My Visit to Western Costumes
Working in the film industry has provided many great perks for a film history buff like myself, and my recent visit to Western Costume may have been the coolest fringe benefit I’ve taken advantage of for a long time. I knew I was in for a treat, I just didn’t realize how much so until I saw it for myself.
I know it’s a cliche, but I finally know what is meant when people say “I feel like a kid in a candy store”. Last Wednesday a friend of mine from one of the last shows I worked on offered to give me a guided tour through one of Hollywood’s oldest establishments, Western Costumes. And I jumped at the opportunity.
Let me give you a little perspective. Western Costumes is the oldest costume rental vendor in the film business. To quote their website, “From the birth of Hollywood to the new millennium, Western Costume has dressed virtually every major star film has known. We’ve costumed many of the greatest films ever made. Western Costume is part of the history of cinema.” And cinema history is where my heart lives.
Having worked in Los Angeles for the past twelve years I had of course heard of Western, but I had never been there before. Kind of surprising, but as an Assistant Director the closest I would have ever gotten in the course of my daily duties would have been the wardrobe trailer located just outside the stage of whatever show I was working on. I have been to several other wardrobe houses which of course are impressive as well, especially the ones on the various studio lots. But this was the first time I was given a personal tour and had the opportunity to talk directly to the people involved with the archiving of the historical items. And I was incredibly impressed.
From the moment I walked into what seemed like a Costco sized building I was overwhelmed with the massive volume of costumes on hand, and that was just in the general merchandise area. As we made our way further back into the building we passed various sections equal in size and variety to any category in a Home Depot. The military section alone contained garments from every branch of service from every era. Basically, if you can’t find what you want for your production here, then it probably doesn’t exist.
Then there was the archive. Wholly, moly. Talk about dedication to preserving the past. The first room (which was larger than my apartment) was dedicated to research materials like newspapers, periodicals, books and catalogs. One of the shelves I glanced at was dated 1842-1856! Besides using these resources for cataloging their own stock, the materials are used by designers as reference for creating costumes for productions set in the past - any past. The second room (also larger than my apartment) contained an overwhelming amount of wardrobe once worn by the greatest stars in the greatest pictures (“The Sound of Music”, “Some Like It Hot”). Everywhere I turned there was the name of a well-known actor (Gregory Peck, Cary Grant) or the title of one of my favorite films (see pictures on the Contact/Photos page). It was stimulation overload as my eyes swept over article after article I had previously only seen via the movie screen. It’s hard to explain, but other classic film fans will understand my excitement over seeing tissue paper being peeled away to reveal an original costume worm by Rudolph Valentino in “The Sheik”.
Although it seems like a gargantuan task, the staff in the archival section told me how Western is continuing their work in preservation through an ongoing program utilizing college interns. Once an item of interest is identified it is checked against existing documents for accuracy, and then categorized. Sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to read faded wardrobe markings and then speed through an old film to be sure an article has been identified correctly, but when there is a question of authenticity that is what it takes for a costume to end up in the archival room. To say I was impressed with their dedication is an understatement. I was overjoyed to know that places like this even exist.
I have not mentioned anyone at Western Costumes by name because I do not wish them to become inundated with phone calls for similar access. Western Costumes does not accommodate such requests, nor do they have a guided tour, nor do they wish to. This was a special treat, and indeed it was very special to me. It may seem funny to some, but to have been surrounded by so many tangible moments to Hollywood’s past was an uplifting experience that brought the world I admire so much closer to me than I had ever experienced before. I only hope that other vendors from Set Decorators to Prop Houses have followed the same path as Western Costumes in considering their own importance in cinema history. The longer the industry thrives the more its history matters.