Western Costume: Preserving Fabric of Hollywood History

When America declared war after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, the California National Guard was mobilized and called to arms. There was one problem, however: caught without warning, the servicemen had nothing to wear.

No cause for alarm. The Western Costume Co. of Hollywood, the vanguard of authentic movie costumes, outfitted the soldiers with uniforms before they set off to guard the state's bridges and other vital installations.

Western Costume, the film industry's oldest and largest costume maker and supplier with an estimated 1.5 million pieces in stock, remains the major outfitter for film and television today. Fears among costume designers that it might be dismantled ended last week when Paramount Pictures Corp. sold Western Costume for an undisclosed price to three private investors who promised to keep the company operational.

The six-story, concrete stronghold that houses the costume company looms on an 85,000-square-foot lot adjacent to and directly east of Paramount Studios on Melrose Avenue.

"The only reason we bought the company was to get control of the property," said Earl Lestz, president of Paramount's Studio Group, which purchased Western Costume last April from the four movie studios that shared ownership--Universal, Warner Bros., Fox and Columbia. "Our intention from day one was to sell the business."

The property will be used to expand Paramount's operations in a heavily congested part of the city where there is limited room for growth, although it has not yet been determined exactly what the studio will do with the property. Lestz said Paramount could have sold Western Costume sooner, but held out for a buyer who would agree to keep the reported $25 million costume collection intact and in town.

Western Costume, with 75 employees and an annual revenue estimated last year at $5 million, now belongs to AHS Trinity Group, an investment group comprised of three shareholders: novelist Sidney Sheldon, television agent Bill Haber and businessman Paul Abramowitz.

"Hollywood is being liquidated, sold off piece by piece to the highest bidder," said Haber, one of the founding partners of Creative Artists Agency. "Everything has been boiled down to finances. I believe strongly in protecting the entertainment industry's institutions. We can make money with Western Costume, but we also plan to maintain the integrity of the collection."

"We want to build the costume company into what it was," Sheldon agreed. "Hollywood has been run down for a long time, and we're trying to put a stop to it. We want to preserve it, not sell it off. We're going to make Western Costume a tourist attraction and a museum."

The shareholders expect to be out of the present facility in the next six months. They are considering new locations in Hollywood and Burbank.

Western Costume began simply enough in 1912, when a trader of American Indian goods named L. L. Burns wandered into Los Angeles loaded down with Indian costumes and tales of the Wild West.

The motion picture industry was in the earliest stages of development when Burns chanced to meet William S. Hart, the steely-eyed, solemn-faced hero of dozens of silent Westerns. Burns told the cowboy star how flagrantly inaccurate the costumes worn by his Indian extras were, at which point Hart invited Burns to become the exclusive supplier of Indian clothing for his future pictures.

Shortly after, Burns began raiding smaller studios and production companies to augment his inventory with a more comprehensive stock.

Although most of the major studios maintained their own wardrobe departments, Western Costume flourished by continuing to manufacture and stockpile its arsenal of costumes. Over the years, the company produced colorful and elaborate garb for spectacles such as "King Kong" (1933), Cecille B. DeMille's "Cleopatra" (1934), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), "The King and I" (1956) and "Spartacus" (1960).

"Western set the standard for magnificent costumes for the whole industry," said Elois Jennsen, Oscar-winning costume designer for "Samson and Delilah" (1949) and former president of the Costume Designer's Guild. "I've always felt you can do the most beautiful sketch in the world, but it's the cutter and fitter and tailor who breathe life into it that makes the difference."

Today, Western Costume boasts that it can fill a 6 p.m. request to provide 1,000 Indian costumes, complete with headdresses and tomahawks, for a 9 a.m. call the next day.

The interior of the company's imposing cement structure is a treasure chest filled with rare and exotic fabrics, laces, beads and trim. Factory rooms provide a workplace for scores of dressmakers and tailors who daily manufacture custom-made costumes, shoes, hats, jewelry and leather goods.

An exhaustive library of more than 12,000 books and magazines is located on the premises--in order to assure the medals that adorn the chest of a Prussian general's costume are placed in just the right order, or that the proper silk is used in the robe of a 12th-Century Chinese coolie.

But clearly most impressive are the costume racks, endless rows and corridors of musty wardrobes and articles of clothing, originals and replicas from every period in history, dating back to the dawn of man.

"You have to remember that everything in a movie is visual, and costumes are one of the things people see first and remember most," said Abramowitz, president of AHS Trinity Group and the new president of Western Costume. "From one point of view, this is Hollywood."

There are some who feel that Western Costume's luster and glory faded with the studio system. The lavish epics of Hollywood's golden age have been largely replaced by more moderate, timely films about contemporary society. As a result, an increasing number of movie costumes are being bought directly off store racks or created by fashion designers such as Nolan Miller, Bob Mackey and Bill Hargate.

"It used to be (that) every costume that appeared in a movie was custom-made for the star, with their name, the studio and the slated production on the label," said Bill Thomas, a Los Angeles costumer collector and dealer. "Now all I look at are store labels when I acquire wardrobes. Arnold Schwarzenegger's futuristic leather jacket in 'The Terminator' was really a store-bought, Bates motorcycle jacket. Out of 700 garments I acquire, I'll find maybe five that still have studio labels."

Thomas claims to have purchased a number of bargains over the years from Western Costume in quietly held "pound" sales, where buyers pay for loads of costumes by the pound. A year and a half ago, he landed one of the original toreador suits worn by Tyrone Power in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

Abramowitz stated firmly that such sales will not be continued under the new ownership. The investment group expressed concern over the increasing amount of Hollywood history and memorabilia that is being bought by foreign investors and shipped overseas. AHS Trinity has already budgeted $1 million to acquire new costumes--including a modern collection--and refurbish existing stock.

"The reasons our group became involved are simple," Haber said. "I want the historical value and research collection to be available to the generations that follow me. And I want to show a sign that there are certain important institutions in this industry that we should attempt to keep together in America."

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