Costume Maker Fits Into Movies Behind the Seams

<i> Larson is a Newhall free-lance writer</i>

During her 21 years in the motion picture studio wardrobe business, Catena Passalacqua has worked with top designers Bob Mackie (“Funny Lady”), Edith Head (“The Great Race”), Theodora Van Runkle (“Mame”) and Don Feld (“Prizzi’s Honor”). But it was Feld, she found, who had the most inventive method of fitting stars.

“If we did period movies,” she said, “to put the actress in the right mood, he would play music from that period.”

While fitting Jane Fonda for her role in the 1969 film “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, set at a marathon dance, Feld played music from the ‘30s.


Did it help? “Oh, definitely,” she said.

Started With Warner Bros.

Passalacqua has been privy to much of Hollywood behind the scenes since joining Warner Bros. as a costume assembler in 1965. Today, she is manager of the wardrobe department at the Burbank Studios, a 108-acre production facility jointly operated by Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures. She is the only woman to hold such a position at a major studio.

Since her appointment in 1982, Passalacqua has ruled over what is reputedly the largest wardrobe department of any movie studio. Its costumes number in the untold thousands and are housed in several buildings.

Exuding a gracious but authoritative manner, Passalacqua oversees a staff of eight. Depending on production schedules, however, as many as 25 costume makers of the Motion Picture Costumers, Local 705, and 15 tailors may be added to the payroll.

Day Begins at 8:30 a.m.

There is no such thing as a typical day for Passalacqua. The staff arrives about 8:30 a.m., and “we never know what’s going to happen next,” she said. “You never know when you’re going home. You try to leave at 6:30, but it’s usually 7 or 7:30.”

“We have people calling in, ‘I need a helmet right now,’ and that might be 10 minutes to 6,” she said. “One day, ‘Twilight Zone’ came and pulled some ‘Camelot’ clothes and armor.”

One recent day, a New York costumer was there collecting clothes for a new play. San Diego State University, La Jolla Playhouse and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival often rent costumes. Museums sometimes display the studio’s wares.

Passalacqua’s mother, who works in beading at MGM, inspired her to enter the costume field. “I was in awe of her talents,” she said. “I visited her at work a couple of times. I used to sit underneath the frame.

“At that time, she didn’t drive, so the studio actually used to send a limousine for her--pick her up, bring her to the studio and bring her home again.”

Degree in Costume Design

Passalacqua graduated from the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade Technical College) with a degree in costume design, then operated her own dress shop for several years.

After joining Warner Bros. as a draper, she spent the next 17 years as a cutter and fitter (pattern maker and costume fitter) and “foreperson” (as it is designated by the costumers’ union), before becoming manager.

Her office reflects a bit of studio history. A locked glass case contains a collection of 300 medals that belonged to the late Jack Warner. Another case contains the Excalibur from “Camelot” and a sword from Errol Flynn’s “Adventures of Don Juan.” Glass-enclosed shelves protect crowns from “Camelot,” and pale walls display colorful sketches of costumes from the movies “Mame,” “The Great Race” and “Annie.”

While preparing for “Camelot,” Passalacqua said, she and her co-workers made about 35,000 medieval costumes in a year. The cost was more than $2 million.

Undergown Made of Raw Silk

“I don’t think we’ll ever have a movie like that again,” she said, while thumbing through photographs. “This is the wedding gown. The train was about 10 feet long. The undergown was raw silk, and then we pulled in colored threads to make different tones of beiges and browns. Then the overlay, which was all ecru-colored medallions with little, teensy seashells, no more than a half-inch to three-quarters. And then we put lacquered pumpkin shells on it.

“Everyone who had a moment would pick up a crochet needle and crochet little medallions. And he didn’t want you to start from any center,” she said of designer John Truscott. “He wanted them asymmetric.”

The spectacle was shot on the Warner Bros. back lot, she said.

“We had people on the set all the time, dressmakers as well as tailors, in case something had to be hemmed up or something went wrong.”

Passalacqua laments the passing of the “old days” when major studios had a few contract designers who conceived costumes for all projects and oversaw them throughout the films. “Nowadays, it’s ‘let’s make enough money so we can stay alive,’ ” she said, laughing.

“Now, everyone is on such a tight budget that it’s very difficult. They’ll hire a designer just for the first couple of weeks. You set it up and you leave. Well then, you don’t know what might be changed. Everything is in and out fast . And some things will be made, some things will be bought, some things will be altered.”

When she started in wardrobe, “everything was made,” even silk slips and lacy teddies, Passalacqua said.

She praised her “ladies,” costume makers who have been with her for years and for whom she once fought and achieved wage parity with tailors within the costumers’ union. “I think when this group retires, I don’t see any coming up who can do what they do.

Costumes for Wood, Streisand

“I have one woman who can cut a sweater in half and take out four inches--like we had to do for Dudley Moore--and knit it back up again, and you’d never know where it was taken out. Same for the sleeves.”

Passalacqua has fond memories of working with Barbra Streisand and Natalie Wood.

“Streisand has always had her clothes made here since I started,” she said. Passalacqua has done the costumes for all of Streisand’s films, she said, except “Yentl.”

“I did her first Vegas show, and we’ve been together since ‘What’s Up, Doc?’

“I think she’s a lovely woman, very professional. There’s no playing around. She knows what she needs.”

On “The Great Race,” Passalacqua worked with the late Natalie Wood and designer Head. “I know it sounds a little corny, but I really feel that you are enriched by the different people you meet, and she was one of them,” she said of Wood.

Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, always made her feel relaxed in their home during fittings, she said. “If she had to wear something and hold in her tummy a little bit more, she would do it.”

In her role as manager of the wardrobe department, Passalacqua assumes the mantle of businesswoman: She sets the prices of costumes rented by production companies, photographers and producers of videotapes and commercials. She also discusses concepts with the companies and recommends how many costume makers to hire through the costumers’ union.

Usually, a “costumer keyperson” (another union designation), reads the script, breaks it down and shops for fabric. Often, Passalacqua also will read the script, recommend what is in stock and, possibly, prepare a budget.

Costumes are rented by the week, month or production, usually a 12-week period. A weekly rental of a policeman’s uniform ranges from $55 to $85. Evening gowns range from $35 to $500.

Passalacqua and her staff work not only with productions of Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures, but also with those of independent companies. Costumes for a film called “Around the Corner of the Light of Day,” starring Michael J. Fox, are being made at the studio. Designers for several television shows, including a Universal Television pilot, “All the News,” occupy the antique-laden designers’ rooms and their adjacent bedroom-size dressing rooms.

‘Wonderful Period Clothes’

It is not uncommon for the Burbank Studios to buy back clothes it has created and sold to an independent company. The studio bought back costumes worn in “The Color Purple” and the as-yet unreleased “Peggy Sue Got Married,” movies that featured “wonderful period clothes,” according to Passalacqua.

Those costumes may hang near a wide-lapel, patch-pocket suit worn by Ronald Reagan in the 1949 drama “Night Unto Night,” a tunic that Paul Newman wore in his screen debut as a Greek slave in the 1954 movie “The Silver Chalice,” an opulent wedding gown Vanessa Redgrave wore in the 1967 musical “Camelot” or a green velvet dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1956 epic “Giant.”

Warner Bros. has never auctioned its wardrobe. “It’s an endless line,” Passalacqua said as she walked through the stockrooms, surrounded by period footwear, outfits for soldiers, firemen and policemen. Some rooms include bolts of fabric from the 1930s and ‘40s, others contain military cloths and insignias, diving suits and French soufle, a sheer silk.

Expensive Gowns Ruined

Costumes usually are returned to the department cleaned and in good condition, but not always. During the filming of “The Goonies,” gowns worth thousands of dollars were ruined.

“These were period clothes--they were gorgeous,” she said. “This was Bette Davis’ dress from ‘Elizabeth and Essex’ with the pearls all over it. I never cry over clothes, but I did over those.”

The movie script had called for a trunk to be opened, revealing the dresses. “Well, it turned out that they were too shiny, so they sprayed them down. They closed the trunk on them and tore the sleeves,” she said. Although insurance covered some of the loss, “you’ll never get that silk again, you’ll never be able to do that kind of work. It just costs too much in labor to do fully beaded fronts and pearls done by hand.”

Although Passalacqua reflects fondly on her own years as a costume maker, the only sewing she does now is personal, making gowns or mending her grandchildren’s clothes. In her spare time, she sculpts, paints and lectures on costume design at local colleges and universities.

Shopping in Europe

When she travels to Europe to visit Maria, one of her two children, she always heads for the fabric and antique shops. “I try to bring back interesting buttons, trims, soufle, things like that. Spain has fabulous buttons and big tassels. I’ll come back with great big tassels.

“Or, if I find an antique dress that’s large enough for an American and would be good for stock, I’ll get it. Nobody has a 23-inch waist anymore. Forget it,” she said. “In England, they have wonderful antique stores, and I’ll come back with the hooks for high-button shoes. We’re always looking for those.”

Next year, Passalacqua plans to catalogue into a computer information about the studio’s costumes and accessories. “We’re going to have a big reorganization plan go into effect,” she said.

But for now, she said, “My people pretty well have it categorized in their minds.”