News from the Costume Chair

by Sharon Shore, Costume Chair


Lana Turner trench coat from "A Life of Her Own"In 1950, Lana Turner wore our Spring display costume portraying “Lily James” in the film, A Life of Her Own. George Cukor directed the film which was made at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in Culver City. In this postwar story about an independent career girl, Lily leaves small town life in Kansas, begins a career as a model in New York City and promptly falls in love with a wealthy, married, business man.

The coat is a version of a classic style known as the “trench coat,” based on a rain coat worn by officers in WWI. The style is worn by both men and women and has come to signify “tough professional life in the big city” which Lily experiences in the film story. It features a notched lapel collar, deep patch pockets and long cuffed sleeves on a loosely fitted long coat. The trench coat also includes a wide belt at the waist.

This version of the coat was designed by famed designer Helen Rose. The gently rounded collar points and softly gathered waist of her design give the coat a slightly feminized look. It’s made of soft peach colored wool fully lined in silk crepe color.


Our second costume on display is from the film Words and Music, a musical eulogy to songwriter Larry Hart, as told by his partner Richard Rodgers. The film was released in 1948 by MGM. In it, Ann Sothern, portraying Joyce Harmon, wears a two-piece dress ensemble also designed by Helen Rose.

The top includes long raglan sleeves, a fitted waist and peplum extension to hip length. It is constructed of navy blue crepe silk with an intermittent garden pattern of pale pink flowers and green leaves; the flowers are rather like “lilies of the valley.” However, the best “not-to-be-missed” pattern detail is the matching pink Venus de Milo statue visible at the far end of the garden. The ensemble skirt is navy blue, plain silk crepe in a “straight” style.


Many visitors to the ARC ask why all of the costumes in our collection are not on permanent display. They would like to see more of the collection. The answer is that the idea is wonderful but not feasible to implement. And here’s why:

  • Most of the costumes in our collection are made of materials which have a kind of “inherent vice.” Silk and wool fabrics will eventually become extremely fragile, no matter how well they are stored and cared for. They are made of proteins, just as we are and have versions of the same aging attributes. (Alas!)
  • Also, all of the costumes in our collection were made for performance. Think of all the movement required for dancing, singing and acting in film and theatre productions, often staged over and over again.

Even the Fiesta Ballona Court dresses were subject to performance. All of the costumes show signs of wear such as broken zippers, burst seams and of course, sweat stains just to name a few concerns. Many have unrepaired damage. Often minor conservation repairs must be made before a costume can be safely displayed.

  • Display also requires a certain amount of handling which can include surface cleaning, padding out of sleeves, etc. Even the most gentle professional handling adds to the “wear” history of a costume.
  • Also, the display of historic costumes requires special mannequins chosen to support the costume without stress to construction, materials and exposure to harmful reactive surfaces. The museum currently has only five mannequins which can be made ‘archivally’ acceptable to support a variety of costume types. Mannequin display is one of our biggest challenges.
  • While on display, the costumes are exposed to light, humidity, airborne soils (dust and dander for example), and even the possibility of insects in our unfiltered museum environment.

All of these factors can accelerate aging and potentially cause damage. The longer the display period, the greater likelihood of damage. The recommended maximum display period for historic costumes is about three months and the museum does observe that recommendation.

Finally, a sincere thanks for all the enthusiastic support the membership has shown for our costume display efforts. We would need a Super Lotto-sized amount of funding to display most of the museum costumes at once. In the meantime, we will continue to make slow but steady progress.

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