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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.