Beyond wardrobe

Vintage stores, freelance houses add to costumers' clothing arsenal

There’s a reason Melina Root won this year’s Emmy for her costume designs, and it has nothing to do with wardrobe. The designer for Carsey-Werner’s sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun” knows what she’s talking about.

“You don’t win an Oscar or an Emmy for wardrobing, you win it for costuming or costume design,” Root explains. ” ‘Wardrobe,’ or ‘wardrobe department’ make me think of a big closet. As a designer, the words don’t reflect the thought and effort that goes into creating a character the way ‘costume’ does.”

If the term “wardrobe department” has been banished from any wise industryite’s vocabulary it is not due merely to efforts of the politically correct. In television and features, how characters and actors acquire their clothes has changed over the years. In old Hollywood, studio wardrobe departments created not only costumes for films but also dressed the stars for private engagements. Edith Head, Jean Louis, Adrian and William Travilla were among the top designers who created the looks that defined their studio’s glamour girls both on- and offscreen.

By the ’50s, the studio system was losing its hold on the entertainment industry. Assigned-dressers, with their vast wardrobe departments, became obsolete and actors were left to their own devices when staring into their bedroom closets. Though wardrobe departments remain a studio fixture, under the preferred designation of costume department, their breadth is comparatively small, warehousing only a handful of items from any given era.

With the emphasis on creation of a character, not a player’s image, designers have expanded their search parameters. Drawing from the studio and a variety of freelance costume houses, department and vintage clothing stores and the designers’ own abilities to create original pieces, characters are now more authentically created.

“I go everywhere looking for items,” says Mary Claire Hannan, costume designer on Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming “Jackie Brown.” “My resources are varied: the swap meet, my closet, an actor’s closet. Costume houses are important, but ask an ordinary person where their clothes came from. Things come from everywhere. Your closet is an eclectic mix reflecting your life experiences. It’s diminishing to a character and actor to think you can just call 1-800-Clothes and dress a film.”

But some, like Richard Egan, executive director of wardrobe services for Columbia TriStar, “miss the days when designers came in and built everything from scratch.” For costume houses such as the Motion Picture Costume Co., the change has served them well. “A designer can’t build everything you see in front of the camera,” says their police and service uniform manager Steve Ferry. “When farming out for costumes, designers need good resources. That’s our goal, to be a good resource.”

Resource indeed. Salvadore Perez, costume manufacturing foreman on Universal’s forthcoming “Titanic” had 45 tailors and sewers on his team. Still, he did a considerable amount of outsourcing or farming. “We rented clothes from 27 costume houses in six countries,” he says. “You simply could not do a movie like ‘Titanic’ out of one studio’s costume department. They just can’t afford that. Studios have a small sampling of everything, but nobody could have done it all inhouse.”

Sandy Powell, costume designer on the current Miramax release “Wings of the Dove” agrees. “I always prefer to build everything myself,” she says, “But in a film with lots of extras, there’s no way in the world I can do that. Costume houses have so much that is satisfactory for crowd scenes. Of course, I always build costumes for the principals, but it just doesn’t make sense to put so much time, energy and money into some extra standing in the distance under a tree.”

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