All Dressed Up for Sale : Choice Bits of Filmland History to Be Auctioned


The upcoming costume sale at Butterfield & Butterfield has a simple premise.

There are people out there who are willing to pay big bucks to take home the loincloth Kirk Douglas wore in "Spartacus" or a Clark Gable jacket from "Gone With the Wind."

On Oct. 10 the Hollywood auction house will sell more than 350 costumes and accessories from the vast holdings of Western Costume, which has been making and renting Hollywood garments for more than 80 years.

It was Western Costume that made the ruby slippers Dorothy wore in "The Wizard of Oz"--a pair of which sold in 1988 for $165,000, still the highest price paid for a piece of Hollywood history.

Collector James G. Comisar, who is Butterfield & Butterfield's consultant on Hollywood artifacts, emphasized that Western Costume is not going out of business. It is bigger than ever, with more than 6 million pieces--everything from bowler hats to boxer shorts--in stock. In Comisar's view, the costume company is to be lauded for its decision to auction off many of its choicest items, taking them out of circulation and making them available to private collectors who are sufficiently obsessed to care for them properly.

"It's truly a miracle of the costume gods that these pieces still exist," said Comisar, citing such vintage garments as the embroidered vest Rudolph Valentino wore in the 1926 silent, "Son of the Sheik" (the star's last film). The piece is expected to bring as much as $7,000, said Comisar, adding that Western Costume "could have schlepped these costumes to every mall and county fair in the country and made more money."

So far, pre-auction interest has focused on two very different groups of garments: the costumes from "Gone With the Wind" and a sperm suit made for Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)." Comisar said the interest in the sperm outfit was apparently piqued by Allen's personal problems. Before Allen became a hot item in the tabloids, his memorabilia were not especially collectible.

The "Gone With the Wind" garments are something else again. The auction will feature 17 items from the 1939 epic, including the two-piece traveling suit Scarlett wore during her foolhardy ride through Shantytown (estimated to bring $17,500 to $22,500).

The cache of costumes is the largest group of "Gone With the Wind" items offered to the public since the famous MGM sale of 1970, Comisar said.

One unforgettable item is the riding outfit in which little Bonnie Blue Butler took her fatal jump, breaking her Daddy's heart. It is expected to bring $3,000 to $5,000. You can also buy the nightgown Melanie wore in labor--the very one she had on when she helped Scarlett dispose of the body of the damned Yankee who pillaged Tara and foolishly contemplated raping its mistress. Pre-sale estimate is $4,000 to $5,000.

Remember the dress Scarlett made from her mother's green velvet curtains--so famous it inspired another immortal costume, Bob Mackie's dress for a Carol Burnett parody in which the curtain rod was still in place when Scarlett wore it? Well, the original curtain dress is gone with the wind, recut and turned into a riding habit for "The Virgin Queen." (Actually there were two. The other is still owned by the family of producer David O. Selznick.)

But you can bid on the dress the notorious Belle Watling wore in the same scene, the one where she and Scarlett both find themselves visiting Rhett in jail. Estimated price: $2,000 to $3,000.

Most of the "Gone With the Wind" costumes were designed by Walter Plunkett, one of Hollywood's greatest costumers. But the two jackets worn by Clark Gable have labels inscribed "Eddie Schmidt Inc." As Comisar explained, Gable went into a snit after he tried on his Rhett Butler costumes. "He said they fit him like a potato sack, and he wouldn't show up for work unless his personal tailor, Eddie Schmidt, recut them." The jackets, which are expected to bring up to $6,000, are in great shape, Comisar noted. "I have blazers in my closet that have been dry-cleaned three or four times that don't look as good as the Clark Gable jackets."

Comisar said that the vintage MGM pieces were made when the studio "boasted it had more stars than there are in heaven. And in those days, my dear, stars did not wear rags." Many of the pieces to be auctioned reflect the Hollywood of what he calls "brilliant excess," where 18-carat gold thread was lavished on costumes worn by extras. Garments that reflect Hollywood at its most extravagant include several from MGM's 1936 production of "Romeo and Juliet," including a hand-painted leather tunic worn by John Barrymore as Mercutio.

There are many reasons collectors value these pieces, Comisar said. They are part of our shared culture. Many are associated with stars in famous roles, from Tyrone Power in "Blood and Sand" to Kevin Costner in "Dances With Wolves." A few, such as the beaded gowns worn by Julie Andrews in "Star" and her TV specials, are genuine works of art.

Moreover, many are by gifted artisans who are "dead or otherwise very unavailable," such as the late Gilbert Adrian, the genius who got movie audiences to forget Joan Crawford's substantial hips by padding her shoulders. The sale includes an Adrian-designed military hat worn by Barrymore in "Rasputin and the Empress" (1933). Other major Hollywood designers whose work will be sold include Edith Head, Irene Sharaff, Travis Banton and Orry-Kelly.

Collector and costume expert Bill Thomas worked with Comisar, sifting through Western's stock in search of treasures. The costume company is no museum and so there were no detailed historical files on the individual pieces.

There were some wonderful surprises during the three months the men worked on the project, Thomas said. "I was shocked to find all seven Von Trapp children," said Thomas, alluding to seven sailor-suit costumes of increasing size featured in "The Sound of Music" (1965). Another thrill was finding a brown velvet coat worn by Errol Flynn in his first swashbuckler, "Captain Blood" (1935). Until they came upon the jacket, the men thought all of Flynn's early costumes had been made at Warner Brothers.

Actors' names were routinely sewn into the garments, but that did not tell the team what film the costume had appeared in. To pin that down, they screened likely movies and searched through mountains of stills. Thomas' partner Larry McQueen worked on the project, as did Glenn Brown.

Comisar thinks big-ticket items at the sale will include the Flynn jacket (Flynn material has been shooting up in value in recent years, Comisar said). He also thinks top dollar will be paid for a cream-colored dress uniform worn by Charlie Chaplin in his career-stunting sendup of Hitler, "The Great Dictator" (1940).

Thomas predicts that contemporary costumes will do very well, including several Oscar-winning outfits Warren Beatty wore in "Bugsy" (1991).

And, out there somewhere, surely there is someone who can't live without a "Planet of the Apes" suit or the ridiculous white evening clothes Tom Hanks wore as he ate the tiny ear of corn in the party scene in "Big."

Butterfield & Butterfield is at 7601 Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. The sale will be at 2 p.m. Oct. 10. The costumes will be on display from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 8 and 9 and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 10. For a catalogue or further information, call (213) 850-7500.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World