How did Western Costume Co. become such a landmark? It all began with a man named L.L. Burns. When Burns first moved to Los Angeles from Arizona in 1903, he worked for the Benham Indian Trading Company, a major vendor of Native American blankets and baskets. He soon recognized the potential of the nascent film industry beginning to spring up in LA, and in 1912 he opened a small production studio with Harry Revier, supplying everything from a stage, office space, a film laboratory and anything and everything else a film maker would need, including props, sets, and costumes.
When Cecil B. DeMille came to Los Angeles in 1913 to shoot The Squaw Man (1914), he leased the studio space, which was not much more than a barn and a stage, from Burns and Revier. A few months later DeMille’s production company, the Jessie L. Lasky Feature Play Company, bought out Burns and Revier’s lease, and that barn became the first home of their new studio, which was soon renamed Paramount Pictures. (The barn itself is now the home of the Hollywood Heritage Museum, located across from the Hollywood Bowl.) In Cecil B. De Mille’s unpublished autobiography, he wrote of Burns and Revier, “If I have sometimes been mistakenly called the father of the Hollywood film industry, Burns and Revier deserve to be called its obstetricians.”
The motion picture industry was in its earliest stages of development and costuming was pell-mell. Costumes were anything momentarily inspired, with little concern for accuracy. The films being made on the West Coast at this time were mostly westerns, which could easily be shot on location using the natural scenery. Through his work with the Benham Company, Burns had not only picked up a considerable amount of knowledge about Native American dress and customs, but had access to a stock of authentic pieces. Burns realized that costuming was a gap in the industry that he could fill.
Burns named his new business Western Costume Company as an homage to the genre that started it all. Burns augmented his inventory of Native American costumes with more comprehensive stock from smaller studios and production companies. His wife, Mabel, and other seamstresses created new, made-to-order costumes. By 1918 the company had outgrown its office at 7th and Figueroa—a space so tiny that it was nicknamed “The Hole in the Wall”—and moved to a building at 908 S. Broadway.
As the motion picture industry began to grow and prosper, so did Burns’ business. Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Lillian Gish are just a few of the early superstars costumed by Western. Burns became good friends with such influential personalities as producer Joseph Schenck, and silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Norma Talmadge. In the early 1920s Burns bought out his top competitor, Fischer’s Costuming Co., and soon his ever-expanding business was forced to move again. By 1923, Western Costume had 150 employees and was handling 99 percent of the film costume business. In 1924 it took over a newly-built, 12-story building across the street that featured an elevator that carried cars to a rooftop parking lot. Director Erich Von Stroheim, then at the height of his fame, was given a gold engraved parking pass and his had the distinction of being the first car to ascend to the roof when the building was formally opened.
Von Stroheim figures fascinatingly in the history of Western. One of his most famous films in the 1920s was a picture called The Wedding March (1928), a lavish epic about 19th century Austrian court life. Von Stroheim, a stickler for authenticity regardless of cost, insisted every uniform and detail of royal livery had to be the real thing. Nothing would satisfy the director but for Western’s European representative to scour Vienna and the surrounding countryside for relics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the weeks that followed, boat after boat docked in Los Angeles discharging whole cargos of uniforms, carriages, military decorations, books, weapons, armor, and other artifacts. After they had served their purpose in Von Stroheim’s screen spectacle, the items helped swell Western’s inventory.
As motion picture production began to be channeled through established studios – most of which were located in Hollywood – it was obvious that the time had come to have a costume house that was closer to the scene of production. Burns established a Hollywood branch of Western Costume. The offices and a small portion of each department were located on Sunset Boulevard near Western Boulevard, with the bulk of wardrobe stock and the laundry housed in the big American Storage Building on Beverly Boulevard, just east of Vermont. Unfortunately, this move undermined Burns, and in 1928 he lost control of Western.
A new group took over the company but they proved totally inadequate at handling the complexities of the industry, so Burns was called to head up the firm again. But by now the tide was running too strongly against him and Western Costume went into bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Burns called in a favor at Warner Bros. and secured a job as the head of their costume department, where he stayed until his death in 1944.
In the decade that followed, Western’s fortunes swung back and forth. Three brothers, Dan, Joe and Ike Greenberg, who were salvage operators, acquired the company out of bankruptcy. They liquidated Western’s various locations and in 1932 settled Western Costume into 5335 Melrose Avenue, a sturdy, imposing building that claimed a prime location in front of Paramount Studios. Although shrewd businessmen, the Greenbergs found operating a full-fledged costume house to be a bewildering challenge. After two years, they sold out to Joe and Abe Schnitzer, who both had backgrounds in the motion picture business.
Once again Western experienced varying fortunes. Harry Warner bought out their top competitor and integrated their stock with Warner Brothers wardrobe department, which eliminated their major competitor. The advent of Technicolor brought an explosion of hues to sets and costumes. Western’s shoe shop participated in the creation of the most famous pair of footwear in film history by sewing the red sequins on the iconic ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Western also supplied all the men’s costumes – and many of the women’s – for Gone with the Wind (1939). Comedy legends Laurel and Hardy, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello were all dressed by Western Costume for their films.
In 1947, when it appeared that Western was undergoing another business slump, Warners, Fox, Universal, and Columbia stepped up, and in a joint action, acquired controlling interest in the company. In 1950, a new management team headed by G.B. Howe and his assistant John Golden took over and began a major overhaul of the company’s romantic but obsolete methods. A short time later, a serious heart condition lead to Howe’s retirement, and John Golden succeeded him as president. Golden managed to revive Western Costume. It created all the costumes for the classic film, The Sound of Music (1965), and costumed stars like Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Natalie Wood.
In 1988, Paramount Studios bought the company. Paramount, however, wasn’t interested in Western’s incomparable costume assets; all they wanted was its headquarters, which the studio planned to tear down and replace with an office building. Bidding for a buyer began yet again and in 1989, the company was sold to the Trinity Group, comprised of CAA agent Bill Haber, author Sidney Sheldon, and businessman Paul Abramowitz, who took the reins as President.
Abramowitz faced some daunting challenges. Paramount sold Western to the Trinity Group on the condition that they relocate the company within a year. Not only did Abramowitz have to find a new location for the enormous collection of costumes, props and library, he needed to orchestrate a move that would not interfere with daily business. More importantly, it was a Hollywood icon that had the potential of returning to celebrated glory.
In 1989, award-winning costume designer Ann Roth recommended Abramowitz meet with veteran costumer Eddie Marks. Abramowitz was impressed by Marks’ combination of experience as a costumer and his ideas on how to help move the company forward. Marks was then brought into the Western fold as Senior Vice President.
Marks’ first order of business was helping Abramowitz secure a new home for Western. They found the perfect location on Vanowen Street in North Hollywood right next to the Burbank airport. Marks was charged with the monumental task of moving the company. In a feat nicknamed “The Big Move,” Marks and Abramowitz managed to relocate the entire operation in a mere thirty days–keeping both locations open simultaneously.
In 1992, Haber and Sheldon promoted Eddie Marks to President, replacing Paul Abramowitz, and in 1995 Haber became the sole owner of Western Costume. In his tenure as president, Marks and his team have weeded out worn inventory by holding periodic ‘yard sales.’ He has increased Western’s stock by acquiring eight stunning private collections, including those of designers Dorothy Weaver, Patty Norris, and Helen Larson. Marks also purchased the enormous Dykeman Young Collection, which required six fifty-three foot containers to transport the costumes cross-country from Jamestown, New York to the collection’s new home in North Hollywood.
Marks also modernized Western’s world-class Research Library, which with its collection of over 15,000 volumes is one of the finest in the world. It represents one hundred years of intensive acquisitions of private literature dealing with costumes throughout the ages. It is the backbone of research for the company and for the industry as a whole. The library features such rare materials as the complete issues of the Weekly Illustrated London News from its founding in 1842, the complete collection of Life magazine from its founding, and priceless volumes of magazines such as the Mentor and Godey’s Ladies Book, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Fortune Magazine. Under the guidance of Research Director and Costume Archivist, Leighton Bowers, the ever-growing collection continues to supply costumers, costume designers, and all film professionals with its priceless source materials. An illustration of the value Costume Designers and costumers place on the library is that they have made and continue to make generous donations of their own books and research.
Determined to make Western Costume the number one destination for Costume Designers and Costumers, the company updated many of its facilities. Marks streamlined the business by installing “Rental Tracker Pro”, an inventory tracking software that simplifies and expedites the rental process.
Western manufactures suits and men’s costumes in the Tailor Shop under the skilled hand of Head Tailor, Jack Kasbarian. Contemporary and period dresses and costumes are beautifully constructed in the Women’s Made-to-Order Shop. Milliner Patrick Rogers and his team can custom-make hats from any period in our Millinery Department. In our Shoe and Leather Shop, Mauricio Osario has created oversized shoes for Michael Chiklis’ character in Fantastic Four (2005) and golf shoes for Shaquille O’Neal. Mauricio’s shop is the place for manufacturing shoes as delicate as opera pumps or as rugged as Rooster Cogburn’s worn boots in True Grit (2010).
Producers, Directors and Costume Designers count on Western Costume, whether for pulling stock costumes for a commercial or building them from scratch for major films. In 2012, the Costume Designers Guild presented Western Costume with a special Service Award honoring the company’s one hundred years of professional contributions from the silent era to the present. As Western Costume celebrates its past, the Company also looks toward the future by continuing to meet the needs of the costuming community.