Designer’s Notebook: Costumes

jrblogheader2

jrEDC’s Founder and Chairman, Jeremy Railton, pulls back the curtain to give readers a rare glimpse into his creative mind in this personal blog, DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK.

DESIGNER’S NOTEBOOK shares Jeremy’s creative evolution through a series of intimate anecdotes, ‘scar-tissue’ tips, and the practical wisdom acquired from over 40+ years of entertainment design.

 

 

 

COSTUMES

FROM ZIMBABWE TO HOLLYWOOD

On my parents’ farm in Rhodesia, before it was Zimbabwe, there was a trading store, the only one for a twenty mile radius, so we tried to supply all the needs of the local community. On the verandah of the store there were two tailors who made clothes on their pedal-powered Singer sewing machines.

This was Stallion Sibanda and his sewing machine. He was also the farm’s ‘gun man’ whose responsibility it was to shoot Kudu to provide meat for the workers. The other tailor was Godwil.

 

They were also the district news-gatherers and for a six-year-old, this was the place to find out about births, deaths, and animal sightings—the Facebook of the 50s. Just to divert for a moment to appreciate our isolation at the time, world news came from a radio (called a wireless) and the local tribespeople would come in and sit on the ground in front of the radio to listen to the BBC broadcast services, punctuated with all of the whistles and beeps that usually come from a ham radio.  Whenever the announcer signed on or off, the tribes people would clap their hands and murmur polite ‘hellos’ and ‘good byes’ in Ndebele, the local language.

 

This is an approximation of our store, including the Raleigh Bike metal poster that showed the advantage of owning a bike because you could outdistance a Lion!

If I was not running around in the bush with my Ndebele friends, I was hanging around the trading store. Knowledge comes from strange places! It is here that I learned about costumes. There was a Lozwe tribe living across the river that had a legacy of brushes with Arab slave traders in the 1800s. The women would file their teeth to points to be less desirable to the slave traders. When they were first contacted by missionaries who seemed to take their side, the Lozwe women adapted their costumes to echo the missionary style of the late 1800s.   Their dresses were made from pleated blue print cotton fabric, called German Print, and the skirts had a bustle in the back made of twenty-three yards of material.

I remember being fascinated by the way the fabric swayed as the women carried baskets or cans of grain on their heads. Looking back, it was that vision that triggered my inner costume designer—that and watching the tailors carefully pleat yards and yards of material with blue soap. We were cash-poor farmers so both my sister and my Mum made their own clothes. Quite often they would ask me to draw up their ideas for dresses. Here is a dress that they designed for my sisters sweet sixteen party. She would be allowed to wear lipstick and high heels. I was nine when I painted this. My sister was given some fabric paint and soon every collar, every skirt, and every napkin and handkerchief was magically transformed by a painted theme, usually animals or flowers, and when I went to boarding school, I continued to develop my craft by making costumes for the school plays.

My sister and mother described this dress to me and I drew it as it was described. It was my first real costume sketch, although I enjoyed copying illustrations. I did this at age 8—I guess the costume writing was already on the wall!

My first school play, “The signing of the Magna Carta. “ I painted the insignias on the Lords’ costumes. My costume design career had begun!

Later at University of Cape Town, my childhood sweetheart, Winnie Ayliffe, a farmer’s daughter who had a very similar childhood to mine, came from Zimbabwe and started a very successful modeling career. Through Winnie, I was exposed to modeling and because we had very little money, we resorted to fashioning our clothes. I took thrift store suits from the 40s and cut them down and adapted my Grandfather’s Boar War jacket. Winnie made her dresses that in the case of the white one I painted and we made the fan out of gathered bush Ostrich feathers!

Our adventures in fashion got us noticed and set me off on a cycle of fashion trends for the rest of my life.

1963 cut-down jeans and some less than successful modeling outfits!

Following fashion trends whilst always trying to be ahead of the curve gave me the confidence to say ‘yes’ whenever an opportunity to design costumes was offered. I even had my hair dyed in rainbow colors using flax dye, inspired by a painting I had done. My trendy haircutter, Denny, at Sweeney Todd’s on Beecham Place in London, got the dye from his father who was in the flax business. He dyed Zandra Rhodes hair purple as it still is to this day!

In 1969, when Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Center Theater Group at the Mark Taper Forum and the director, Lamont Johnson, brought me to Los Angeles to design sets and props for Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw novella, The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God, somehow I talked them into letting me do the costumes.

It all went well because I had met and become friendly with Al Nickels and Lilly Fonda at Western Costume, the venerable Hollywood costume warehouse that had been in business since the days of silent movies. Al ran the women’s department and Lilly was the head cutter and fitter. In ’69, I was a long-haired London fashionista, and later I found out that they thought I was cool because when I signed a contract in front of them, I had to take off all of the rings on my fingers to be able to hold a pen.

Al and Lilly took me under their wings and became my ‘costume Mum and Dad.’  Al’s friend from school was Patty Ziegfeld, daughter of the great Broadway impresario, so I had a fast education about the Ziegfeld Follies, hanging on every word of Patty’s costume stories. Lilly guided me through fabric choices and showed me what it meant to cut on the bias and how to make costumes move (flash back to the Lozwe women.)

ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL IN HER SEARCH FOR GOD

I designed sets and costumes for two more plays at the Mark Taper. Aubrey Beardsley the Neophyte had a very small costume budget, so I came up with a solution by copying Beardsley’s illustrations onto cut-out cardboard costumes that the actors had to hold in front of them.

I was also asked to design the costumes for Isherwood’s A Meeting by the River, the story of how he and his life partner, the portrait artist, Don Bachardy, met. This assignment made me realize that costume design didn’t attract me unless I could be extravagant in some way.

Through Al and Lilly, I met the most successful costume designers of the day, including Dorothy Jeakins and Theadora Van Runkle who taught me the importance of sketching accurately, whether it was the mood of the costume or the structure. I also had several evening with Al, Lilly and their friend, Edith Head who had become the most prominent Hollywood costume designer of the 50s through brilliant sketches (famously done by sketch artists.)

Sketches by Dorothy Jeakins and Theodora Van Runkle

A BRUSH WITH GREATNESS: MAE WEST AND CECIL BEATON

Mae West had a starring role in Myra Breckinridge, based on Gore Vidal’s satirical novel. It was being filmed at Paramount, next door to Western Costumes and Al and Lilly invited me to meet her when she came for a fitting.  What followed was my first and most important lesson as to how vital a costume is to creating a character.

The Western lobby was emptied for Ms. West’s arrival and a small group of us stood in a greeting line. A white limo pulled up to the front and a large muscle man jumped out and held the door open for the legendary star.  A tiny little old lady, in a khaki rain coat and a short-brimmed fabric hat pulled over her eyes, waddled out. She passed us by with her head down, sort of gesturing. I was so disappointed!  Lilly went into the dressing room and ten minutes later brought us into the fitting room. There was Mae West in a huge hat, tall and elegant in a floor-length gown. She held her hand out to me and said “Oh, young man, where have you been all my life.” She had gone from a little old lady to movie icon in the flash of a costume change. Incidentally, her height came from standing on a box beneath her dress!

Civic Light Opera was putting on a production of My Fair Lady with costumes by Cecil Beaton, who had done the costumes for the original Broadway production and won an Academy Award for the film. Beaton didn’t want to come to LA, so it was suggested that I become his assistant and so I flew to London to meet him.

I felt like a farm boy in his incredible Kensington apartment as he looked me over, literally, and said, “I suppose you will do; they all seem to like you.” He handed me a bunch of sketches and said. “Use these.  I don’t like Lisa’s ball gown. Make another design, would you?” Gulp..! He followed with the best advice ever for costume design.  “Just because a design looks good on paper it does not mean it will look good on the body. Design to the body not to the paper!” The meeting took an hour and I was winging back to LA.  I was suddenly Cecil Beaton’s assistant.  It all went off well and I even designed Lisa’s Ball gown under the close supervision of Lilly Fonda!

ON THE JOB TRAINING

I was introduced to Miles White, a famous costume designer who had done the costume design for the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma and Carousel. He was doing the costumes for a Los Angeles Civic Light Opera production of 1491, with music/lyrics by Meredith (The Music Man) Wilson, and he needed an assistant.   At the end of his career, his drinking was getting in the way so one of my jobs was to get as much information from him about his extremely loose costume sketches before “martini time” which began at 11 AM! Soon after, he became slightly incoherent but always sweet and so I had to quickly learn how to organize and administer costumes for a production. Supported by the most famous costume house in the world at that time, I pulled it off and was then given another amazing opportunity.

When I was brought to the US, I was given an indefinite work visa with open entry and was not aware how lucky I was as I wandered the world, living in Rome and London. I mixed with a fashionable set and brushed shoulders with designers like Zandra Rhodes, Tommy Nutter and Michael Fish who were my fashion influences at the time. Between jobs, I painted and even had a show at a gallery in Los Angeles where I wore a gift from Tommy Nutter, a suit he originally designed for John Lennon.

Back in Los Angeles, I worked for David Josephs and Warren Enter, the managers of Angel, a glam rock band that came on the heels of Kiss. It was an exciting time; I had the opportunity to design the full package: sets for the tour, the album cover and of course their costumes and it was here that I learned the great advantage of collaborating with musicians who inevitably have very strong opinions about their own look. By collaborating with them, we were able to explore amazingly esoteric looks that they felt they owned.

I even had a trip to Africa to visit my parents who had sold the farm and who now owned a private game park adjacent to the Khami Ruins, the former site of a fourteenth century civilization. I was helping my parents by designing my first master plan for an eco-tourist center when I received a call from my friend, Kenny Solms. He was producing Three Girls, an NBC musical series starring Mimi Kennedy, Ellen Foley, and Debbie Allen. Kenny invited me to design the sets and costumes but he needed me to start immediately! I stopped feeding the ostriches and making roads and in two days I found myself back in Los Angeles, on my knees with pins in my mouth, taking the measurements of the three gorgeous girls. Fortunately they thought I had been flown in from London and didn’t know that I had been wandering around in the African bush two days before!

As a sad side note, that was the last time I saw my parents. A year later they were ambushed and killed by terrorist. I’ve always felt blessed that I had been able to spend the last year of their lives with them.

Three Girls: Ellen Foley, Mimi Kennedy, and Debbie Allen– sets and costumes.

There is one piece of work as a costume designer that I am really proud of. I had been working with Sid and Marty Krofft doing sets, costumes, and puppets on a tiny budget (clever hands at home and a hot glue gun) for shows like Far Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer. I would have a budget of a hundred dollars a week for the aliens!

Far Out Space Nuts and The Lost Saucer were the lowest budget I ever had for costumes so each week was a triumph when I actually had clothes for the aliens to wear.

With my friend, Patti Malone, a cast member in all the Krofft’s shows.

I designed the sets and costumes for The Krofft Superstar Hour, a Saturday morning children’s show featuring the Bay City Rollers, a Scottish boy band clone of the Beatles. It was always a challenge to find a new look each week. One of my strategies was to go to Grosch, the oldest backdrop and scenic company in Hollywood and rummage in their attic. One week I discovered a Salvador Dali backdrop that he had done for a dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound and used it for a Rollers background!

When Sid and Marty signed on to produce the Donny and Marie Variety Show pilot, I was the set and Costume Designer.

Donny and Marie needed a new look. Donny was 18 and Marie was 16 and their costumes were like Elvis’s Polyester jump suits with studs, which had been great in the day but in 1975 it was time for a change. I rolled up my sleeves, jumped in with them, and discovered the most talented, hardworking, sweetest teenagers I had ever met. We had fun coming up with crazy “young and hip clothes.”

Looking back, I have mixed feelings of pride, although it was the mid-seventies when fashion was at sea! The show was picked up and I did an entire season of costume design. Whenever I think back to this time, I remember a season with no sleep. We taped on Fridays and usually got the next week’s show script. I can still remember my costume list:

  • Donny and Marie, Ice skating costumes, opening song costumes
  • A ballad each
  • Sketch comedy outfits
  • The Osmonds in Concert
  • The finale red white and blue number
  • 6 guest stars from Bob Hope to Farah Fawcett for sketch costumes
  • Ice skaters finale

I would sketch all of Friday and over the weekend. On Monday morning I would deliver the designs to the shop on the lot that I was supervising. No wonder I was tired. The sheer volume and speed of design forced me to run through my entire repertoire of ideas. I even pulled out fabric painting from my childhood and noticed how birds and flowers were still featured.

I lasted a year and then a tiny incident made me realize I didn’t have the temperament to be a real costume designer: I was on my knees again, with pins in my mouth in the middle of a fitting with the gorgeous ice skaters when an extra came up and in the middle of everything pointed to a shirt button that was slightly askew and asked me to fix it. I froze and my brain buzzed. I was barely able to smile and say I would get to it, but it was at that moment that I decided to keep to sets. Sets don’t rely on body type and they never asked for things!

That was just about the end of my costume career. I did some set and costume design for the wonderful KC and the Sunshine Band and sets and costumes for Zoobilee Zoo, a children’s TV show that featured performers dressed as animals. As an African animal lover, my first take was that the animals should look ‘real.’ The producers were very conscientious about test marketing every decision with a typical kid audience, so I designed a spectrum of test costumes—from ‘realistic’ to what I thought was ‘gaudy, bright and ugly.’ The kids loved the ‘gaudy, bright, and ugly!’ I also came up with a prosthetic device for the actors faces and won my fist Emmy for Costume Design because they had never seen this look before. Now I see those exact same prosthetics in every Halloween costume shop.

The Latin Quarter, a show created and directed by Kenny Ortega was a production at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas and I designed the sets and costumes. Remembering the skirts of the Lozwe women and how they swayed, with this show I realized that Latin dance, more than ice skating and ballet, really relied on the clothes to enhance the mood, the sexiness, and life of the dance. Whether Salsa, Cha-cha, Tango, Samba, Rumba or Merengue, each dance requires its own costume to be cut in a certain way, a challenge I embraced and loved.

Although I had a relatively short career as a costume designer, I met some amazing people and my greatest pleasure was collaborating to make clothes that made performers happy! Costume awareness also helped me be a better production designer.

So this is the story of how an African farm boy got to design costumes in Hollywood: Always say ‘yes’!