Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Hollywood: Inventor of Legend, Destroyer of Vintage

Hollywood has been an important force in the American social scene for about a century now, often giving us inspirational, insightful and, no doubt, entertaining films and television. Rocky, It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, Gone With the Wind, Rear Window, etc. The list goes on.

Those films and many others are legends, a normal part of popular culture. That's what Hollywood is known for: creating and changing popular culture.

Kid Galahad

Something Hollywood is not well know for is destroying vintage clothing but it is second to none in that regard.

It may or may not be common knowledge that Hollywood regularly uses original vintage clothing in the making of its films and TV shows. There are two main reasons for this: first, modern reproductions are often unable to capture the look and feel of Golden Era clothing and, secondly, real vintage clothing is often much cheaper to buy or rent than it is to reproduce. And that second part, the price, is the main reason Hollywood opts for the real deal.

And here's the rub: film and theater are rough business and things get destroyed, especially 70-year-old clothing. Look at the recent movie "Hugo" by director Martin Scorsese. According to the costume designer for that movie, Sandy Powell, hundreds of vintage pieces were destroyed during filming:

"There were literally over 1,000 costumes, so it took us a long time. We contracted costume rental companies, and we actually did a lot of buying, we sort of scoured markets and secondhand stores both in London where it was filmed and also in Paris; there are great flea markets there. And then we were filming so long, some of the extras were wearing the same clothing for weeks on end, and a lot of the original vintage pieces actually ended up falling apart, disintegrating."

The movie "Titanic" was just as bad, using many original vintage pieces during filming, especially dresses and gowns.  These were unfortunately shredded by the end of filming, just like the pieces used in "Hugo".
History disintegrating and being destroyed just to make a movie. If an architecturally important building or a valuable piece of artwork were purposely destroyed for the filming of a movie there would be an outcry from the media and the public. Yet when hundreds of historical pieces of clothing are allowed to fall apart for the same reason there is nothing.

Vintage fedora ruined in "Boardwalk Empire".

Several months ago I was approached by a costume designer from a popular and well known cable TV channel. They were looking for original 1940s/early 1950s pieces of men's clothing for an upcoming series about a detective in 1950s Los Angeles.  I was enthusiastic about supplying vintage to be used in the production of the TV show but soon remembered the horror stories like those above.  As a result, although I would have loved to participate in and supply the filming, I denied the studio both the sale and rental of my vintage (many of the same pieces found at the haberdashery).  I was even told by the costume designer that pieces rented were not guaranteed to be returned in the same condition and may not be returned at all, having 'disappeared' from the set.  And anything bought might be thrown out after filming.

That is unacceptable.

Vintage is a non-renewable resource.  Once it's gone, it's gone.  Reproductions will always be around and plentiful but collectors of vintage clothing are like the Hollywood studios: we prefer the real deal.  And while vintage is still fairly easy to find it is getting more difficult.  Eventually it will be impossible to find.  The days of large costume departments are gone: it's much easier (and cheaper) to buy 'new' costumes for a movie and throw them out at the end of filming.  It's the result of our disposable society.

What can be done to stem the destruction that Hollywood is sowing?  Little if anything.  No one really cares, except for those few vintage nerds like ourselves.  All we can do is watch history disappear piece by piece, right before our eyes. 

And all of it caught on film...


amcgeedesign said...

Hi there! I find your perspective very interesting. I am a costume designer and find myself constantly weighing the choice of vintage versus non-vintage. We have to consider the size of the theatre space (how much detail will be visible from the audience), the size of the actors (who tend to run larger than our friends from the past), and what the time and budget will allow. Vintage almost always looks better, requires little construction time, and is generally cost effective... but, you're right, it doesn't always survive. Too be honest, sometimes the high-end and well-made don't make it through a run either. Experience and a little foresight therefore become a key part of the decision making. If the ladies walk on and off and need to sit pretty the entire show I think it's okay to use vintage. Throw some sweat pads in there, make sure all the seams are in good condition and the closures have held up and you're good to go. But perhaps for a big musical with dancing and running and quick-changes and highly dramatic acting the vintage is best left in the closet. My question for you is; when is a garment put to rest? When does that suit get retired from its right to be worn and boxed into your antiques trunk? Is it better for a garment to die in a box or on a body? :) With theatre we are always hoping to keep a little piece of the past alive... we treasure it, take what lessons we can from it, and use it to pose questions about the future. I never aim to destroy a vintage garment, but if it is absolutely the best design choice, I will put it onstage with the full knowledge that this may be the last time it is worn.

They just don't make 'em like they used to.

Will said...

Excellent post and questions.

As a collector, when is a garment put to rest? When a piece becomes unrepairable, unwearable, and/or unsightly in public. While I've never (yet) had to put a piece of vintage to rest, I have seen and heard of situations where pieces have had to be put away for good. Most of those items were not 'put down' because of long term wear but rather quick, accidental acts that destroy parts of or even the entire piece: cigarette burns, ink spills, getting run over by a car, etc. All were accidental and, hopefully, happened after a long life of use. I'd prefer a garment dies on its owner by accident and after much enjoyment.

The job of the collector is to enjoy a piece while also preserving it. This can mean different things depending on the condition of the piece and its intended use. However, most wear can be fairly easily repaired. Six months ago I had the shoulder seam on one of my favorite overcoats pop and come undone. Thankfully I have a good alterationist who was able to resew the seam and give the coat new life.

Now I understand your goal as a costume designer is not to necessarily destroy the piece; your goal is to provide the production with correct costumes while remaining within budget. Sometimes things meet the end of their useable lives while on stage. Theaters are usually better at preserving pieces than Hollywood because their budgets are smaller and the pieces need to be reused. While shows at the theater may run for weeks or months, in Hollywood a piece often only needs to survive several takes and may meet a grisly end on camera. The goal of the theater's costume designer is different from that of the movie studio's costume disigner.

This is why the main focus of this piece was Hollywood, though theaters were mentioned in passing. Costume design is a difficult job, one I do not envy. I'm afraid I could not make the decision to send out a piece knowing it may be its last scene.

Thanks for the insight!

Roger v.d. Velde said...

I didn't know this went on.

Actually I don't think amcgeedesign makes a valid argument for a garment being 'put to rest' in a production. That idea claims that it's the best possible use of it, and that's not the case at all.

Garments don't die in boxes, in fact the very reason a lot of us now are getting our hands on them is because someone carefully looked after them and stored them away with a view that they were too good to just dispose of. And so they eventually found a new lease of life, to be looked after as well as the previous owner.

Maybe costume design departments should be staffed by people who actually know how to recreate authentic garments. If it was standard practice then maybe it wouldn't be so difficult and time consuming. The knowledge is not dead yet. What are they going to do when the vintage becomes very scarce? Panic? Stop making period films?


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