Costume DesignFilm & Television

Debbie Reynolds – The Woman Who Saved Iconic Costume Designs

Legendary actress Debbie Reynolds passed way at the end of 2016, just a few days after her daughter, Star Wars alum Carrie Fischer. Helen Beaumont looks back on the amazing contribution Debbie Reynolds made to the field of costume design, not just as an actress, but as a collector…

Hollywood star

Debbie Reynolds got her big break in the iconic movie musical Singin in the Rain. With Walter Plunkett, who famously designed Scarlett O’Hara’s costumes in Gone with the Wind, at the helm, Singin in the Rain featured some fantastic pieces. In the film, Debbie was dressed in vivid 1920s flapper fashion, as well as that iconic rainproof getup, helping her create a character we still remember fondly today.

Since she got her big break, Debbie Reynolds has been a mainstay in Hollywood. Over the years she has starred in huge productions such as The Unsinkable Molly Brown and The Singing Nun, helping foster the evolution of costume design in Hollywood. Debbie also worked as a cabaret performer, often rocking risqué outfits and in her later years, regularly guest starred in hit sitcom Will & Grace.

Debbie’s memorabilia

But Debbie Reynolds made another significant contribution to the field of costume design. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Debbie started collecting iconic film costumes in the 1970s, so they wouldn’t be thrown away by studios. Over the years, Debbie added absolute gems to her collection, like the ascot dress from My Fair Lady and Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

Debbie started her collection when MGM decided to auction its old costumes off. The star spent US$600,000 on buying everything she could, hoping to build an attraction for film fans. Commenting in 2013, Debbie said: “They literally threw away our history, and I just got caught up in it…  The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”

As the years wore on, Debbie added pieces to her collection. This included Orson Welles’ fur coat from Citizen Kane and the legendary halter-neck dress donned by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. Debbie opened her museum in Las Vegas in the 1990s, but it went bankrupt in 1997. She then tried to get her collection included in the Academy Museum, but was turned down every time she asked.

Our Patron Saint

Unfortunately, Debbie was forced to sell off her collection in 2011, due to financial concerns. The ruby slippers went for an astonishing US$690,000, showing the high demand for these brilliant pieces of film history. Meanwhile, several items from this collection, like the fur coat, have since been exhibited around the world, including in London’s popular Victoria & Albert Museum in 2012.

Explaining Debbie Reynolds’ legacy, the Director of the Study of Costume Design at UCLA, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, said: “Debbie is the patron saint of collectors, costume designers and a legion of fans… She was determined to preserve our history and the iconic artefacts of our popular culture. We will always be the beneficiaries of Debbie’s generosity. She was right and they were wrong.”

Continuing to speak about Debbie Reynolds, Nadoolman Landis noted: “To her lifelong frustration and disappointment she received little respect from our industry… If Debbie had not zealously safeguarded these remarkable clothes they certainly would not have survived the endless recycling of the studio costume department. Costumes, like everything else on the lot, were just another asset.”

Debt of gratitude

It appears that costume designers, preservationists and enthusiasts all over the world owe a huge debt of gratitude to Debbie Reynolds. Without the Singin in the Rain star, there are so many amazing pieces of film history which would be lost forever. With her passing, hopefully people may learn from Debbie Reynolds’ example and strive to ensure that one-of-kind costumes aren’t consigned to history.

About Helen Beaumont

Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera.

She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.

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