A Walk through Costume History, Thanks to Debbie Reynolds

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the recent exhibit attached to legendary actress Debbie Reynolds’ costume auction.  Over the years, Reynolds has acquired an impressive collection of costumes and props from several decades of film history.  Unfortunately she recently had to auction many of her items, but not before displaying them to the public one last time.

Claudette Colbert's gown from Cleopatra (Photo by Brianne Gillen)

The collection was enough to send any classic movie buff or costume lover to heaven.  There were iconic pieces such as Dorothy’s dress from The Wizard of Oz and Marilyn Monroe’s white subway-grate dress from The Seven-Year Itch.  But there were also many pieces from more obscure movies.  It was a walk through film history, and so many of the costumes have been beautifully preserved.  The craftsmanship of each piece is impressive, especially when you consider that some of them are over 70 years old.  When you look at the hand-beaded dresses, or the carefully stitched seams, you can see the quality – which is, unfortunately, becoming more of a rarity.

Leslie Caron's dress from the ballet in An American in Paris (Photo by Brianne Gillen)

I also felt like I was reliving some of my own history when I walked through that exhibit.  I grew up watching, and falling in love with, classic films.  My mom made sure I had an appreciation for the classics, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.  I have so many memories of watching great films with her.  And, of course, I always took note of the costumes.  The fashions of the 1930s and 1940s are some of my favorite styles, and I have always loved watching movies from that time and noticing all the details of the beautiful clothes and accessories.  Whether they were period pieces (usually with at least a hint of the decade in which they were made) or modern (at the time), I loved the costumes.

Rita Hayworth's button-detailed suit from Cover Girl (Photo by Brianne Gillen)

Walking through Reynolds’ collection, I felt like every corner I turned led me to a familiar costume.  Singin’ in the Rain has always been one of my favorites, and it was such a treat to be able to see Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s shoes, Reynolds’ “Good Mornin’” dress, and even Jean Hagen’s over the top gown from her movie-within-a-movie.  It was a revelation to see that one of Leslie Caron’s dresses from the ballet sequence in An American in Paris was not trimmed with flowers, as I had always thought, but rather peacock feathers.  I had always (correctly) assumed that Elizabeth Taylor’s waist was tiny, but never realized just how tiny Claudette Colbert was as well.  I immediately recognized Caron’s schoolgirl outfit from Gigi, and got to see up-close the details on Rita Hayworth’s button-covered dress from Cover Girl.  I even had my picture taken, not with Santa, but with Edmund Gwynn’s Santa suit from Miracle on 34th Street.

While it’s a shame Ms. Reynolds couldn’t have kept her beautiful collection together, I am so glad I had the opportunity to see it.  It was a wonderful trip down memory lane, and a great chance to see some classic film moments come back to life.

A Tribute to White Christmas

In honor of the holidays, I’d like to salute one of my all-time favorite movies for costumes, White Christmas.  The clothes in that movie are prime examples of classic ‘50s fashions, and have provided many an inspiration in my own design experience.  I should probably give you a little backstory about how my love affair with the costumes of White Christmas developed.  It began when I was a kid.  As a child of the 1980s, I actually remember when the VCR was a new and exciting thing.  My aunt gave my family our first VCR one Christmas, and along with it was White Christmas.  Needless to say, I watched it a lot, even when it was not Christmas.  And somewhere along the line, White Christmas became our family’s Thanksgiving tradition.  To this day, we still watch it every Thanksgiving after dinner, to kick off the holiday season.  So at this point, I can’t even count the number of times I have seen that movie, and Edith Head’s costumes for it have been permanently etched in my heart.  They have come back to inspire me so much over the years, in a way that a lot of other movies have not, probably because of all those great childhood memories that go with them.

Who can forget Rosemary Clooney’s beautiful black gown when she sings at the Carousel Club?  It’s so simple, yet the jagged edging of the neckline makes it something special.  And her black and red sequin gown from “Mandy” – I love the fact that her gloves and bracelets were covered in sequins too.  Even her pajamas were fashionable, with their matching robe and slippers, all red with white piping.

Vera-Ellen wore some beautiful outfits too.  I’ve always been fascinated by her “Mandy” costume.  Its white sequined swirl pattern is pretty, and the red gloves tie her in with the rest of the number’s costumes.  But it also holds a surprise that comes midway through the number.  The costume is short in the front to show off her dancer’s legs, but has a long tulle train in the back.  As she is about to begin the more complicated dancing, two of the male dancers reach behind her.  The train splits down the middle, attached to a wide belt you didn’t even realize was there, and the dancers lift the train over her head, leaving just a small bustle of tulle behind.

I also love Vera-Ellen’s pale pink dress from “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” where she dances with Danny Kaye.  On the surface, you think her skirt is simply a pale pink chiffon, but as she starts to dance and spin, she reveals more layers of chiffon underneath, in varying shades of darker pink.  Who knew all of that was under there?

I really could go on and on about my favorite clothes from this movie.  All the fun full skirts, the dyed-to-match shoes on both the men and the women, the great belts and gloves and other accessories, Danny Kaye’s great jackets. If you get the chance this holiday season, check it out and enjoy all the colorful ‘50s finery for yourself.


Welcome to Gowns By…, a blog filled with musings on costume design, past and present.  As a costume designer, I’m always looking at movies and television shows with an eye toward style.  I tend to notice everything from detailed historical accuracy (or lack thereof) to the creative use of color, or simply a great pair of shoes.  I grew up watching classic films, so I have a deep appreciation for the work of legendary designers like Adrian and Edith Head.  But I also love watching what current designers do.  I hope you enjoy my observations on some of my favorite films and trends.  Please come back often!