Memoirs Of A Hollywood Costumer: Vintage in Film

By | Bloggers |

 

 
Marsha with Matt Dillon.  Marsha was the wardrobe supervisor for Drugstore Cowboy.
Photograph from  Marsha’s collection. rights reserved.

 

I have always had a love for the costumes created by the master designers of film.  As we get closer to the Oscars I am reminded of their importance. They take us to that time, setting or moment, and breathe life into a character. Giving us a string of unconscious visual cues about their personal nuances. So when I had to chance to interview a fellow vintage shop owner with a colorful costume design past- I was on it! I was able to candidly interview costume designer and wardrobe supervisor, Marsha Perloff. She is admittedly now retired, but is still working with vintage as the owner of Ranch Queen Vintage.  She has 1,000s of costume and vintage items stock piled from her film and T.V. days which fuel her new clothing passion which is Ranch Queen.

 The Interview:

Everyone always asks how one gets started with vintage but how did your path lead you to working not only with vintage but with costume, wardrobe, and film?

I was dressing in vintage back in high school in the 70s. My passion began during my trips to flea markets with my mother who was a clothing and antique buff. We bonded over these things although we had different tastes. She fostered my creativity by letting me choose clothing and décor that I liked. I was able dress how I wanted. She also taught me about quality. She had a few wonderful designer dresses she wore to special events. One Valentino, I remember her wearing and another Ungaro piece. She also had a dressmaker she used to create designs she saw but couldn’t afford. Whatever she didn’t use, scrap material and such were made into outfits for my Barbies. (I thought those barbies probably never looked better!) Sewing became a part of my life. I started to merge my aesthetic appreciation of vintage with sewing. I made totally mixed patchwork garments with vintage and recycled materials. I loved the vintage it was so romantic.

So this set you up to fall into the arms of costume design but how exactly did that happen?

I started really collecting in the late 70s when I moved to San Francisco to go to film school at SF state. I loved the hippie look and movement – so I moved there to Haight Ashbury to live. It wasn’t the Haight of the 60s but it was romantic…I started working in rock clubs, as a cocktail waitress in the 70s-80s to put myself through school. It was there I would wear my vintage mixed outfits to work: 1910-1920s era boots with tights and 40s rayon dresses. I mixed a lot of different eras. People would ask hey where did you get this or that? One time a rep for a local indie clothing company asked if I would like to style their wardrobe for a catalogue shoot. At the time I thought it was kind of funny someone paying me to put together my look. I was thinking I’d be an artist, film maker…. This kind of started it.

Marsha in her waitress days wearing vintage. Image property of Marsha Perloff.


So what was the big break or first film/tv costume position you had-how did you get from wardrobe stylist to costume?

My friend Ellen was a prop master. She knew of a costume designer that needed an assistant, so I moved to L.A and did free lance. I did stuff like dress the extras, returns, hands on selection of clothing and also got noticed for my seamstress abilities. I remember freaking out a little when a custom made Stetson, for the main character, needed aging and they asked me to do it authentically….

But, the big break was when I was pulled on to do a pilot for a show called The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, starring Blair Brown, which was picked up. The main character was a working woman who lives in New York and she doesn’t quite have the cash but she still had a flair for fashion. They wanted her to have a look similar to mine – kind of off-beat. It was actually one of the first shows where the lead character wore a creative mix of vintage as her wardrobe, not just box designer stuff (which her character really wouldn’t have been able to afford). Blair wore a mix of some 40s blouses, a bakelite pin etc. In the show, her ex-husband was a jazz musician, he wore a lot of 50s shirts and coats.  This show was special for me because it was like someone was validating my own personal style and it showed on the show. I worked in Los Angeles for the show three seasons, until it was moved to NYC. I decided not to make the move.

What was your favorite type of film to work with?

Well– I really wanted the period pieces as much as possible because of the vintage, but they were hard to come by. I did a lot of rock videos, TV movies, big screen films, commercials…

Spuds Mackenzie and Marsha on the set of the commercial. Rights Reserved.

What was one of your most memorable experiences from working on a film?

A memorable experience was as wardrobe supervisor for Driving Miss Daisy. It was a lower budget film so we had to be creative. We couldn’t afford to have era copies made and we had lots of scenes, from lots of eras of her life and we had extras to fit from each of those eras! All in vintage, sometimes people forget it is scarce, it doesn’t always survive.. Her life on film was from 1947-1985! We had trouble at first finding the amount of clothing we needed because when we started sourcing from the Los Angeles costume houses, there were three other period pieces in production at the time.  Everything had already been rented. So we left for Georgia with very few costumes and hoped when we got on location we could find more. We were feeling very nervous about how we were going to costume the film.


Now I as the interviewer vintage lover, I was on the edge of my seat because I know Georgia and how it can have some crazy estates and vintage hoards and the story didn’t disappoint as she continued….

Well, our 1st AD had run across an ad in a local paper saying that there was a Macon barn sale, where an old family dry goods business that had closed in the 60s was selling its stock off. We took a chance and drove there. We arrived and it was in an old barn and there was vintage décor and clothing on racks, tables, and such….racks and racks of 30s-40s clothing with tags still on them. The prices couldn’t be beat because the owners- kind of saw it as a headache, so they let us have loads for one a great price. Honestly, that is how we costumed the film.   The image below is a pretty typical shot  we would take of actors in their costumes (in the old  pre-computer/digital phone days!) for our continuity notebook. Some scenes were shot over long periods and we needed to make sure everyone’s wardrobe and accessories matched perfectly at all times. I probably had asked them to hold their purses up so I could see them better.

Driving Miss Daisy, shot by Marsha of extras in costume, rights reserved.

Wow, we all dream about or have had that one crazy vintage moment where it is like opening a vault and going back in time, but that certainly takes the cake..

Favorite moment from it all?

Well the day to day was hard work, but the real reward was seeing the finished film. Seeing your work come to life in front of you in context. It is a moving experience. Driving Miss Daisy as well as Of Mice and Men were particularly rewarding. Of course the Fabulous Baker Boys was a dream experience as well.

Marsha working on the set, where she was “dirtying” the clothing of the extras with dust, on Of Mice and Men.

So my mind as a vintage seller/collector landed on one all consuming thought: all of those clothes used on films throughout the years! Her roster included – Driving Miss Daisy, Of Mice and Men, The Fabulous Baker Boys (which led me to deviate to the hotness that must have been Jeff Bridges at that time wow. Who she described as super down to earth and nice….),Drugstore Cowboy, Spuds Mackenzie commercials….Did you keep the clothing I blurted out??

Well, yes that kind of led me to how I got here with the stock for the store. Basically after a production wrapped whatever the studio didn’t put back into the stock, I would buy. The collection got quite large. When I became more involved in dog training and rescue I had less interest in going on location for extended periods. I became involved in a rental business here in the city called Costume Collection, where productions would rent pieces and we, the consigners – all costumers, got a percentage when they rented. Unfortunately, finally with the economy, a few years back, it went out of business and they said we should get our stuff…well I had thousands of items. So I got what I could and brought them to my home and studio to start the store. 

Shoes currently for sale, used on the set of Driving Miss Daisy. Click here.

Is there a piece of vintage from your collection that you will never sell?

Yes, a very rare 1960s Rudy Gernreich silk mini.

I can see why, I thought enviously- what a dress!

1960s Rudy Gernreich Silk Dress. Ranch Quenn Vintage Image, rights reserved.

So do you still have connections to costume design?

Yes, I have some old industry /theater connections. I prefer to sell to them not rent, but that is a link I still have. Recently, I sold some items to Mad Men, which were worn by main characters.

Bikini, circa 1960s from Marsha’s store, worn by Megan on set in Hawaii for Mad Men.  Megan’s image is a press image released by deadline.com. Season 6 Mad Men.

With that I added my final question. If you could go back in time and work with any costume designer for film who would it be and why? What if I said you could work on any film or production, which would it be?

Adrian of course. He created the dream. He would take something the leading lady had, an asset and hone in on it… create iconic signature looks like Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads. He was avant garde and innovative.

The film or production I would choose… That is a good but hard question…hum. I think it would be one of the Ziegfeld Follies, for the grandness, glitter, and outrageous sparkle… they just don’t make films like that today…..

Well played, Adrian Adolph Greenburg or Gilbert Adrian as he was known was a master. (See my post on him for more information if you don’t know his history….he was true magic).  The Ziegfeld Follies for those who aren’t familiar were a series of large glam theater productions based on the Follies Bergeres of Paris (1907-1931). This also led to a film. 

Louise Brooks a famous Zeigfeld gal, circa 1925 in costume. Press/Follies historical image.

You seem to have an appreciation for film history…..

Actually that leads me to something important that really shaped me in terms of my career, that I had forgotten to mention until now. I grew up in Culver City, a small town that was home to the MGM studios. At the time it was only about 30,000 people. Many of my friend’s parents worked at the studio not as directors or anything – but as secretaries and grips… so I was exposed to it from an early age. It didn’t have the tight security sets and studios today have. I remember just one long green wooden fence and a lone security guard. We snuck in to the back lots numerous times, I remember playing in what seemed like miles of finely grated plastic (fake movie snow)… Something big that sort of marked me for collecting was when MGM had their closing auction and sold all the costumes in the 70s. I was a teenager, so I couldn’t afford much just the left overs…. I bought a gown probably worn by an extra in a film, maybe Gone With the Wind… it was that sort. The mayor at the time bought a pair of the ruby slippers for the city….

Marsha with Pierce Brosnan on the set of Victim of Love 1991


That is so cool, such a meaningful experience. Thanks for sharing those things. My mind wandered through her romantic land of green picket fences, ruby slippers, old hollywood sets and plastic snow, Haight Ashbury, 80s rock clubs and daisies. Marsha’s store Ranch Queen Vintage is bit of that life she has shared here with us, as colorful and eclectic as she is inside and out. She left costume work around 2000 and has since focused on the dogs and her store.  Marsha now lives on a large plot of land, outside LA, working these days with rescue dogs and the shop. 100% of all her sales go to care for the dogs at Devil Dog Ranch. (Click here to visit her SHOP or her work with our four legged friends at www.devildogranch.com).  


Interesting Sources for Costume/History:


Kent State Gallery of Costume, 18th,19th 20th Century Fashion/Costume


Dorothy Jeakins Costume Design Archive 1932-1975


B.J. Simmons & Co. Costume Design Records


Met Spotlight on Gilbert Adrian.

Past Comments:

5 comments:

1. Karen said…

What a great post!

2. cookie said…

Not only is Marsha is a classy lady, who knows her vintage, she is a warm and lovely human being.

We met last year when she opened her home and studio for a vintage team meet up.

Continued success!
Barbara aka Cookie

3. Mary said…

That Driving Miss Daisy story is the best! I’ve seen the movie a million times and next time I’ll really look at the costumes and remember where they came from!

4. Elly Maggy said…

I really enjoyed reading this interview, thank you!

Thanks so much for your comments, Marsha’s life and stories made it easy. She is great! I am working on keeping the interviews and unique posts coming.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *