Golden Age glam: Behind the scenes of OKC Museum of Art's new Hollywood costumes exhibit

Among the cluster of still-naked mannequins and undressed dress forms, bits of old-school Hollywood glamour are starting to shine like a theater marquee.

Silvery embroidery gleams on an orange cape worn by Martha Raye in the 1938 movie musical "Tropic Holiday," and rhinestones glimmer on the cloak of a pale green circus outfit Cornel Wilde stepped into for Cecil B. DeMille's 1952 drama "The Greatest Show on Earth." One form has been dressed to impress in a black two-piece suit with intricate beading and a tiny waist that Beverly Garland donned in the 1957 musical biopic "The Joker Is Wild," while a mannequin garbed in an elegant off-white suit has its stylized hands gracefully posed in the fashion of the outfit's former wearer, Audrey Hepburn.

Tantalizing swaths of dresses once worn by Veronica Lake and Ginger Rogers can be glimpsed beneath draped sheets of protective paper, while labels offer teasing hints of other costumes from Hollywood's Golden Age — outfits worn onscreen by the likes of Joanne Woodward, Susan Hayward and Shelley Winters — that have yet to be revealed.

Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks about what goes into setting up each display in a behind-the-scenes look on May 29 at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks about what goes into setting up each display in a behind-the-scenes look on May 29 at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

"The mannequin issues are huge in a costume exhibition. It is the biggest challenge. ... One of the most challenging, potentially damaging things you can do to a costume that's been archived is to put it on a form, because think about yourself getting dressed in the morning, when you wiggle into your clothes. These ladies don't move. So, there's no wiggling. They're not helping me at all," Cara Varnell said on a recent morning as she held court amid the couture chaos reigning in the Oklahoma City Museum of Art's third-floor galleries.

"I have to get these things over a form, so that means I do it as few times as possible. ... Minimal handling is what matters — and it matters a lot. Things can look sturdy. And they can just decide, 'Now is the moment I'm going to give up.'"

A California-based textile conservator with 40 years of experience, Varnell is back in OKC this spring to reprise her starring role in helping the Oklahoma City Museum of Art prepare an exhibit on cinematic costume design.

“Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," a retrospective of the beloved film industry icon, premieres June 22 at the downtown OKC museum.

"We are expecting that this is going to connect with the Oklahoma City audience in a really substantial and profound way," said President and CEO Michael J. Anderson, who joined the museum's staff in 2014, during a behind-the-scenes media tour of the exhibit's setup.

"This is an exhibition that could only happen with Cara and her team. It's exhausting for us, too. The amount of work that our entire staff has put into this, it's just overwhelming. I think this is the biggest exhibition that I remember (doing) here, and it's certainly the most complicated because of everything that you're seeing here. So, we're just so thankful that she agreed to do this, because this exhibition literally would not happen without her."

A dress worn by Beverly Garland in the 1957 film "The Joker Is Wild" is displayed on May 29 during a behind-the-scenes media tour of the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
A dress worn by Beverly Garland in the 1957 film "The Joker Is Wild" is displayed on May 29 during a behind-the-scenes media tour of the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Who was Edith Head?

Organized by the OKC Museum of Art, "Edith Head: Hollywood’s Costume Designer" will pay tribute in glamorous fashion to the behind-the-camera legend whose influence remains so potent that she helped inspire the character of Edna Mode from Disney/Pixar's "The Incredibles" movies.

With more than 400 films to her credit, Head (1897-1981) ruled the costume design departments at Paramount and Universal Studios from the early 1920s to the early 1980s. She helped define the style of classic Hollywood with her striking designs, which snagged her 35 Academy Award nominations and eight Oscar wins — more than any other woman to date.

Signage is ready for display on May 29 in a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Signage is ready for display on May 29 in a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

"Her career covers so many different important moments in Hollywood history. The earliest costume, I think, is from '38 in this exhibition. ... There are costumes that are worn in a number of famous noir films from the '40s. We have (her costumes from) musicals, we have Hitchcock's masterpieces in the '50s, and then the changing style of Hollywood in the '60s," Anderson said.

"Her career was so long; her achievement was so substantial. And a big part of this is that people cared enough to save these costumes. ... The care and the passion of the collectors for Edith Head's work give us this opportunity."

An outfit worn by Cornel Wilde in the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" is set up for during a behind-the-scenes look Wednesday, May 29, 2024, at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
An outfit worn by Cornel Wilde in the film "The Greatest Show on Earth" is set up for during a behind-the-scenes look Wednesday, May 29, 2024, at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

What can people expect to see in the OKC exhibit 'Edith Head: Hollywood’s Costume Designer?'

The exhibit, which will be on view through Sept. 29, will span the museum's entire third floor and include about 70 costumes, 20 sketches, three Oscar statuettes and two screening areas devoted to Head’s life and work.

The blockbuster summer show, presented by the Ann Lacy Foundation, will feature Head’s designs for many of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, including Grace Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Kim Novak and more.

The original exhibit also will highlight her collaborations with legendary Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, and showcase the breadth of her work, from screwball comedies in the 1940s to an Elvis Presley musical in the '60s.

A dress worn by Audrey Hepburn, right, is ready for display during a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
A dress worn by Audrey Hepburn, right, is ready for display during a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

"We're a museum that has film as one of our key tenets of our identity, and to do a costume exhibition of this scale, of this caliber ... with objects from these films that people care so deeply about, that was the motivation for us," Anderson said.

The museum will celebrate the exhibit's opening June 21-23 with a limited run of Susan Claassen's one-woman play “A Conversation with Edith Head” in its Noble Theater.

Also in conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will present its "Edith Head Film Series," with Saturday matinees of some of the most famous films she contributed to showing from June 29 through Sept. 28. Titles on the series include Sturges' "The Lady Eve," Hitchcock's "Rear Window," "Vertigo" and "To Catch a Thief" and Tulsa native Blake Edwards' "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

"The costume helps create the character, and the performer feeds off of that ... so then, the costume designer helps to interpret that character for them," Varnell said.

Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks on May 29 about what goes into setting up each display during a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks on May 29 about what goes into setting up each display during a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

What works goes into creating a Hollywood costume design exhibit?

Renowned for her work as a textile conservator, Varnell previously played a key role in helping the OKC Museum of Art create its 2010 blockbuster exhibit "Sketch to Screen: The Art of Hollywood Costume Design."

"That was more a survey of Hollywood movies that we all know and actresses that we recognize. ... This is just focused on one designer, which is interesting, because then you can see the body of her work, and you get a sense of her, whereas the other was getting a sense of the evolution of film costume," Varnell said.

"My dad's family's from northwestern Arkansas, so I love Oklahoma. And I love Oklahoma City. And I particularly love this museum."

Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks on May 29 about what goes into setting up each display in a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Textile conservator Cara Varnell talks on May 29 about what goes into setting up each display in a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming exhibition "Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer," opening June 22 at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

For the upcoming exhibit, Varnell has been working for a couple of years with the museum's staff, as well as with lenders Larry McQueen, Greg Schreiner and Randall Thropp, who works with Paramount's archive department as a costume and prop archivist. Claassen lent an Edith Head dress to the show, too.

"Anybody that does this has to know a lot about clothing construction ... and understand bodies. ... It's tricky. It's very labor intensive. And to be honest, it's kind of stressful. But I've been doing this a really long time," Varnell said

"When I did 'Sketch to Screen' here, I spent three days making a size six (mannequin) fit a Liza Minnelli costume, and she was probably a size 14. It took me three days, because I had to build this soft sculpture thing — basically layers and layers and layers and sewing it down — so it wouldn't shift, carving it out. ... It was a strapless dress from 'New York, New York,' and you're putting it on this form. But I have to make it look like it's a body underneath — a real body — and it's not easy."

Although actresses like Judy Garland and Katharine Hepburn are no longer living, Varnell has gained intimate knowledge of their forms and figures over the years by handling their costumes for exhibits like the ones in OKC.

"I believe our history is important. ... I'm interested in the history of dress. Just because we think we've made decisions here ourselves about how we look today, we haven't. We look the way we look because this is accepted. And why did it get to that point?" Varnell said.

She said she is looking forward to attending the opening of festivities for "Edith Head: Hollywood’s Costume Designer," with the understanding that "nobody should be thinking about the magic" that goes into putting together such a big, complicated exhibit.

"There's no point in doing this if people aren't going to look at it. I can look at these things anytime — and I get to touch. But you want people to enjoy it, and you want people to understand it and to appreciate it in a way that you do," she said.

"Film is really a collective art form. It takes a whole lot of people to make that happen — just like an exhibition takes a whole lot of people. And I actually think that it's OK that people don't realize that. It's nice if they do appreciate the individuals that went into making something. ... But no part of it should stand out. It should be all wonderful."

'EDITH HEAD: HOLLYWOOD'S COSTUME DESIGNER'

  • When: June 22-Sept. 29.

  • Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.

  • Tickets and information: https://www.okcmoa.com.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: OKC museum spotlights 'Edith Head: Hollywood's Costume Designer'

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