In the coronation scene in “Desiree,” Marlon Brando wore an outfit worthy of an emperor.
Based on David’s famous paint ing of Napoleon’s actual coronation, the 40-year-old costume includes a crimson robe embroidered with golden bees, lined with white fur and ermine tails, and sporting a train worthy of a royal bride. From the “Star Collection” of Western Costume in North Hollywood, the imperial ensemble is a sartorial showstopper, evidence of what the people who dress the stars can do when they spare neither effort nor expense.
“It’s of regal proportions,” costume expert Glenn Brown says of the Rene Hubert design. And it’s also on the block, one of more than 300 pieces from the Western Costume collection that will be auctioned Sunday at Butterfield & Butterfield.
Brown, who is the specialist on memorabilia at the Hollywood auction house, expects the coronation robes to bring more than the $12,000 to $15,000 pre-sale estimate. “Costumes of a military or historic nature tend to go higher,” he says. Among those who have already expressed interest in the costume, which includes a pair of cream satin boots and a gold laurel wreath, are two museums.
According to Brown, more people than ever are interested in collecting pieces of Hollywood history. He estimates that there are more than 100 major players in the Hollywood costume field and hundreds more with smaller collections. Brown himself is a veteran collector whose coups include paying $1 at an MGM sale for a simple gingham dress that turned out to be the one Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz” when she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Brown later sold it at auction for $9,000.
Western Costume is the oldest and largest supplier of costumes to the entertainment industry. Founded in 1912 to provide authentic Indian costumes to William S. Hart’s pioneer film company, it is perhaps best known as the maker of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Famous for being able to costume casts of thousands, it lent thousands of military uniforms to the California National Guard when it was caught short in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The company has 5 million items for rent.
Sunday’s event is a sequel to the first “Star Collection” sale in October. At that auction, a dress worn by Vivien Leigh in “Gone With the Wind” (the traveling suit Scarlett wore during her traumatic ride through Shantytown) sold for $33,350, a record for the 1939 film. A brown velvet jacket that adorned Errol Flynn in “Captain Blood” brought $31,050. The sailor suits and dresses worn by the terminally adorable Von Trapp kiddies in “The Sound of Music” were bid up to $19,550. And a person who can only be described as a real Kirk Douglas fan paid $3,450 for one of his loincloths from “Spartacus.” Items at that first “Star Collection” sale sold for a total of more than $590,000.
“Gone With the Wind” fans will find nothing as spectacular as Scarlett’s suit in Sunday’s sale, but there are some wonderful bonnets worn by Leigh and Olivia de Havilland as Melanie. And there is a handsome set of clothes designed by Walter Plunkett for Clark Cable in his role as Rhett Butler.
The Gable ensemble includes a pair of striped wool trousers labeled “Eddie Schmidt 4/17/39.” As Hollywood memorabilia expert and collector James Comisar explains, Gable was unhappy with his first “GWTW” costumes--he said they fit him like a potato sack--and claimed that he wouldn’t report for work until Schmidt, his personal tailor, re-cut them. Gable did not wear the pants, shirt and fancy black vest together in the film, which diminishes their value for the most demanding collectors. But, as Brown points out, “GWTW” costumes are extremely hard to come by since most are owned by the family of the epic’s producer, the late David O. Selznick. Brown thinks that the ensemble will exceed the pre-sale estimate of $6,000 to $8,000.
Material relating to the late Errol Flynn has become increasingly valuable in recent years, enhanced by the actor’s rakish reputation as much as his on-screen charisma, according to Brown. There has been considerable pre-sale interest in a forest guy shirt (green, needless to say) that Flynn wore while stealing from the rich to give to the poor in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938). Several of Flynn’s jackets and a pair of breeches he wore in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939) will also be sold.
Among the big-ticket items in Sunday’s auction: Rudolph Valentino’s burgundy-and-silver coat, probably from “Son of the Sheik” (1926), which is expected to bring $15,000 or more. A navy blue frock coat worn by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane” (1941) is also expected to attract collectors who can afford to pay $12,000 or more for an important garment from a great movie. And then there are the green-and-white costumes worn by the Von Trapp darlings in “The Sound of Music” (1965). The so-called “drapery costumes,” which have a pre-sale estimate of $7,000, are expected to trigger brisk bidding, given their special role in the film. These are the play clothes that Maria (Julie Andrews), fresh out of the convent and hired as governess to the Von Trapps, whips up for her new charges from the draperies in her bedroom.
Intriguing items with pre-sale estimates of $1,500 or less include Charlie Chaplin’s armband from “The Great Dictator,” Gary Cooper’s baseball knickers from “Pride of the Yankees” and an Elizabeth Taylor bustier. The last item, Brown says, is pale pink silk, with a plunging neckline, extensively wired throughout “to push and shove.”
In preparing for the two Western Costume sales, a major task was sifting through the company’s vast holdings in search of significant clothes and accessories. Since Western is a busy, working costume house, the kinds of records archivists long for were rarely kept. Sometimes stars’ names were sewn into their costumes, but not always.
Brown, whose personal collection includes five choice gowns from “Marie Antoinette” (1937), had to become a sartorial sleuth while helping to select items for the auction. His collector’s sense began to tingle when he came across a cream silk bolero jacket trimmed with black soutache that had the look of a star but no label. “When you’ve been doing this as long as I have, you get sort of psychic about these things,” he says. “And this thing was talking to me.”
So Brown went looking for a bolero in a haystack, riffling through movie still after movie still, costume-test photo after costume-test photo, hoping to catch a glimpse of the tantalizing jacket. Then, there it was, worn by Bette Davis, in what Brown calls “one of her many comebacks"--the 1964 chiller “Hush Hush . . . Sweet Charlotte.”
The movie was nominated for an Oscar for costume design.
Women’s costumes are almost always easier to identify than men’s, Brown says. “Men’s contemporary clothing is one of the hardest things to do documentation and research on.” The reason: “A black mohair suit is a black mohair suit.”
Where and When
What: Auction of costumes from the Western Costume “Star Collection.”
Location: Butterfield & Butterfield, 7601 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.
Time: 1 p.m. Sunday. The items will be on display from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.
Call: (213) 850-7500.