Grad school in Southern California was a culture shock. So many interstates, weather that only changed but a few degrees, bronzed bodies that looked nothing like my own, and landscapes of excesses, despite the direction of the compass I turned.
I remember the first time I went to the garment district, back in those days when there was nary a chain restaurant to be found, and the only opportunities for bathroom was either Michael Levine’s or the brilliant Middle Eastern Halal restaurant who would allow the group of us four girls to use their bathroom after plates of yellow rice and kabobs. Someone please twist my arm to eat that goodness again!
I remember so fondly the four of us grad-school costume designers either in twos or trios or quartets commuting north both to save money and to beat feet (?) in the carpool lane, frantically shopping to leave by 3:30 PM to beat the traffic. Kimberley, Joyce, Felicia… I hope you miss those times as much as I do and that they bring you as many a fond remembrances as they do me. The four of us need as many fond remberances of that time as we can get.
I also remember the first time I ventured further, north of downtown LA, past Griffin Park and west of Burbank with Kimberley to Western Costume. This particular experience was another one of two firsts—so-cal rental houses and tom kha kai. The latter I’ve been able to carry with me in preparation (especially for times of illness), the former I only revisit in my dreams and when I am extremely lucky.
Western Costume. I suppose that there are spaces that people imagine hold all of the answers to a multitude of questions… alien landings, where the Holy Grail is stored, the street address that Elvis currently lives on… But for me, the space where my historical imagination made manifest is Western Costume.
I was inspired to speak about my experience in western costume after reading the article below that came out in the Hollywood reporter:
“For a girl who’d just moved to Los Angeles, Western Costume was like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of Hollywood,” says Oscar-nominated Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter of the 120,000-square-foot “treasure trove” in North Hollywood that includes a dedicated library, milliner, cobbler and 2.5 million costumes worn by stars from the Golden Age onward. “As you walked around, you’d hear on the loudspeaker names of designers being paged,” adds Carter, who asked the costume supplier to make the split-toe boots of the Marvel best picture contender’s Dora Milaje warriors. “Hearing that [A Clockwork Orange‘s] Milena Canonero or [The English Patient‘s] Ann Roth was in the building, you kept hoping they were in the next aisle. It’s this magical place where not only stars came in to be fit, your heroes were doing their artistry.”
I remember being introduced to the space while helping my friend Kimberley, who was a third year when I was a first year, pull men’s suits for rental for her 1930s set production of Die Fledermaus.
I wasn’t prepared by the VOLUME…
Imagine wanting something and finding that exact something in the exact way you envisioned; but book ending the perfect something was an even better something that you didn’t know you wanted even more. Western Costume.
Eight miles of rental stock, from prehistory to the 1990s. I promise that this is not an infomercial or advertisement. I am totally fangirling. This behavior is totally justified.
Like the author of the article above, I remember hearing the names of designers (that I would look up later when I got home) being called and told them that their pull racks were ready. I returned a multitude of times where I would climb the one and two story step ladders to go through rows after rows after rows of men’s suits from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and pull what I needed while dreaming of the day when others would be paid to pull while I would be paged.
Like this warehouse of everything costumes and props was totally ambivalent to and disinterested in my fangirling. Perhaps the costumes are embarrassed for me by my fangirling. They don’t need it. They know who they are, they know where they are. I work toward that same ethos on the daily.
But I do think that the truth of this place beyond its quantity is in its democracy. It welcomes the (now) older version of me who no longer needs to hear my name paged, pulling costumes for a production of The Little Foxes in Fresno, California, and has gifts to surprise and to help me with my design vision. This space still welcomes me to be there, helping me as I am.
Photos Courtesy of Western.
P.S. If you have any stories you’d like to share combing through this iconic landmark, share away. I’d love to hear them! #WesternCostume