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By Joe Kucharski - February 26, 2014
Costume design is storytelling; transforming an actor into a character that is complex and believable. Successful costume designers make this happen through exhaustive research and investigation of a time, place, culture, and individuals. Bobi Garland, Director of the Research Library and Costume Archive at Western Costume Company is an unsung hero of the film industry, regularly called on by Emmy, BAFTA, Costume Designers Guild, and Oscar award winning designers to add invaluable richness to the worlds they create. I recently had the chance to ask Bobi a little about her work, and heard from several costume designers that loudly shouted her praise!
Bobi Garland, Director - Research Library and Costume Archive, Western Costume Company (photo credit: Marian Toy)
Tyranny of Style: Can you tell us a bit about how you first became involved in costumes?
Bobi Garland: "Western is mentoring a class of students from Otis College this semester. We were discussing fashion from each decade and I brought in my Christmas formal dress from 1968. My mother and I had made a backless black velvet gown from a Vogue pattern, with white Moiré trim which I chose because of the way the word was spelled. The students didn’t find the dress radical at all, but I was burning my bra right in front of everyone, -- most especially the Nuns at my Catholic girls high school. It was so sophisticated and subversive, it’s no wonder I’ve held on to it all of this time. (OK, it’s a little strange, but a good indication of why I am a researcher and an archivist.) My feelings about fashion haven’t changed. I love beauty and invention but I am really only interested in the story our clothes can tell.
How I landed at Western was serendipity. I have worked on and off as a freelance researcher for many disciplines. The entertainment industry offers a lot of opportunities in many fields and I was experimenting with all of them. I was finding some special images for Susie de Santo (currently designing her second season of “Nashville”) and she suggested I get into a union for the health insurance. Susie convinced Eddie Marks, the President of Western Costume, to hire me. I became obsessed with Western’s amazing costume research library. Eventually, Eddie offered me the opportunity to take it over. As a costumer, I understood the urgency of the work, and as a researcher, I had plenty of ideas on how to reorganize the space. And I get to work with some of the most creative people in the industry. It has truly been a dream job."
Research Library, Western Costume Company (photo credit: Michael Garland)
T/S: Can you tell us about the research library at Western Costume and your role there?
BG: "Western Costume celebrated its Centennial in 2012. It started as a full-service production company for our earliest filmmakers. Gradually costumes became the company’s main focus. Full-service came to everything from a dry-cleaning plant to tailors to a research library. We’ve kept the tradition of full-service and we house some of the best working artisans and artists in the business: clever and creative milliners, tailors, women’s made-to-order, Mauricio our super star shoe/boot-maker and a supply store that sells ‘dirt’ for aging the costumes. Picture eight miles of pipe with clothes hanging from end to end as well as boxes and bins and closets and drawers. All full of surprises.
The library houses hundreds of invaluable clipping files, periodicals from the 1860s onward, catalogs, books and films, and it is all dedicated to costume research. The books are organized according to decades and genre. Many designers have donated their collections as they retire or downsize, so there is a constantly something new. It is a heaven of discovery.
My job title is “Director, Research Library and Costume Archive” but I am not a trained librarian. I see myself as a costumer supporting the work of the Costume Designer, Supervisor, and the crew via imagery. Generally, the designers contact me soon after being awarded a project. Their prep time is constantly being truncated and I do suffer that pressure, but nothing like they have during production. For me, it’s like I have a term paper due every hour. But nothing can go really wrong up here – we haven’t made 300 costumes only to have the scene cut the night before shooting. We like to think of the library as the Designer’s Honeymoon Hotel."
Bobi Garland, Director - Research Library and Costume Archive, Western Costume Company
Jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe, "Niagra" (photo credit: Michael Garland)
T/S: Can you tell us a little about your process, working with costume designers?
BG: "We’ve been enjoying a renaissance of period projects (hallelujah!) and it’s fun to see different designers approach the research. It is always fun. Always. And they are wonderful teachers. I learn on the job every single day.
It can be a bit tricky. There have been times that three Academy Award nominees use the library simultaneously. It’s nice because they don’t have many opportunities to socialize with one another because they are all working, and often in lands far, far away. But they are all working, and share the same deadline problem so it is quite the balancing act. (This is an understatement.)
We work both on the Internet and with primary sources. A designer usually has a table that gets burdened with books and files. We also have great relationships with the city museums, and organize for designers to pay a visit if it’s valuable. And then, of course, we have done so many military and police projects that we have relationships with our public service departments all over the country, including prisons. I started right after September 11, and it was amazing to experience the change in flow of information. If there’s a uniform on camera, I have probably called and asked for regulations or a photo. It is surprising how generous they are with their time, so I try not to abuse it. The Pubic Information Officer from the Air Force gave me his uncle’s WWII A-2 fighter pilot’s jacket (which I cherish) after a big project. I get to work with libraries and museums all over the world. Sometimes we are a detective service. The designers are always appreciative of our ‘finds’ and often the little tidbits that wouldn’t matter to anyone else becomes their key to a character. Watching them put it together is a privilege."
Costume Archive, Western Costume Company (photo credit: Michael Garland)
T/S: In addition to your work helping costume designers in production, you also manage the Star Collection at WCC. Can you tell us about the collection?
BG: "First of all, Western’s clothes work for a living. So creating a “Star Collection” is taking costumes out of circulation, which means we are collecting a STAR piece. When I ‘inherited’ the room, I signed up for a Museum Collections Management certificate program with Tawny Sherrill at Cal State Long Beach. They actually came to Western and consulted with me on the best way to care for our unique collection. It was invaluable. Our earliest identified pieces are Valentino’s from “The Sheik II”. We also have Marilyn’s red jacket from “Niagara,” Vivien Leigh’s ‘buckboard’ dress from “Gone With the Wind” and Claude Rains’ cap from “Casablanca”. There are about 6,000 pieces identified by actor. It is a daunting task.
For our Centennial Celebration we presented a history of the world according to Western Costume as a fundraiser for Los Angeles County Museum. We went through the archive and recreated some of the more fragile costumes and borrowed a few of our more rugged pieces. It was an interesting way to look at our history and gave a new value to our room. On the other hand, I get lost in philosophical discussions about the value of a costume depending on who wore it. Unfortunately, the marketplace is guiding a lot of what is collected. Western is trying to focus on costumes that illustrate our company’s history and relationships with Costume Designers. What makes a star a star? In our case, it isn’t just who wore it but who designed it and where was it made. Costume Designers are equal to any actor in the room and sometimes even a little more than equal."
Some of Western Costume Company's most famous pieces, recreated for their Centennial Celebration. General Patton aka Kurt Cox WCC Military Expert. "Curtain Dress" worn by costumer Stacy Tyson. Moses aka Bobi's husband Ned.
T/S: How has technology changed the way you research?
BG: "Let me count the ways. Very few designers show up on the first day without a small library of images collected from the Internet. Everyone sends images -- the Director will send an email of ninety images, often followed by at least another ninety. I believe we are heading for image fatigue. The good old days of spending weeks researching a project and only choosing the best photos are long gone. Now a designer can start on Monday and find out that the actor is going to be in town and a fitting is scheduled for Thursday. Sometimes we have a quick meeting with the designer and then they start to pull costumes downstairs. We are collecting the requested images and then rush to deliver them to the crew who is already pulling the costumes. When I started, I read most of the scripts, which made my job much easier and more interesting. Today, the scripts are a secret, sometimes so secretive that they haven’t even been written. Everything is faster but the work is so much more complicated. That being said, it is thrilling. I am using that word in its full meaning. To have a front row seat into all of the changes in fabrics, fabrications, 3-d imaging and the many artists and craftsmen that costume designers collaborate with today. It is why I am so excited to have a conversation with Michael Wilkinson about “Superman: Costuming an Icon” at LACMA on March 4. It should be eye opening for many, including me."
Research Library, Western Costume Company (photo credit: Michael Garland)
T/S: What is the most satisfying part of the job for you?
BG: "Costume designers, supervisors and their crews are magicians. They perform unnoticed miracles nearly every single day and films are composed of thousands of these little miracles. Working closely with them is surprising, heartbreaking and wonderful. It is often said that I have the greatest job in the industry and I believe it to be true. I get to work with true pioneers of 21st century art. Their vision can only be realized in collaboration with an assembled team and manufacturers all over the world. Wow. I am a certified die-hard fan of each and every one. That being said, I must confess to having a long time mad crush on Albert Wolsky. He has taught me not only how to see but how to listen and to never give up. The perfect image is always waiting to be found out there, ‘Somewhere across the Universe.’”
Bobi Garland. Hat worn by Hailee Steinfeld, "True Grit." Western Costume Company (photo credit: Michael Garland)
Here is what some of the biggest names in costume design for film and television have to say about working with Bobi Garland.
“I call Bobi my Oracle. I go to her for information and research on every movie project before I start the design process. She not only provides the historical overview of the time, contemporary or period, but she creates an interpretation of the cultural context. This is an art unto itself as she includes this subjective interpretation, much like the classical oracles in ancient history.
She interprets the "dream world" of the movie through various images, giving me, as the designer, inspiration to create the substance and texture for the characters who inhabit the world, whatever that world is. I couldn't do a movie without Bobi!” -Marlene Stewart, Costume Designer (JFK, Terminator 2, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)
“Working with Bobi Garland is a great gift. She has a rare talent to always find even abstractly, the exact correct place to begin our research. Whether I am doing the work in the library or on the phone, Bobi is always dialed in. She is smart. She is extremely intuitive. She is skilled in understanding just what is needed and what I should see. She is genius!
Bobi and I have developed a shorthand. She understands the way I see a story, and helps me develop the imagery to understand the story better and to always present it in the best form. Bobi is a great collaborator; she brings a massive amount of knowledge and a keen eye to each project we have worked together on. Every designer has his or her own unique talent and tone, Bobi Garland knows exactly how to sync in and give us her best and make us our best. She is one in a million!” –Ellen Mirojnick, Costume Designer (Basic Instinct, Chaplin, Behind The Candelabra)
“Bobi Garland is an invaluable and generous resource. Her knowledge and dedication to the art and craft of costumes and costume designers is unique and far-reaching. Bobi is a treasure and a touchstone for me. She is a natural "connecter.” She is the glue that often brings us together and a huge part of creating our community. Her authentic and natural generosity makes her a connector of whom I rely on often for referrals or navigation beyond her library at Western Costume. She is fun, funny and fearless which I know first hand from when she enthusiastically joined me on my last birthday, jumping out of a plane- which is a great metaphor for this insane lifestyle/career/industry we work in.” –Arianne Phillips, Costume Designer (Walk The Line, 3:10 To Yuma, W.E.)
Western Costume Company Lobby Display by Ivan Marquez. (photo credit: Ivan Marquez)
“For costume research, Bobi Garland is quite insightful; she really gets it. She becomes a member of your crew and continues working on your behalf weeks after you’ve left the (WCC) building. Bobi knows everyone and what they’re up to. If you need advice assembling a great crew, call Bobi!” –Michael Kaplan, Costume Designer (Fight Club, Star Trek, Star Wars: Episode VII)
“I started working with Bobi at the Research Library when I started costume designing Deadwood. She's so detailed, and precise. And the research that she somehow digs, and finds, and discovers is always so helpful for my design process. Such a big part of my job is research and how people wore their clothing. The research is such an important part of the creative process.
In the beginning of the prep time on each season of Mad Men, that's really my time to work with Bobi at the Research Library. And then throughout the season, if there is something that comes up specifically in the script- we may look for it first, but a lot of times we can't find it, and Bobi can.
I remember working with her on the episode where Lane and his British friend go to the pub during the World Cup. And we were trying to find photo references for what the World Cup looked like, in terms of- did they have any kind of t-shirts? Did they have any scarves? Was there any kind of team paraphernalia? That was a really big thing, because indeed they did. They had all of those things. They had scarves. They had buttons. People made buttons and t-shirts. So, that was an amazing element to the story, because we recreated those. We recreated characters that were in the stands at the world cup and we used some of those bits to costume the people in the pub. And there are so many stories like that through the years where we can't find it. And it seems Bobi always has the answer.” –Janie Bryant, Costume Designer (Deadwood, The Hills Have Eyes 2, Mad Men)
Paris Train Station Research, 1905. Research Library, Western Costume Company (photo credit: Michael Garland)
“Bobi has been a life line on so many different projects. She is so insightful & knowledgeable & brings a point of view to the research that is invaluable. She’s like a bulldog! She doesn’t stop until she finds you the perfect image that can help you define a character. God knows she’s done that for me on more than one occasion! I found myself having a case of Designer’s Block with a particular character until Bobi emailed me one photo & just like that the character gelled. She’s amazing. I’d be lost without her!” -Ann Foley, Costume Designer (About Last Night, Mind Games, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
“Working with Bobi is always a pleasure. She is knowledgeable about so many facets of not only costume but history as well. If I look at my entire career thus far, Bobbi has always been there. I didn't know it at first, but all the beautiful detailed costume reference boards that my designers would show me were all references that Bobi pulled for them. She is the best-kept secret of costume designers.” –Phillip Boutte Jr., Costume Illustrator (Captain America, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Ender’s Game)
“Bobi was, thankfully, one of the first people that I met when I came to LA - when I stepped through the doors of her research library, a whole world of information, inspiration and friendship opened up to me.
Bobi has an endless curiosity and a passion for hunting down that impossible piece of information, that forgotten camera test photo, that swatchbook of vintage fabric. I have been in awe of her capacity to engage and care about a wide range of projects - from the early Stone Age textiles to the most cutting-edge futuristic fabric technologies.
The impact that her discoveries make to her costume designer's projects cannot be underestimated - her research adds such a dimension of authenticity and imagination.
I remember one day when her legendary talents were proven to me once and for all - she was helping no less than 4 costume designers gather research for the same job interview - she graciously arranged it all so that we never bumped into each other, and so that we all got different research based on her carefully listening to our different approaches to the project. What a class act!” –Michael Wilkinson, Costume Designer (American Hustle, Man of Steel, Tron)
Bobi Garland will be part of an exciting event on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art), “Conversation with Michael Wilkinson: Superman- Costuming an Icon.”
Students - PLEASE SUBMIT A QUESTION(S) FOR MICHAEL TO ANSWER THE EVENING OF MARCH 4th VIA EMAIL: firstname.lastname@example.org
WE WOULD APPRECIATE HEARING FROM YOU NO LATER THAN FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 28.