Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection at The FIDM Museum

By Brianne Gillen - June 11, 2014

The FIDM Museum (at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) in Los Angeles has launched another wonderful exhibit, this time a celebration of costume design in the golden age of Hollywood. The Designing Hollywood exhibition features over 100 costume sketches from legendary designers such as Edith Head, Walter Plunkett, Irene, and more. The sketches are on loan to the museum from collector Christian Esquevin, Director of Library Services at the Coronado Public Library. Esquevin's passion for classic film costume design comes from his great-aunt, who worked as Head Cutter and Fitter for RKO Studios in the 1930s, primarily under designer Walter Plunkett.

 

Costume Rendering, Rear Window, Costume Designer Edith Head.

Esquevin was in attendance at the exhibit opening, and graciously took the time to speak about his collection. While she was passionate about creating folk costumes from her native France, Esquevin's great-aunt worked at RKO with design legends, and helped create some iconic and beautiful costumes. At the time, studio wardrobe departments worked hard and long hours. Huge numbers of audiences flocked to the movies, and studios had to be prolific. When she passed, she left her collection of sketches to Esquevin, and his research and collecting began. A great deal of the collection has come from heirs like Esquevin himself, who were happy to see their materials stay together, and to be able to pass along the stories behind them to a collector who cares about preserving film history.

Costume Rendering, Adventures of Robin Hood, Lon Anthony.

Esquevin pointed out that these beautiful pieces are not simply to view on a wall - they were functional and have back stories. He said that the sketches are "not just art, they were tools of the trade." They passed through many hands, including producers and directors who needed to grant approval, and then the costume construction teams that used them as blueprints.

Costume Rendering, Rooster Cogburn, Costume Designer Edith Head.

 

It is fascinating to see that very history on many of the items on display. Quite a few of them have not only the signatures of the designers and illustrators, but also the initials of directors and producers. Some also contain instructions, notes, and fabric swatches. A sketch of Katharine Hepburn for Rooster Cogburn features a myriad of fabric details and alternative options, written by Edith Head herself. One of the most interesting items was a costume workbook from RKO, featuring fabric swatches and notes from the 1936 film Mary of Scotland, also starring Hepburn. It's a wonderful glimpse into the design and construction process, and a piece of Hollywood history.

Costume workbook documenting many films produced by RKO Studios,

(Open to page featuring Mary of Scotland, Costume Designer Walter Plunkett)

 

The entire exhibit is a feast for the eyes. The different designers each had different illustration styles, and all are beautiful. They included so much detail. For one particular sketch, of Cyd Charisse's costume from Singin' in the Rain, Plunkett even used metallic paint to point up glitter and beading.

Costume rendering, Singin' In The Rain, Costume Designer Walter Plunkett.

 

In among the sketches are a few beautifully realized costumes from the FIDM Museum's own collection, as well as designer Mary Wills' Oscar statuette for the 1962 film, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. In another look at the process behind the scenes, there is even a display of actress Claudette Colbert's dress form from Paramount, and muslin pattern pieces used for garments for Katharine Hepburn.

Katharine Hepburn muslin pattern piece. Claudette Colbert Dress Form, Paramount Studios.

(Photo: Benjamin Shmikler/ABImages)

Marlene Dietrich jackets. Costume Designer Travis Banton

Gown from the film Diane, Costume Designer Walter Plunkett.

The FIDM Museum once again shines a spotlight on the artists working, often unseen, to create the beauty audiences see on screen. Anyone with a passion for costume design and classic films will love this exhibit.

 

Designing Hollywood: Sketches from the Christian Esquevin Collection runs June 11 - November 1, 2014, at the FIDM Museum, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90015. For more information, visit www.fidmmuseum.org.  

 

Christian Esquevin is the author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label (Monacelli Press, 2008), and is currently working his next book, Designing Lives: Irene, Walter Plunkett and Helen Rose.