The exact origin of Western Costume Company is hazy, and the truth has become obscured by a century of myth. Articles claim that it was founded anywhere from 1912 to 1915. And there is an old, but apocryphal, story about William S. Hart being involved. Sorting fact from lore is difficult, but what is certain is that the company was started by L. L. Burns and his wife, Mabel Edna Burns. The earliest known record of Western Costume is an advertisement from January 1914 that boasts “Indian, Cowboy, Spanish, Mission, Miner, Trapper Costumes and Properties For Stage and Photoplay.”
L. L. Burns hailed from Flagstaff, Arizona, which was the intersection of several Native American tribes, including the Hopi and Diné. In 1904 he moved to Los Angeles where he worked for the Benham Trading Company, a prominent vendor of Native wares. By the early 1910s, Burns had taken over the Benham Company and was involved in a number of other ventures, most of them relating to the nascent Los Angeles film industry. One of these side ventures was a production studio and film laboratory that he operated with producer and director Harry Revier. The pair supplied everything from a stage, office space, a film laboratory, and anything else a production needed, including props, sets, and costumes. The small space that Burns and Revier occupied was not much more than a stage and a barn, but when Cecil B. DeMille came to Los Angeles in 1913 to shoot The Squaw Man (1914), he leased the space from them and subsequently bought out their lease to the barn. This barn became the home of DeMille’s production company, the Jessie L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which was soon renamed Paramount Pictures. The barn itself still stands and is now the home of the Hollywood Heritage Museum.
A vital resource
When DeMille bought out Burns’s and Revier’s lease, the men’s partnership ended, but Burns continued making a name for himself in the nascent Los Angeles film industry. Due to the natural scenery of the area, Westerns comprised much of the filmmaking in Southern California during this time. With his stock of Native American goods and knowledge of Native culture, Burns’s became a vital resource for filmmakers. Directors hoping to authentically costume actors and dress scenes turned to Burns. He even traveled to the Pueblos of New Mexico to recruit Native Americans to go to Hollywood to act as extras in films. One story recounts that William Fox purchased pieces from Burns for a film, then tried to return them after production wrapped. Burns realized the potential of rentals and, recognizing his unique qualifications to fill this niche of the industry, started a new business. Western Costume Co.—named for the Western films it costumed—was born.
AS THE FILM
The film industry grew quickly, and so did the company. Burns began to expand his supply of primarily Native American costumes by stocking a wider variety. He employed seamstresses, including his wife Mabel, to produce garments that would be rented to clients and then returned to Western’s costume supply. This “make-to-rent” system gave clients exactly the costume they wanted while also allowing Western to grow their rental stock—a rental model that is occasionally used by productions to this day.
FIRST PRODUCTION LIBRARY
Burns took great pride in providing authentic pieces, and he began to build a research library. It was the first library of its kind in the film industry, and was the go-to source in the early 1920s when films began to put a higher premium on accuracy. By 1918 the company had outgrown its small downtown office at 7th and Figueroa, and the following year Western Costume relocated to a seven-story building at 908 South Broadway. This larger space allowed Burns to further expand the costume stock, research library, and accommodate prop, wig, and furniture departments, and around 1920 Burns bought out Western’s major competitors: the Fischer Costuming Company and Lee Powers’ prop business.