Theadora Van Runkle politely refuses to sit at her own party. It’s not her style to wrinkle her crisp white linen outfit.
Instead, she carefully cruises through the crowd at a West Hollywood tribute for the Los Angeles-born costume designer. For more than 30 years, Van Runkle has created Hollywood film looks.
And now, with the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair,” the spotlight is once again on the woman who, in the original 1968 film, put Faye Dunaway in mini-skirted ensembles with big hats and expensive pearls; Steve McQueen in tight, tailored suits.
At the party hosted by the Slane & Slane jewelry store, all vie for a moment to meet, chat and air kiss the woman whose Academy Award- nominated films include her first, “Bonnie and Clyde,” “New York, New York,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Peggy Sue Got Married.” She completed her latest film, “I’m Losing You” last year.
Unfortunately, Van Runkle never won an Oscar, but that’s not stopping her fans from clamoring around her. They call out her name. Fingers gingerly tap her shoulders. Van Runkle, her chin-length hair ever so chic, her makeup perfectly powdered on, obliges the paparazzi, asking first if her lipstick is OK. F-a-a-a-bulous, they respond.
Click. Click. Click.
With 35 films to her credit, Van Runkle is a living legend to the crowd now seated for her slide show.
There’s Julie Andrews in 65 yards of billowing red chiffon, Lucille Ball in a rhinestone-studded gown. And Van Runkle goes on about Liza Minnelli in a white beaded number with an endless train.
But she saves the best for last--Dunaway, her muse, as gun-toting Bonnie Parker in Van Runkle’s 1967 trend-setting creations: a long cardigan sweater paired with a narrow skirt and topped with a beret. The midi-skirt look, thanks to Van Runkle, started a major fashion trend.
A year later, Van Runkle and Dunaway did double duty again on “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The actress sexily sleuthed her way onto the screen in the designer’s mini-skirted, big-belted suits, double breasted coats and a revealing backless, bra-less chiffon creation for a sexy chess game scene that took three days to film.
Vogue called Van Runkle’s designs “delicious,” she says during her 40-minute party presentation, mesmerizing her audience with stories about an era she calls “the last moments of the golden age of Hollywood.”
An Artist Who Got
‘Sidetracked’ Into Film
That was a time, she says, when costume designers “created movie wardrobes from head to toe. Every single piece of clothing was handmade in those days. That’s the story of the old days, before everything changed.”
It’s the day after Van Runkle’s party. Callers tell her the slide show was a hit, she says, relieved. Van Runkle, elegant in beige lace, sits in the wicker-decorated breakfast nook of her cozy, art-filled Hollywood Hills home. Her 23-year-old calico cat, Charlotte Rampling, purrs away nearby, the feline stylishly adorned--of course--with a silk bow around her neck. Van Runkle’s other cat, Hazel, 10, guards the grounds.
“I want to be an artist again,” Van Runkle says, pointing to her workroom filled with sketches and drawings, a few self-portraits, others of nudes--men and women--and her movie costume drawings from the past.
“I started out as an artist but I got sidetracked into movies because I had two children to support. And now I want to return to art. It’s a discipline I want to experience again. It’s isolating and it’s difficult and you really have to be strong. And even though I’m not young, you can see I’m not old,” she says, refusing to reveal her age because “it doesn’t really matter, does it?”
Van Runkle also chooses not to talk about her parents or her personal life. Instead, she talks about working hard, about being an artist, a talent she was born with.
“When I was a teenager I knew I needed to have some money and that I could only be a writer or an artist.”
She settled for the latter, landing various jobs as a commercial artist. For seven years during the late 1950s and early 60s, she worked at the May Co., illustrating fashion ads, able to combine her love for both art and design.
“But I was at the end of my rope as a commercial artist,” she recalls. It was then that she met Oscar-winning costume designer Dorothy Jeakins at a party. “Dorothy told me she needed a sketch artist. And the next day I went to work for her"--for a month.
“She let me go, because, I think she didn’t like it that I was such a good artist,” Van Runkle says, laughing. “She felt threatened.”
Van Runkle says she was “desperately poor. I needed something better. Later Jeakins unexpectedly called, ‘I’ve just been asked to do a little western over at Warner Bros. and I recommended you.’ ”
Oh, by the way, Van Runkle adds, the western turned out to be “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“I’d never designed anything before. I never went to design school. I never went to art school. But I knew fashion. I knew style. I knew construction.I sewed by hand and by machine. I learned construction from Vogue patterns.”
She followed up her “Bonnie and Clyde” success with “The Thomas Crown Affair,” directed by Norman Jewison.
“He called me for an interview and sat back in his chair and asked, ‘Can you draw as well as Bob Mackie?’ And I said, ‘Better.’ And he said, ‘Well, I want to see that.’ When I showed him my drawings, he said, ‘Yeah, you are better.’ And we always got along. He was wonderful to me.”
“Whatever I needed, I got,” she says. “But I do remember that Norman didn’t like it if I bought $350 purses for Faye, but, of course, I always did.”
She says that during the making of “The Thomas Crown Affair” fashion was experiencing a transitional period “when the counterculture and the youth quake movement was having its impact on the length of skirts, primarily, minis and the no-bra look.”
For “The Thomas Crown Affair” Van Runkle envisioned for Dunaway hats with oversized brims, endless hairpieces that were braided and upswept and knee-length outfits.
“But Faye wanted the skirts to be right up to her crotch. We got into a knock-down, drag-out over it and she won,” Van Runkle says, adding that star power often can decide clothing choices.
As for McQueen, “he always was really glad to see me. He said, ‘Thank God, it’s you that they’ve chosen for this movie because I know my pants are gonna fit.’ Sometimes we had to put 30 pairs of trousers on him to get the right ones to make his behind look great,” she says.
“In those days the director totally left it up to me to create the look, the style for a film,” she says. “Nobody ever told me what to do. They didn’t feel that they had to have their hands on everything, the way they do now.”
And most important, “Everything was handmade. These days you go shopping. I mean, that’s fun. Everybody likes to go shopping. But when you’re a designer, well, I don’t think so.”
“Nowadays, movie makers want to spend no money on costumes and they want it to look like the great, golden age of costuming.”
In her more recent movies, including the current"I’m Losing You,” a contemporary film written and directed by Bruce Wagner, Van Runkle says, “I didn’t have a concept for costumes because I didn’t have any money.”
She worked “with what I could cull from people’s closets, my own closet and bits of fabric to put things together. It really wasn’t up to my standards. It was a styling job.”
And therein lies the rub, Van Runkle says. Too often, costume designing has become nothing more than a shopping spree, with stylists running around town picking up clothes from upscale fashion designers who have deals with studios for screen credit in exchange for free clothes.
“You can’t just know about clothes,” Van Runkle says. “That’s not enough. You have to be an illustrator of the character. That’s where the joy comes, in illustrating, in bringing out the person’s character through the clothes.”
The costume designer, she says “is an image-maker.”
“It may not sound like that’s so meaningful but I guarantee you if you see a movie that has everything but good costume design, that movie will flop.”
She believes in her heart that designing will return to the good, old days of costume sketches, cutters and fitters and sewing machines humming.
Until then, she’s content with life in the Hollywood Hills with her cats and collecting her memories for a book she’s currently writing, “Trimming Hats at Midnight, Stringing Beads at Dawn.”
And there’s her art and her oil painting class at UCLA. Her current assignment is to paint a plant in an unusual container. For Van Runkle that’s “a bouquet of flowers inside my skull.”
“If I could draw for four or five years right now, I mean really draw, that’s all I need. I mean, Van Gogh only painted for five years and produced a glorious body of work. I’m not saying I’m a genius like Van Gogh, but you don’t know what else you can pull out of yourself until you try.”