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Theatre Magazine, November 1917, p. 319-130

Clothes--Clara Kimball Young--And More Clothes

If it is a true saying that "Clothes make the man," it is a no less true one that they go a long way toward making the photoplay star, and, indirectly, the photoplay. And yet, while one hears and reads a great deal concerning where the director of a big feature film unearthed that beautiful hand-carved table which stands in the foreground during scene number seventeen, and how many days the research department spent going through huge volumes to ascertain the exact customs of the time of Rameses Second, or to find out in just what order the trees were planted in the garden of Eden, one somehow is told very little about how the star stood for hours to get the correct drape to the garments for the Rameses Second story or the many places she went before she found her fig leaves for the Garden of Eden picture. Nevertheless, the clothes worn in a photoplay are every big as important as are the settings for that photoplay--in fact, they are a part of the setting. Just as it is necessary to have a certain type of chair or table or decoration to conform to the requirements of the script, so it is necessary that what the player wears fit naturally and artistically into the scheme of things.

Clara Kimball Young deciding what to wear

I do not wish you to think that I consider the matter of dress on the speaking-stage an unimportant item. It is, on the contrary, a very important one, but it is, I believe of even greater importance for the player who works before the camera. For if, after the first or second stage performance of a play the critics or the friends of the actress decide that there is something wrong with a costume, that just a touch here or a bit of color there will help that touch or that bit of color can easily be added. With the screen player, however, it is another matter. Once a film is made, it is a lasting record which nothing can change. And, contrary to the popular belief that the camera glosses over defects, its powerful lens is sure to find and to bring into prominence unsuspected flaws of every description True, the photoplayer has one big advantage which the "legitimate" actress has not--that is the opportunity to see herself pretty nearly as others see her on the screen. If she is wise she will study herself there, critically examine her coiffure, her gown, her make-up, even to the smallest detail, and try to profit by any mistakes she will so discover. Many's the time I have sat in a darkened projection room wondering how I ever permitted myself to be inveigled into choosing so unbecoming a neck line and why, oh why hadn't I listened when my mother advised against that high belt? Of course, I never repeated those offences, but that particular collar and that horrible belt weren't helped at all. They were flashed before millions of people before I had an opportunity in my next picture to prove that I had learned better.

For with me rests the responsibility for the choice of my costumes. What the majority of other screen actresses do in these matters I don't know, but I do know that I personally attend to the selection of every article of my own wearing apparel. No sooner is the script given into my hands for a new picture, than I begin to plan how I am going to dress my part, and to formulate as clearly as possible a working plan for getting such things as I will need. After this is done I consult with my director. He, of course, is in entire authority over the making of the picture, and his must be the final word in all matters pertaining to its production. Usually in the matter of clothes we find that two heads are better than one and that by exchanging ideas we arrive at some entirely new and better effects, and then the actual work of assembling the materials and the costumes begins. As you can readily understand, some plays are very much more difficult to costume than others. For what we term "costume" plays--those in which the action takes place as some earlier date, or in which the player portrays a character of a foreign nationality--the task is a rather complicated one. We keep at the studio as set of costume books which give in detail the dress and costumes of people of every conceivable period and nation. These my director and I carefully consult, until we arrive at a definite conception of what the required costume must look like. It is extremely difficult at times to obtain materials which will show up as the clothes of the desired period or land should. Often they cannot be duplicated in modern or domestic weaving, and a search must be made for the nearest thing similar to it which will do. Gloves, hats and shoes for such a costume must usually be made to order, all of which entails an enormous amount of time, expense and nervous energy. But even to dress a modern "society" drama well a great deal must be considered. It would appear that anyone familiar with the elements of good dressing should be able to handle such costuming in short order, but in reality the detail work is enormous.

Color in motion picture photography is a particularly tricky element. White is never used over a large surface, as under the treatment given it by the camera it gives off a glow similar to that of clean snow under the glare of strong sunlight. Collars, cuffs and minor trimmings, however, may be white if so desired. To obtain an effect of white in the finished picture a pale pink is usually employed in the studio. Lavender is apt to film a gray-white and tan in the majority of cases comes out on the screen pretty near its original color. Light colors do surprising things before the camera, while dark ones frequently appear nothing more nor less than plain black.

Then too there is the style of gown to be considered. Many of the larger pictures are in process of making for six or eight weeks before their completion and very often with the careful direction they are now given the process covers many months. Besides this, the life of the average film is pretty long, traveling as it does through the smaller towns after it has completed all metropolitan showings. This means, then, that the style of a gown must not be too exaggerated to be in good taste during the entire period of time, and yet, it must be sufficiently in advance of the prevailing fashions at the time it was chosen to appear the correct thing whenever and wherever it is shown.

Besides this a costume must fit the temperament of the character portrayed by its wearer and all sorts of little touches can help in making that character a real person to the spectator. For instance, let us suppose that I am playing the role of a simple, unsophisticated girl. It is only logical that I should wear an entirely different type of costume from that which I would choose were I doing the part of a deep-eyed adventuress. I should probably do my hair differently, walk differently, wear different sorts of hats and shoes and--oh, countless other things. Sometimes in one story a character is so treated by the author that a transition must be shown in age, in tastes or in characteristics. All this must have its consequent effect upon the manner in which that character dresses, and the portrayer of such a role must be constantly on the alert to catch the fine shadings so necessary in her costuming.

Still another point--a costume must fit the occasion for which it is worn. The average person would be just as unlikely to make a general practice of appearing in the morning in an elaborate afternoon gown as she would wear an evening gown to a daytime reception. Yet I have known both these things to be done by inexperienced screen players. Into the category of "fitness" comes the use of jewelry as a pet method of showing great wealth. Such jewels as are worn by the motion picture actress must be chosen carefully and consistently with the costume with which it is worn, and with the screen character of the wearer. No refined, high-class woman, no matter how great her wealth, covers herself with gems in the daytime, and even at night prefers to wear a few good pieces rather than a great many of inferior value. Yet I have seen girls who are supposed to taking place in some select society function so covered with chunks of glass that in a darkened room they resemble Broadway at night. I myself am very fond of gems, in fact, the collection of rare pieces is a hobby of mine, but I am extremely careful how and why I wear it around the studio Sometimes, however, accidents will happen. I remember back in one of my earlier pictures I once portrayed the role of a girl of very moderate means. We had completed the making of most of the scenes and late one afternoon had it run off for us in the studio projection room. We were delighted until on a close-up I noticed that dressed as I was in shabby clothes there gleamed on my little finger an expensive emerald ring. How or why I had neglected to remove it before making up, and how it escaped the eagle eye of the director, I have not been able to figure out to this day. Luckily we were able to do the scene over by working half the night, but I shudder to think what would have happened had we not noticed the omission in time.

Sometimes, when after seemingly endless trouble and worry everything appears to be complete, a gown or a hat will tear, just for the pure cussedness of things. If it can be mended by the wardrobe mistress who is kept on the premises, well and good. Sometimes, however, the damage is too great to remedy. The gown has been registered in a previous scene. To wear a different one would spoil the continuity of the play, and to destroy the other scenes in which the injured article was registered may mean the loss of many hundreds of feet of film. A hurry call is sent out for a duplicate. This may be obtainable in a day or two or it may take a week or more, with a consequent loss of time in the making of the picture, and its attendant effect upon the tempers of everyone involved.

The expense of dressing a photoplay is a breath-catching item. I never use a gown more than once before the camera. It is purchased with a certain picture in mind, and upon the completion of that picture it is given or thrown away. Many of my clothes I give to my friends. In addition to this I receive many requests from girls who have seen my photoplays and have admired a certain gown or hat or cloak. Once in a great while an old gown can be altered as to be fit for use, sometimes combining two slightly worn ones making an entirely new article. But this is not often possible. Screen work is extremely wearing on the clothes and after constant rehearsing and acting in a gown that gown is not good for much, you may be sure. Not everyone agrees with me, of course. I know of one very good actress who buys all her wearing apparel for private life with a view to wearing it out before the camera when its freshness is a bit gone. I know of still another player who purchases her clothes for studio wear and afterwards uses them in her home life. But I find that it is only once in a great while that I can combine business with pleasure where my clothes are concerned. A street suit I can occasionally wear for a short scene in one of my pictures and for a wrap I wear in "Magda" I paid seventeen hundred dollars. That, of course, I intend to wear a for theatre and other evening occasions. And--I do not say this to boast, but only to make clear my point about the large sums of money necessary to the correct dressing of pictures--I have paid over twenty-five thousand dollars to a leading importer during the past four months.

Lastly, there is the effect of clothing upon the wearer. There is a great deal of talk about all kings of psychology these days, but it is a well-established fact that the psychological effect of clothing upon the actions and feelings of the wearer is very great. With the consciousness that one is well and fittingly dressed one is apt to feel much more comfortable and therefore to act much more naturally than if he were not quite sure of his appearance and of the effect he is making. I know that clothes affect me tremendously. For one scene in "Magda" I required a simple Swedish costume. My mother has made many of my less elaborate things, and so, as there was no time to send out for the necessary Swedish dress, she undertook to make it for me. The effect was wonderful and everything went well until, after working for a while the dress began to feel uncomfortable. When I raised my arms it would work up in the back and pucker about the neck, and although they told me that it looked all right, it felt all wrong, and that was all there was to it. I got through the scene somehow, but my nerves were so unstrung that I had to give up work for the day.

Add to all this the fact that for every gown there must be a hat, a parasol, shoes, gloves, and countless other accessories, and that all this rushing about for clothes is done by the screen player in between scenes during which she is throwing her heart and soul into her work before the camera in the full glare of the Cooper Hewitts is it any wonder that the placid lady in the audience sweetly murmurs to her chocolate-nibbling companion on a close-up "Mercy, my dear, how old she's looking!"

(Thanks to Randy Bigham for this article)

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Last revised, July 7, 2002