Costume Shop Stories: The Muslin

Cartoon by Baumer from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

It sometimes seems that I am obsessed with styling tricks that help women look more slender than they really are. This is a chronic problem for theatrical designers; it’s true that people sometimes look a few pounds heavier in photos than in real life, and actors have to pay attention to their appearance. It’s a competitive business. In the early 1980’s I worked with a woman who was a costumer at a major motion picture studio. This is one of her stories:

Cartoon (dated 1877) from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

An actress who had a huge success on Broadway was (very wisely) cast to play the same part in the movie version of the musical. A very famous costume designer was hired. The initial designs were approved, but when the fittings began, they often ended badly.

The actress was nervous, and found fault with every costume. She was convinced they made her look fat. She knew all too well that she was not a conventionally pretty girl by Hollywood’s cookie cutter standards. And she really wanted to be a movie star….

Movie actor paper doll from Delineator, April 1917.

The actress kept rejecting her costumes, and the costume shop was falling behind schedule, while the Academy Award (TM) winning costume designer redesigned and redesigned….

What is a Muslin?

If you’ve never had a custom-made or couturier gown, you may not realize that the first version (called the toile, or muslin) is usually made of unbleached muslin — plain, off-white cotton fabric.
The fit and the design details are easily marked on the muslin — move a seam here, lower the waistline there, make the collar higher or wider, etc. Once the designer is satisfied, the costume shop uses the muslin to make a revised pattern before cutting into the real fabric. Then the white muslin is replaced by the actual costume materials — perhaps in dark blue, or rich brown, or crimson — for the second fitting.

But the nervous star rejected one muslin after another.

“We’re in the Movies Now;” article from Delineator, March 1934.

On stage, an actor is in constant communication with the audience.  The actor is in control of his performance. However, a film actor, unlike a stage actor, has much less control over her performance on screen. The director and the film editor choose what the audience will eventually see.

In the costume shop, however, a star can exercise a little power, and the more anxious he or she is, the more that anxiety sometimes gets displaced to the one area where control seems possible: the costumes. This process is stressful for the shop, but understandable, especially when the actor’s future career may be at stake.

Solution: When the actress left after another unsuccessful fitting, the costume shop supervisor grabbed several rolls of unbleached muslin and had them all dyed dark gray. The shop made a new set of muslins (actually the same designs as the last set) of dark, dark muslin — closer in value to the colors of the actual costumes.

When she saw herself in the mirror, wearing a slenderizing dark color instead of white — the anxious actress approved them all.

Cartoon (1929) from The Way to Wear’em. Please do not copy.

There is no “villain” in this story — just a problem and a solution.

P.S. If you haven’t read Christina Walkley’s wonderful fashion history illustrated by cartoons from Punch, I highly recommend The Way to Wear’em.

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10 Comments

Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Musings, Tricks of the Costumer's Trade

10 responses to “Costume Shop Stories: The Muslin

  1. LOL Love this story!!! I’d probably hate the way I looked in white muslin, too, What a smart idea, dying the muslin another color.

  2. Did you see the film Dior and I? Raf Samuels had a muslin made of a New Look inspired suit. Of course it was beige, and he said to his workers that he wanted another muslin in black. They painted (or spray painted?) it black instead of making another by hand.

  3. Loved this! It’s all about a very simple solution right under the nose…muslin is quite bleh, anyway…

    This story reminds me of some work I have done a few years back with not so simple solutions – a wedding dress for a friend and a prom dress for an 18 year old – they both were insecure about their body type, about how they looked in the design they chose, and could *not* be made happy in the least. It is utterly exhausting to work for someone like that. One week change this – tomorrow something new to ‘try’ on the dress due to a nervous whim. Suddenly something directly appeals to them…and it is such a relief!

    This also makes me remember visiting and spending some time in a costume shop for our local theatre productions. What impressed me the most was the amount of glorious, beautiful details put into the clothes…and the fact that these never get seen from the seats of the crowd!!!

  4. Fabulous story! So, was stardom achieved?

  5. Hmm there’s not that many actresses that it could be, right? Can you give a hint to the year? 😉

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