Farewell to Hollywood History’s Costume Queen: Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016)

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Cast your imagination back a few decades, and envision this scenario: The Golden Age of Hollywood was already a fading memory, and many of the legendary studios were being shut down or restructured under conglomerates. Sets and costumes from some of the greatest scripts ever committed to film were being allowed to rot in warehouses, of little value to the new Hollywood. You could, if you had been there at the time, walk away with truckloads of memorabilia for as good as free for the taking.

Two costumes worn by Jean Hagen and Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain.

Try to imagine Cecil Beaton and Adrian-designed gowns like the Ascot dress from My Fair Lady (1964) and the lavish Marie Antoinette (1938), Marilyn Monroe’s white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch, Charlie Chaplain’s bowler hat, and thousands of other iconic film costumes and accessories, all destined for the dump.

Debbie Reynolds poses with the “subway” dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Via Movie Prop Collectors.

Enter screen legend Debbie Reynolds. When she caught word that thousands of costumes and props were slated to be trashed to make way for current productions, she swung to the rescue. As Reynolds recalled years later in her 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter:

“They literally threw away our history, and I just got caught up in it. The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”

Debbie Reynolds’ and Gregory Peck’s costumes from How the West Was Won (1962).

In the late 1980s, Reynolds opened her collection to the public in Las Vegas, but 10 years later, the museum was bankrupt. The collection was offered to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences several times and each time was refused, meaning that the bulk of the collection languished in storage. Occasionally, some of the more important pieces were loaned out to other exhibitions, but most were simply warehoused in hopes that one day they would be displayed again. Over the years, she auctioned off pieces of her collection, and in 2011, 600 items of her costumes and memorabilia went on the block. You can still download the catalogue on the Profiles in History Auction website — a visual record of how extensive, and how important, Debbie Reynolds’ collection was.

One of the show-stopping pieces in Reynolds’ collection, the gold lamé gown worn by Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934), was auctioned off in 2011.

It’s not clear what remains of Reynold’s incredible movie costume and prop collection, but many of the pieces auctioned off went into other private collections. Recently, the Academy announced its intention to open a museum devoted to filmcraft history, so hopefully some of the Reynolds collection will finally make it into their hands and become available to the public for study.

On December 28, 2016, one day after her equally legendary daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed away, Debbie Reynolds succumbed to a stroke at the age of 84. There’s no argument about the mark both women left on the popular culture of the 20th century, but for students of costume and film history, Reynolds should be celebrated for her efforts in preserving a vital part of cultural history.

Debbie Reynolds was many things: America’s sweetheart; a devoted, if not flawed, mother; a one-of-a-kind actress from the Golden Age of Hollywood, who could keep up with some of the biggest stars in history while throwing out off-the-cuff quips with saucy aplomb … But for a small subset of historians, like those of us at Frock Flicks, she was the patron saint of movie costume history. Without her foresight and determination, the loss of these iconic costumes would have been one of the greatest tragedies in the study of film history. Her efforts to preserve the work of famous Hollywood designers and anonymous wardrobe assistants alike deserves all the praise I can possibly summon with these meager words — Thank you, Debbie. You will be greatly missed.

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

19 Responses

  1. ladylavinia1932

    This is a great tribute to Debbie Reynolds. I wish she had created a museum for those Hollywood costumes, here in L.A. Or did she?

    By the way, the MGM designer Adrian didn’t create the costumes for “My Fair Lady”. Cecil Beaton did. Adrian had been dead for five years by the time the movie was released.

    Reply
    • JessB

      Debbie Reynolds tried many times to create a museum to display the pieces, and make them ‘self-supporting’, in a way, so that the entry fees would cover the cost of housing, restoring and maintaining to costumes. I recently read her autobiography, Unsinkable, which includes the terribly sad story of she and her husband starting construction on a hotel/museum/theatre, with Debbie’s son, but the husband turned out to be a cheating bastard who was actually trying to sabotage the building and steal as much money as he could.
      Alas, no one was interested in helping Debbie take care of the costumes, or display them- and the places that were interested, simply couldn’t afford to do it.
      It’s a kind of sad tale, but Debbie was often ahead of her times! Her realisation that these costumes were history is an example of this.

      Reply
  2. sitfan

    Lovely tribute. But I don’t think it was necessary to paint Debbie as a flawed mother. If anything, the estrangement was more Carrie than Debbie. Debbie was a working mother who never gave up on her daughter and was always there for her, even when Carrie was not. Theirs was an unconditional love. May they both finally rest in peace.

    Reply
  3. Susan Pola

    Thank you for your article on Ms Reynolds’ attempt at saving Hollywood Costume History.
    I, too, am hopeful that these legendary costumes/clothes will see the light of day in a permanent exhibition and location. Perhaps, Lucas, Spielberg, Sir Peter Jackson, James Cameron and/or Bill and Melinda Gates will come to the rescue.

    Reply
  4. Ellen Wolf

    I remember seeing the collection at the Debbie Reynolds casino in Las Vegas around 1990. As I remember the admission was reasonable and the costumes fascinating to view. Too bad they couldn’t keep them together for the public.

    Reply
  5. Al

    I’m always astonished when I hear about the bad old days of movie costumes being basically thrown out in the garbage. I work with theatrical costumes and replacement costs for super basic not-at-all exciting garments can be thousands of dollars, for fancy stuff we’re talking tens of thousands. Movie costumes are so much more iconic, so fabulously made, and in so much better condition, how the hell could no one have recognized the value of these pieces even monetarily? Like… isn’t money the bottom line with these people, anyway?

    Reply
  6. ladylavinia1932

    Debbie was the first person to admit she was a less-than-perfect (i.e. Flawed) mother but her devotion to her children never waivered.

    There is no such thing as a perfect parent in my eyes. I love both of my parents. But I’m aware that they are, like everyone else in the world, flawed human beings who are capable of making mistakes. Just like me.

    Did Ms. Reynolds have any remaining costumes in her collection at the time of her death?

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      It’s unclear how much is still in the Reynolds Estate. She was estimated to have between 5,000-6,000 items and I believe the 2011 auction was only listing around 600 objects. I think she’s sold bits off piecemeal over the years, too.

      Now that the Academy is putting together a museum, I’m curious to see what, if any, costumes from her collection actually made it into the Academy’s hands.

      Reply
  7. JessB

    Wow, lovely article, great tribute to Debbie Reynolds! I admired her a lot, and recently read her autobiography, Unsinkable, which only increased my admiration for her. She was truly passionate about the costumes and items she’d collected from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and repeatedly disapppointed that her efforts to preserve and display them came to nothing.
    Hopefully, something will be done now, and include a special tribute to her.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      Reynolds was probably the first to understand that movie memorabilia were historical records of American culture and therefore needed to be preserved and exhibited. Most of Hollywood saw movie props and costumes as disposable once the films were in the can.

      Reply
  8. Mareena Hunter

    I used to work in Hollywood in Costumes…it would kill me to see famous costumes just hanging limp in the warehouses of the studios. I remember seeing the Munchkin costumes at Sony just shoved on a rack hanging dirty. They also discovered Humphrey Bogart’s trench in a trash bin on one of the studio lots and saved it from being disgarded..It wasn’t until Debbie started collecting and taking an interest in all this that they started taking care of what they all have in their stock rooms! Thank God for Debbie!

    Reply
  9. janette

    A lovely and well deserved tribute. I do hope that the remaining collection finds a good home where it is accessible to the pubic, It should all be in a museum because it is not just Hollywood history it is cultural history reflecting an era that shaped the imagination, (whether good or bad) of the world,.

    Reply
  10. Donna

    Maybe if Lucas ever gets his popular culture museum built the remains of the collection might fit there.

    Reply
  11. Daniel Milford-Cottam

    Luckily, some movie costumes from the MOMI in London have now ended up being taken care of by the Victoria and Albert Museum, although I think it is a comparatively small percentage – only 600 or so costumes.

    Reply

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