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Exclusive Interview with Film & Fashion Historian Kimberly Truhler – High Low Vintage

three top fashion films collage final

Your blog is just terrific….a reader can feel how much you love the intersection of vintage fashion and film. How did you get started as a expert in the field? Did your passion begin as film history and grew to focus on costumes or did you start with an obsession with fashion and married that to an interest in film?

It all began in film history.  About 20 years ago, I started to seriously study and research the history of film.  Like many others, my study was first focused on directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, etc.  But the costume design of classic cinema quickly began to captivate me. ​ As someone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, modern fashion never really spoke to me, but the costume design in classic cinema did.  Edith Head’s work in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (1954), in particular, began to expand my consciousness.  I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t everyone dress like this?”  

Because I really preferred that classic silhouette, I began to turn to vintage stores as I entered the workforce.  I continued to vigorously study costume design as well as fashion design (both past and present) alongside it, and my own personal style evolved as a result.  People eventually became so interested in my classic and colorful look–unbeknownst to them, composed mostly of vintage dresses, coats, and accessories–that I eventually left my marketing/communications position at UCLA to launch a retail collection of boutique vintage for GlamAmor.  
 
Of course the vintage collection was also sold online, so I regularly shared stories and the style from classic films that inspired my choices for the store as well as how I put my own looks together.  People really responded to this, and asked for more more more.  In looking to see what other resources were available, I was shocked to find that there was only limited information about the costume design(ers) of classic cinema and no one was really connecting the dots to fashion.  And so, my retail vintage boutique evolved into a tightly curated study collection and GlamAmor became all about the preservation, education, and curation of the HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM.
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HLV would love for you to name 3 films you think influenced the fashion industry the most and why… And why do some films trigger a fashion trend while others don’t?

​For the college class I teach and presentations I give, I’ve created a list of 50 films I call THE STYLE ESSENTIALS.  First and foremost, these represent the most iconic costume design in the movies from the 1920s to 1980s.  Further, these are the films that immediately impacted fashion when they were released AND they are also the ones that I see most often continuing to inspire the industry today.​  This ranges from the clothes and accessories to hair and makeup to magazine editorials and advertising.  
 
Choosing three is difficult, but I would say THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955) and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) have to be the top two.  These have two of the most recognizable costumes in history as well as the most valuable at auction; Marilyn’s “Subway” dress, for example, fetched nearly $6 million.  These have remained popular for a few reasons.  One is the strong relationship between designer and star–Travilla/Marilyn Monroe and Givenchy/Audrey Hepburn, respectively.  The style of those stars is so admired, and those designers had almost everything to do with it both on and off-screen.  There is also the timing…the costumes of those films were perfect for those eras and really remain a reference point for any designers today looking to tap into the style of those times.  
 
A strong possible third choice of an influential film just might be GILDA (1946).  There isn’t an award show red carpet that doesn’t have some version of Jean Louis’ strapless gown for Rita Hayworth from that movie.
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Do you find, fashion-wise, that most films are a reflection of the trends created by the designers and fashion houses or do the fashions found in movies more influence the fashion houses? And how has this symbiotic relationship changed over the decades?
 
​In the early 1910s and 1920s, film and the costume design within it was a relatively new thing.  At that time, European couture was the dominant force.  In fact, many of the early silent films featured couture of the day as the costumes and some couturiers even designed for film; fashion designer Paul Poiret is often considered one of the earliest costume designers.  Beyond that, many of the early costume designers were trained in European couture houses, such as Howard Greer and Travis Banton.
 
But by the 1930s, film took the lead in dictating style.  Joan Crawford once said that any time she put on a costume (by MGM’s legendary costume designer Adrian, of course), she knew she was ahead of fashion.​  The studios had enormous costume design departments that rivaled couture houses.  MGM’s alone had 7 buildings, a staff of 150 people, and a stock of half a million pieces.  That influence on mainstream style would last through the 1940s.  
 
But in 1947, European fashion took the lead again with Christian Dior’s groundbreaking New Look, which was like a breath of fresh air after the austerity of World War II.  Costume design in film would still have most of the influence after that point, but the New Look really jarred the industry.  
 
By 1967, the studio system was basically over.  The cost to handcraft everything was too high, and costume design departments were decimated.  The process largely evolved (or devolved, depending who you ask) into what we know today.  Though some period projects may still have custom-made clothing, most wardrobes are composed by clothing that already exists.  Even Catherine Martin’s Oscar-winning costume design for THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)–a film set in the 1920s–was partially composed of pieces from Prada.
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You’re involved with Christie’s auction house. What type of projects do you handle for them?
 
​My first project for Christie’s was Elizabeth Taylor’s first wedding dress, which was designed by MGM’s head costume designer Helen Rose for her marriage to Nicky Hilton in 1950. ​  I helped authenticate the gown, inspecting it in person, and then wrote the article that accompanied the dress for the auction catalog (both in print and online).  That was big–my article was shared by media all over the world and the gown sold for nearly $200,000 (10x its original estimate).  My most recent project for them surrounds one of Grace Kelly’s dresses from THE SWAN (1956), which is up for auction this Friday.  I again wrote the article that accompanies the dress in the catalog and have reprinted it for my audience on GlamAmor.  It’s currently the opening article on the site.
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You’re called upon as a on-air expert. Does that come naturally or did you have to work on being a public performer?

Being an on-air expert is something I want to do much more of in the future.​  I enjoy reaching a large audience.  People have said it seems like it came naturally to me from the beginning, but I’ve definitely worked at it as well.  Public speaking is something I do so frequently with my presentations, and I feel quite comfortable with audiences of all sizes now.
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In terms of costume design, what’s your favorite film of the 1940s and why? The 1950s? The 1960s?
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That’s a VERY difficult question.  There are so many.  I already mentioned one of my favorites from the 1940s, which is GILDA (1946).  Jean Louis designed a lot of extraordinary ensembles for Rita Hayworth, one of which is iconic.  The costumes are of the moment in their design and detail, and you completely forget how restricted costume designers were in the 1940s due to the rationing of World War II.  And Rita is stunning.  It’s a perfect film.
 
I’ve also mentioned one of my favorites from the 1950s, which is REAR WINDOW (1954) and you could add TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) to that as well.  These are Edith Head (and Hitchcock and Grace Kelly) arguably at their very best.  I also love PILLOW TALK (1959), which is Jean Louis again.  All of these wardrobes are ones I would wear today.
 
As for the 1960s, obviously BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961) can’t be ignored and I also love Yves Saint Laurent’s costumes for Catherine Deneuve in BELLE DE JOUR (1967).  I’m highlighting these because, interestingly, they are both fashion designers creating costumes for their muses onscreen.  That’s just some of the revolution going on in the 1960s when it comes to costume design.
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There are a lot of actresses, for example Audrey Hepburn, who are as much remembered for their fashion influence as their acting careers proper. Marlene Dietrich was known for popularizing men’s clothing in the 1930s and Marilyn Monroe in the ’50s for the form-hugging day dress. What actress do you think had the biggest influence on mainstream fashion?
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That is near impossible to say since ‘mainstream fashion’ changes by the year, the season, the trend, and is even different depending where you live.  ​As an example, women of Los Angeles really seem to love the 1970s and I see influences from films like ANNIE HALL (1977) a lot–the blazers, plaid shirts, and jeans; the long, layered maxi dresses; the hats and scarves; the long, wavy hair.  But if I had to pick one actress, certainly ladies like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly since they are timeless and beloved by all.
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We all think of Edith Head as the preeminent Hollywood costume designer. Firstly, do you think that’s an honest appraisal of her importance and who else do you think of as the creme de la creme of Hollywood costume designers and why?
Edith Head is where it all began for me, and I continue to adore her and her work.  She had no formal design training prior to joining Paramount, yet she went on to have an enormous career that started in the 1920s and lasted into the 1980s.  She is responsible for many iconic looks, including that of the Hitchcock Heroine.  She won 8 Academy Awards, which is the most of any costume designer ever.  She was also ahead of her time when it came to marketing–writing advice books and columns for fashion magazines, appearing on ‘talk shows’ of the time that included on-the-spot makeovers for audience members, licensing deals for her designs, branded sewing patterns, and so on.  
 
All that said, she is also probably the most controversial costume designer.  This is especially true for those films that included Givenchy in them.  One of her Oscars was for SABRINA (1954), which everyone agrees was really a reward for Givenchy’s work.  Though the rules at the time stated that only the lead costume designer could be credited and therefore nominated, many said she could have done a lot more to give credit where credit was due.  This would apply to more than just her experience with Givenchy and was a repeated criticism in her career.  Somewhat in her defense, that same criticism could be applied to other costume designers as well.  Some like to say she was more of a politician than a designer, but I think she was actually brilliant at both.  The length and range of her career really speaks to that.
 
As far as others who represent the creme de la creme of costume designers, MGM’s Adrian and Paramount’s Travis Banton (Edith’s friend and mentor) are two giants who should definitely be celebrated.  They have many examples of iconic work between them.
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And finally, which costume designers working today do you find the most exciting?
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In film, I think that Jenny Beavan is simply brilliant as is Catherine Martin.  And I think the caliber of talent in TV​ is equally exciting, starting with people like Patricia Fields and Janie Bryant.  Both really changed the game.
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In closing, I know that you’re always juggling a lot of projects and wonder if you could tell us what your latest are and why you’re excited about them.
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Again, my latest project with Christie’s comes to fruition on Friday with the auction of Grace Kelly’s dress from THE SWAN (1956).  It’s always thrilling to watch the live auction and see the sale, which is somewhat the result of my work and the history I have shared about the dress.  Though I naively wish all costumes could go to a centralized location in the United States for us all to enjoy [laughs], I do enjoy seeing what these costumes sell for.  It helps convince those who might be otherwise dismissive of the value of costume design.
 
Then this Saturday, I start the second round of my live 6-part webinar series on THE STYLE ESSENTIALS: HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM.  I did it one time before and it was so popular I had to bring it back.  I cover the most iconic costume design from the 1920s to the 1970s with one decade discussed per month.  Each presentation includes live video of me talking about the film history, costumes, costume and fashion designers, and fascinating backstories of the stars alongside stills from the movies as well as images that show the influence and connection to fashion today.  All are welcome, so for more info and to register, visit the link above.  You can also get there by visiting GlamAmor.com and going to the permanent ‘Webinars’ page at the top.
 
And yet another project on deck is the upcoming International Fashion Film Festival taking place in La Jolla at the end of July.  It’s an incredible 3-day event with people flying in from all over the world.  I have been asked to be a Grand Jury Member as well as a Presenter, which is rare and a tremendous honor.  My presentation practically opens the festival.  Of course I’ll be sharing the HISTORY OF FASHION IN FILM with this fashion industry audience.​  I’m very excited.
 
I’m also in the midst of writing my book based on THE STYLE ESSENTIALS, so that is also very exciting.  It’s beyond rewarding to see all of my work coming together in this way.
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Thank you again, Kimberly, for this window into fashion and film!
 
​It’s my pleasure!  I look forward to our next visit.​
Kimberly Truhler

 

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