Interview with Larry McQueen, Hollywood Costume Collector Extraordinaire

Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth in “Orlando” Designed by Sandy Powell
All Photos courtesy The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design

This year Spring has brought Oscar season in tow. This atypical arrangement has us pining for old Hollywood glamour which renowned costume collector Larry McQueen has in spades. I was thrilled for the chance to interview this sartorial expert last week

Larry McQueen

McQueen, whose collection of both men’s and women’s costumes of note, was started in the mid-’80s when the idea of collecting film costumes (pre-Planet Hollywood) was largely underground. Since then, he has amassed approximately 650 ensembles making him one of the largest known private collectors.

With a college degree in technical theater, McQueen came to Los Angeles in 1978 in search of acting roles. His day job was as an archivist at a law firm, giving him a steady income and the use of a computer – two things that would serve him well in his future endeavors.

Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans in “New York New York”
Designed by Theadora Van Runkle

Through his friend Bill Thomas who was assisting Actress Debbie Reynolds in collecting and cataloging Hollywood movie memorabilia, McQueen became interested in preserving historically valuable costumes. Once considered disposable goods, after a principal actor had worn an item, it could end up on another actor, an extra, or even altered into something else entirely.

 If the article of clothing had not been “used on a million backs,” it would be relegated to storage, hanging on wooden hangers crammed with thousands of other costumes in a musty warehouse with nesting birds amongst the folds or, even worse, destroyed or thrown out. Often costumes were sold to secondhand stores or for use as Halloween attire! 

Mae West in Nightclub Act
Designed by Edith Head

Sometime in the ’80s, auction houses such as Camden House Auctioneers in LA, Christie’s East in NY, and Sotheby’s in NY and LA, became interested in the costumes monetary value. Thomas and McQueen were hired by studios to research, identify, archive, authenticate and set up items for sale.

McQueen learned to identify designers from the garment’s inside construction and weed out any imposters. Construction of film costume was different than normal clothing, usually constructed around a waist tape, internal corseting or support and, depending on the studio, labeled with the star name and production number.

When it was later discovered that garments that were rented out by studios or costume houses (which had purchased much of the stock from studios) did not come back, depending on the importance of the garment—labels were often taken out.

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in “Cleopatra”
Designed by Travis Banton

“Starting in 2000, I worked for MGM/UA for thirteen years, who were systematically pallets of materials for fifty years. I suggested that “maybe we should look at these things.” I worked with another film costume historian to determine what was historically significant – we created an archive and photographed, tagged, and archivally stored everything.

Janet Leigh as Bess Houdini in “Houdini”
Designed by Edith Head

McQueen decided to concentrate on his own collection, doing for himself what he had been doing for the studio. “The whole purpose of the collection has always been to share with the public the fashions statements as created by Hollywood. Even though the star name was important to draw attention, it was not about who might have sweat in it (McQueen calls that the “Ick Factor”).

Greta Garbo as Queen Christina in “Queen Christina”
Designed by Gilbert Adrian

When Greta Garbo’s “Queen Christina” 60 lb huge beaded Adrian designed gown (MGM 1933) came up for sale, both Thomas and McQueen coveted it but couldn’t individually afford the $12,000 price tag.

They decided to split the cost, and thus The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design was formed. After Thomas died in 1996, McQueen kept the business going.

Marlene Dietrich’s “Angel” gown
Designed by Travis Banton

Another amazing piece was Marlene Dietrich’s “Angel” (Paramount 1937) beaded column gown and matching fur-trimmed stole. The dress is known as the “Faberge,” being as ornate as one of the eggs — it was designed by Travis Banton for one short scene and cost $8,000 to make – the highest priced costume of its time. Dietrich was used to keeping her costumes, but when she was denied ownership, legend has it that she stormed off in anger.

This gown has quite the story behind it – it was used and reused – chopped up into various iterations for other actresses to wear until McQueen had it restored — a true labor of love as he learned from the original workshop how to do the hand-beaded work himself. It took five years to return it to its original glory and great personal expense, without which the gown could never have withstood the rigors of display.

You can read the whole fascinating story on his blog here: Fun fact: Diana Vreeland featured this gown at The Met, and it was shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Unfortunately, creating gowns like this or even restoring them is now a dying art since studios no longer have budgets, manpower, or artistry available to them.

Gina Lollobrigida as Lady L in “Lady L”
Designed by Orry-Kelly

Meanwhile, the collection grew thoughtfully from a representative fashion and historical perspective to include items from the Victorian era to silent film pieces from the ’20s to the golden age of Hollywood of the ’30s, ’40s, to the new silhouette of the ’50s and to more contemporary pieces including several from television shows. “Today’s contemporary is tomorrow’s vintage,” McQueen likes to say.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in “Cleopatra”
Designed by Renie Conley with Vittorio Nino Novarese

His favorite era is the “golden age” period during the war when Hollywood could afford to use the best fabrics and materials that real people couldn’t dream of acquiring. “During the war, Hollywood became the center of fashion. Paris was all but shut down. Movies had a much wider audience than those going to a Paris fashion show – millions rather than thousands. You could pay 25 cents to see a film rather than buy a fashion magazine.”

Joan Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce” costume

On the vintage classics, I’ve forever wanted to know how studios chose what colors to use for costumes to ensure that they pop in black and white. It’s always amazing how luminous the clothing appears – this is due to screen testing and costume test shots of many different fabrics. “When people see the Joan Crawford ‘Mildred Pierce’ costume that’s worn for a lot of the film, they always say ‘that’s the suit?’

It’s a puce-y green color, but it photographed well. Also, Bette Davis’s red dress in “Jezebel” is a burgundy brown, which appeared as a brighter red on camera. When Technicolor came out, it also changed the actual colors.”

As far as a preference for an individual costume designer McQueen is partial to the “more relatable silhouettes and bias cuts” of little-known Travis Banton at Paramount (Edith Head was his assistant) as opposed to the more widely known Adrian’s “big and overblown spectacular period pieces.”

Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist in “Gaslight”
Designed by Irene

That said, he admits to being a sucker for a beaded gown – even acquiring a few red carpet and various stage gowns of the ’70s and ’80s worn by Cher, Susan Anton, Natalie Cole, and Dionne Warwick (who contacted him to repurchase them after having supposedly left them too long at the dry cleaner).

Billy Barty as Guildor in “Masters of The Universe”
Designed by Julie Weiss

When we spoke he was at his temperature-controlled loft space where he stores his collection and not far from his home in Hollywood. “I love these things a lot, but I don’t necessarily want to live with them,” he explained. Everything is stored as in museum conditions — in individual boxes wrapped in unbleached muslin, acid-free tissue, and Tyvek. “If you’re going to pay that much, you have the responsibility to take care of it. Otherwise, it’s like leaving an incredible painting in the sun.”

Susan Hayward as Helen Larson in “Valley of the Dolls”
Designed by William Travilla

These treasures are like pets or children — they require constant tending, particularly if a piece is going out on the road to an exhibition, often abroad. “Most interest is in the European markets,” he said. “That’s how they know us and our culture. Of course, it costs much more to ship and insure than going locally. Sometimes I will get a call about an exhibition in a small castle or something, and I have to explain to them how much it will cost them in shipping.”

Sharon Stone

Costume multiples do exist for some films. I had recently read that Sharon Stone has her “Basic Instinct” white “legs uncrossed” dress while McQueen also boasts one in his collection. There were three scenes when she wore this outfit – one was in the rain, which is the one that he acquired. “It was all sealed up in a plastic bag and full of mold. I asked the dry cleaner if he could get it out. The material has sort of a spongy quality to it, and luckily, almost all of it came out except a bit on the inside.”

Another story was about the heartbreaking division of Debbie Reynolds collection — a three-day auction of props including set pieces, cars, boats, and costumes that took place in May 2014. “She offered various museums the whole collection for either $1M or $6M, and they all refused when they certainly could have raised that money.

On the first day of the auction, she made $22M! I wanted certain pieces, but very quickly realized I was no longer a player, being bid out by buyers across the world such as South Korea and Dubai. I thought I was not going to get anything, but I ended up with two pieces: her costume from ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’ and another from ‘The Adventures of Don Juan.’

Barbara Streisand as Dolly Levi in “Hello Dolly”
Designed by Irene Sharaff

“I was devastated – it was horrible to see that collection broken up. It made my resolve even deeper not to sell these pieces of history.” Now, he is considering museums such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Museum in LA, where costumes can reside.

Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in “The Other Boleyn Girl”
Designed by Sandy Powell

Like fashion designers, costume designers often don’t keep their own archives. When a retrospective for British costume designer and three-time Oscar-winner Sandy Powell was planned, she reached out to McQueen, who had the Tilda Swinton “Orlando” costume, as well as “Interview with the Vampire,” and “The Other Boleyn Girl” costumes.

Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde 2,”
Designed by Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell

What does he watch now to see great costuming work? “If you want to see great 1900’s New York rich and ultra-rich silhouettes watch (HBO-TV’s) series ‘The Gilded Age.’ The clothes are wonderful.” He speculated that less of the clothing will be put out in the market due to this show.

Juliet Prowse as Lili in “G.I. Blues”
Designed by Edith Head

Is McQueen’s collection still growing? “I maybe add 1-2 pieces a year,” he said. Between running out of space and what he terms the more prevalent “greed aspect of collecting where people are concerned with the financial, not the art form or the history. It started to get where you just never knew who’s your friend and who just wanted to get into your closet.”

Even with the predators at the door, Larry McQueen loves what he does. “People react to film costumes like nothing else. That’s as close as you’re ever going to get to that character or that star. It’s a visceral thing that happens – these are images that stick with you when you see the film and the actual costume.”

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Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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