Long after the Golden Age of Hollywood has dimmed, and its legendary stars taken a bow, history’s most iconic film costumes are returning to the spotlight as actress Debbie Reynolds sells her showcase collection
On June 18, thousands of the most iconic costumes and props in Hollywood history will come to the auction block, a singular assemblage of art, fashion and nostalgia. Steeped in historical and cultural significance, it is perhaps one of the most emotion-laden collections of all time. Judy Garland’s ruby-red slippers and cotton dress from “The Wizard of Oz,” Charlie Chaplin’s signature bowler, and the “drapery” hat Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) donned to woo Rhett Butler are just a handful of the pieces selectively and methodically acquired over four decades by Debbie Reynolds, who has finally given up trying to find her vast collection a home.
So how do you value a dress that once supported the curves of Marilyn Monroe? Handsomely, it seems. Arguably the most prized item in the collection, Monroe’s legendary halter-neck dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” famous for its leg-flashing subway grate scene, is estimated to fetch $1 million to $2 million.
To examine the pieces up close, as I recently did, is to gain a rich appreciation for their craftsmanship and intricacy. Designed by Travilla, Monroe’s crepe dress has more pleats than one would imagine, and a closer inspection reveals the tiny, hand-sewn stitches and light boning that create a built-in bra. The years have turned it from white to ecru, but the magic is still there. As Reynolds’s daughter, the writer and actress Carrie Fisher, says, “Costumes carry the energy of the actors who wore them; they are infused with the power of the stars and stories that inspired and empowered us.”
Graphic: Wardrobe Masters
A look at the men and women who helped the beloved characters of Debbie Reynolds’s costume collection come to life.
Audrey Hepburn’s Ascot gown, created by Oscar-winning designer Cecil Beaton, was made to be worn while posing and has leaded weights sewn into the hem to keep the train in place. Yet as spectacular as the high-necked dress is, it is the hat that takes your breath away. The detail is exquisite: Atop the large ivory silk base, what looks like black velvet is actually a very deep purple and there is a small grouping of dried flowers to the side, a mix of violets, wheat and red roses, in homage to Eliza Doolittle’s flower-girl days. The green beads hand-sewn on Claudette Colbert’s gold lamé gown from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 “Cleopatra” still shimmer, while the evening dress Irene Sharaff designed for Barbra Streisand in “Hello, Dolly!” has over a pound of woven gold and real crystals sewn throughout, costing over $100,000 to make in 1969. The almost endless list of costumes reaches back over 100 years of film history and includes those worn by almost every major star: Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Douglas Fairbanks, Bette Davis, Julie Andrews, Marlon Brando. . . And yet it took one lone actress with incredible determination to amass this collection.
Driving through the gate of Debbie Reynolds’s Beverly Hills home (that coincidentally was once owned by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head), it’s impossible not to smile as you enter an eclectic wonderland. Amusing vintage signs and old parking meters line the area outside the multicar garage. Inside, the decor feels cozy. Reynolds starts pointing to things—that was Harold Lloyd’s player piano, those were Agnes Moorehead’s “Romeo and Juliet” lamps. To others, the abundance of Hollywood memorabilia might appear kitschy, but to Reynolds, she is simply surrounded by gifts from treasured friends.
A star for over 60 years, in such classics as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with Broadway and television roles in between (she still tours the country with her one-woman show), Reynolds has proven her talent and perseverance. But it turns out that the greater drama was being played off-camera, not just in her tumultuous personal life, but in her herculean efforts to find her collection a permanent home.
Reynolds was born in the midst of the Depression, and her family moved often (her first bathroom was the restroom of the Texas gas station her parents ran), finally settling in Los Angeles. At 16, she entered the “Miss Burbank of 1948″ contest and won, wearing borrowed heels two sizes too large and singing “I’m a Square in the Social Circle.” Talent scouts were among the judges and she was signed by Warner Bros. before moving to MGM, where she was one of the last ingenues to be schooled under Louis B. Mayer.
Photos: Costume Classics
On June 18, thousands of pieces from actress Debbie Reynolds’s collection of costumes from Hollywood’s golden age will go up for auction at Profiles in History. Here, some of the standouts.
At MGM she came under a variety of professional influences, including that of her acting coach, Lillian Burns, and her other underage classmate, Elizabeth Taylor. “The Movie Star” and “The Girl Scout” is how they identified each other even then and of course their names would be linked over their lifetimes, no more so than when Reynolds’s husband, the popular singer Eddie Fisher, left her for Taylor. (It would take time, but the two eventually made their peace and Taylor even donated a costume from “Cleopatra” to Reynolds.)
Reynolds’s collection began in 1970 after the financier Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and decided to consolidate the studio. Years before Universal turned its studio tour into a major theme park, Reynolds had the idea to build a Disney-type mecca for film fans out of MGM’s back lot. She offered $5 million for everything: costumes, scripts, props, music. But MGM sold everything to an auctioneer for about the same price, without allowing Reynolds to counteroffer. So every day for three weeks, she waded through more than 300,000 items. She ended up purchasing a large, but carefully selected, array of costumes and furniture. Over the ensuing years, she added items through smaller auctions and individual purchases. When I compliment her prescience, she sighs and says, “It’s not so much that I had vision, it’s that they had none.”
For decades, Reynolds has fought to find a museum, and on seven occasions she has come close, only to have the blanket pulled out at the last minute, leaving her with the bills for architects, designers, contractors and various “experts.” There is a 25,000-square-foot structure standing empty in Tennessee, five minutes from Dollywood, because a key partner went bankrupt. She met several times with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sought funding from wealthy individuals in the entertainment business (including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Paul Allen), all to no avail. Reynolds is quick to add that “these are all charitable men,” but they had other interests. She says she had to accept that “you can’t be a one-woman parade,” especially if you are the only one picking up the tab. Even though the creditors are closing in, Reynolds’s eyes well up at the thought of surrendering her long-fought battle to preserve this portion of film history, and she says that selling this collection is “the hardest thing I have ever done.”
“Debbie is my hero,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a costume designer and the director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. She says the failure to find a permanent home is “shame on us, not shame on her.” But she’s not surprised. “During my years in the industry, I watched as costumes were seen not as the works of art they are but as assets to be used over and over and then cut up as rags to wipe up the floor.”
While to some it’s heartbreaking to consider that most of these pieces will go into private hands never to be seen again (hopefully some will be willing to loan them for exhibits), at least the auctions (presented by historical memorabilia dealer Profiles in History in June, December and next spring) will give the world a chance to appreciate these great creations together one last time and give collectors a unique opportunity. “In the parlance of sports-memorabilia fans seeking the most valuable items,” says Reynolds’s son, Todd Fisher, “these costumes are ‘game used’ and their provenance is beyond question”—they are right there in the movies we love.