from many phases of her career, check out this blog.) Like Garbo, she was an MGM star when Hurrell was the studio's chief portrait photographer.

As I've mentioned in my posts and article about the Debbie Reynolds collection auction, while MGM created lavish costumes, it also recycled them. The same was true, of course, of accessories, and here's the photographic evidence. As always, click the photo to see a larger version.

[Photographs by George Hurrell © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive and used with permission. Do not copy them to your own site.]

What Happened To Hollywood's Most Glamorous Costumes?

Jean Harlow Dinner at Eight satin dress at door © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive Over at Silver Screen Modiste, Christian Esquevin has a second excellent post on the Debbie Reynolds costume auction, which includes a sad note on why the collection was so heavy on period costumes. Debbie Reynolds bought the foundations of her collection as when MGM had the mother of all garage sales in 1970, dumping its inventories of props, costumes, photographs--anything that could be sold for quick cash. (Twentieth Century Fox did the same a year later.) Christian writes:

Most of the studio's wardrobe at that time consisted of period costumes, which is by and large reflected in the strength of Debbie's collection. That MGM had many years earlier dumped many costumes in its wardrobe collection is little known. Due to the small value that was ascribed to contemporary fashion, and the lack of its re-usability in later films, many crown jewels of costume were destroyed. By the time of the 1970 MGM auction, many of those late 1920s and 1930s costumes were already gone. These had been the costumes that created the very image of glamorous Hollywood movie-stars, and that started fashion trends around the world. The Adrian-designed gowns worn by Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford that defined the look of glamour were mostly discarded. It is informative to consider the sale of Debbie's collection as reflecting the earlier MGM auction and the even earlier destruction of those movie costumes.

A few of those famous gowns did wind up in the hands of collectors or museums. The Museum at FIT owns a few Adrian costumes that came directly from MGM, including the magnificent dress of red pavé bugle beads on silk crepe from The Bride Wore Red, a black and white movie. But most of those Golden Age costumes were simply used and reused until they were rags. As I write at the end of my Bloomberg column:

Yet even as scholars and fans mourn the collection’s breakup, dreaming of the museum that might have been, they admit the importance of private collectors. These enthusiasts may not all preserve artifacts in museum-quality condition, keeping costumes unaltered and mostly in the dark. But without the sometimes-eccentric people who buy at auctions out of their own passion to own a piece of movie history, no one would have saved these objects in the first place.

“Thank God for them,” says Deborah Landis. “Thank God for Debbie. We would have nothing. It would have been rags. That was the old way. We used everything until it fell off the hanger. That was the tradition in Hollywood.”

[Jean Harlow Dinner at Eight publicity photo by George Hurrell © Pancho Barnes Trust Estate Archive and used with permission. Do not copy it to your own site.]

The Full Skinny: Marilyn Monroe Was Tiny...and So Were Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, Barbra Streisand, And More

Marilyn Monroe white subway dress back zipper not closed

In my Bloomberg View column on the Debbie Reynolds collection auction, I cite some of the waist measurements Lisa Urban took from the costumes. But column prose didn't allow for the full inventory, which should be kept for historical interest. Here, in alphabetical order with links to the photos (much better than my snapshots) and auction results for each costume, is the full list. The numbers are the auction lot numbers. In a decision I now regret, I did not request a measurement of Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady Ascot dress, because everyone knows she was thin, the same reason I didn't ask Lisa to take any Katharine Hepburn measurements.

The biggest surprise to me was that Deborah Kerr's waist was as large as 24 inches. Her costumes, particularly the black gown from An Affair to Remember, are strikingly svelte and, like Marilyn's white dress, couldn't be fully fastened in the back, as you can see by my photo of her Catherine Parr gown. I was also surprised that the Ginger Rogers dress had a 24-inch waist. It looks even smaller in person.

Deborah Kerr Catherine Parr Young Bess back view

Claudette Colbert - waist 18"

29. Gold gown, Cleopatra  

121. Lana Martin blue wool suit, Drums Along the Mohawk 

Greta Garbo - waist 24"

34. Green velvet, Anna Karenin

Judy Garland - waist 22"

165. Esther Smith gray [originally blue] w/ tassels, Meet Me in St. Louis

169. Esther Smith red wool, Meet Me in St. Louis

185. Susan Bradley cream two piece, The Harvey Girls

239. Annie Oakley two-piece, Annie Get Your Gun

Meet Me in St. Louis: Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien, Judy Garland

Rita Hayworth - waist 24"

161. Maribelle Hicks two-piece, Cover Girl

217. Carmen death scene dress, Carmen

311. Princess Salome beaded chiffon, Salome

Grace Kelly - waist 23"

307. Linda Nordley safari outfits, Mogambo

357. Frances Stevens rose crepe, To Catch a Thief

372. Princess Alexandra ivory silk chiffon, The Swan

Deborah Kerr - waist 24"

294. Catherine Parr blue and gray with fur, Young Bess

300. Portia toga, Julius Caesar

387. Terry McKay taupe chiffon, An Affair to Remember 

388. Terry McKay black chiffon, An Affair to Remember 

How thin was Carole Lombard

Hedy Lamarr - waist 22.5"

220. Delilah peacock, Samson and Delilah

Carole Lombard - 21"

25. Connie Randall beige gown, No Man of Her Own (no, I did not touch it when demonstrating how tiny it was for the photo)

Marilyn Monroe - for these four dresses her average waist is 22" and bust is 34"

282. Lorelei Lee red sequined dress, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

313. Kay Weston gold charmeuse saloon girl gown, River of No Return

314. Vicky tropical print, There’s No Business Like Show Business

354. The Girl white “subway” dress, The Seven Year Itch

Mary Pickford - waist 20"

16. Katherine green velvet, The Taming of the Shrew

Debbie Reynolds Unsinkable Molly Brown embroidery beading detail copy Debbie Reynolds - waist 24"

273. Kathy Selden flapper dress, Singin’ in the Rain

455. Lilith Prescott silk floral, How the West Was Won

458. Lilith Prescott pleated silk, How the West Was Won

497. Molly Brown pale green beaded, The Unsinkable Molly Brown

500. Molly Brown wool period dress, The Unsinkable Molly Brown

Ginger Rogers - waist 24"

222. Dinah Barkley gold dress, Barkleys of Broadway

Katherine Ross - waist 24"

536. Etta Place chartreuse two-piece, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Barbra Streisand - waist 24"

529. Fannie Brice purple and green, Funny Girl

531. Fannie Brice black velvet, Funny Girl

537. Dolly Levi purple, Hello, Dolly!

538. Dolly Levi gold velvet, Hello, Dolly!

Elizabeth Taylor - waist 19.5"

345. Lady Patricia yellow satin, Beau Brummell

396. Susanna Drake brown, Raintree County

398. Susanna Drake ivory and black, Raintree County

399. Susanna Drake dark red, Raintree County

Mae West 

94. Peaches O’Day purple, Every Day’s a Holiday - waist 24"

545. Leticia van Allen beige gown, Myra Breckinridge waist 26"

Many thanks to Lisa Urban for generously spending the time, during a very busy period, to get these measurements on the record.

[Photos by by Virginia Postrel. Full Flickr set here.]

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 DeepGlamour.net]