Talk on costume design in silent film

One of my areas of interest is costume design and recently, I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of costume design in silent film, both from the early days of the medium (D.W. Griffiths, Cecil B. DeMille) and modern throwback silents like Blancanieves and The Artist. In early 2013 I spoke to fashion historian Michelle Finamore about her book Hollywood Before Glamour and in December, she invited me to give a talk at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, where she is curator of Fashion Arts.

Collector John Davey joined us and shared his passion for cinematic costume – his private archives span decades and genres, from early film to iconic silver sreen moments like Bette Davis’ makeover suit from Now, Voyager to an entire all-pink courtroom costume worn by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. À propos our topic, Davey brought a few prized pieces to show the audience: an immaculately embroidered lamé gown owned by Pola Negri, and a crimson jacket worn by Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik, one of just three in existence.

I then spent the afternoon behind the heavy wooden doors of the Museum’s textile and costume department, touring their library, archives, conservation rooms and catching a glimpse of several costumes being restored for use in Finamore’s next exhibition, on early Hollywood wardrobe and jewellery (planned for Autumn 2014). I watched as the team gingerly unpacked a box to reveal a gold lamé gown worn by Mae West (swaddled in archival tissue), and other gems from West’s personal and costume wardrobe, including a vivid purple dress by Elsa Schiaparelli destined for Finamore’s upcoming “Hollywood Glamour” exhibition.

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