Charles LeMaire, who wrapped beautiful women in elegant gowns for entertainment impresarios ranging from Florenz Ziegfeld to Daryl F. Zanuck, is dead of heart failure at age 88.
The Broadway and Hollywood designer who urged the creation of an Academy Award for costume design and then won three Oscars himself died Saturday in Palm Springs.
At his death LeMaire's gowns had spanned the lavish spectaculars on Broadway during the Roaring '20s and Hollywood's putative Golden Decade of the 1930s.
Started in Vaudeville
But what he had set out to be was a vaudeville performer. He had been half of a song and piano team (his partner Walter Woolf went on to a lengthy career in musical comedy) but when he found himself unemployed, he fell back on his artistic talents and began designing dresses.
His idea for a hand-painted fabric that simulated embroidery brought him steady work and an opportunity to further study costuming.
He submitted some sketches to Ziegfeld and was amazed when the entrepreneur agreed to pay him the then staggering sum of $1,000 to use his designs in the 1921 edition of "Ziegfeld's Midnight Frolic."
After the show, Ziegfeld introduced the Chicago-born LeMaire to the audience as "my new, young French discovery 'Monsieur LeMaire.' "
His eventual stage credits were to range from "Artists and Models" for the Shuberts to "Of Thee I Sing" for the Gershwins and "The Coconuts" for the Marx Brothers.
Role in the Circus
LeMaire even costumed the extravaganzas of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
He staged shows for servicemen during World War II and then moved to Hollywood, where he remained for 16 years as executive designer and chief of wardrobe for Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox.
He was nominated 17 times for the award he prevailed upon the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to first give designers in 1948 and won Oscars for "All About Eve," "The Robe" and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing."
In a 1981 interview with The Times, 20 years after "Tender Is the Night," his final film, he recalled the days when Joan Collins and Marilyn Monroe would borrow studio gowns for social occasions because they couldn't afford their own clothes.
LeMaire had a modest view of his own talents, saying that Hollywood designers really were not responsible for all that much fashion.
Matter of Interpretation
"We had scripts to interpret what clothes were necessary and we adapted whatever ideas were going around."
He did remember the time when his dresses for Jennifer Jones in "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" made such an impact in Paris that French designers for years continued to omit the waist from their creations.
Near the end of his career he campaigned for stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for wardrobe designers. He and his wife, who preceded him in death, moved to New Mexico in the 1960s, where he painted. His work has been in the Los Angeles County Art Museum, in homes and galleries throughout the West.
They later moved to Palm Springs where his work was shown at the Desert Museum.