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WESTERN COSTUME COMPANY’S GOLDEN AGE


Many things come to mind when thinking about Hollywood costume, but few think about the venerable Western Costume Company, founded in 1912 when fledgling studios were start-ups in Hollywood. The company was started by Louis L. Burns. Burns had collected Native American clothing, jewelry, weapons and props for renting through a trading store and then started Western Costume Company to supply Western films made in the new film industry. Cowboy star William S. Hart was a regular customer, as was Cecil B. DeMille. Years later director John Ford became an investor. The first Western Costume location was in a small space in downtown Los Angeles at 7th and Figueroa. By 1924 a ten-story building was needed when Western was supplying D.W Griffith with all his costumes. It had 154 employees. It was located on Broadway in downtown LA. A Hollywood branch was also opened on Sunset Boulevard near Western.



The Great Depression hit many studios hard and Western Costume was also affected. Previously, a competitor, United Costume Company had also entered the business. Western Costume went bankrupt. Three brothers from the Oakland area, Dan, Joe, and Ike Greenberg bought Western and consolidated its locations into a new site in 1932 at 5335 Melrose Avenue in LA. It was next door to Paramount and RKO and near Columbia and the Goldwyn studio. Although Western was the go-to place for renting Western, period and foreign costumes, it had also developed into a full costume supplier, being able to design in-house and fabricate whatever film costumes were needed. Their particular strength was in male costumes, because many studios did not have a dedicated male costume designer. Not only costumes were supplied, but all manner of decorations and medals to match appropriate uniforms. Even Warner Bros. went to Western to have the costumes designed and fabricated for Errol Flynn in his many early swashbucklers including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Western had also costumed the Douglas Fairbanks Robin Hood in 1922. To support its costume design, Western developed a superlative research library from its early days in the 1920s. Books, fashion magazines and pamphlets were collected from the US and abroad, and continue to help costume designers to this day.


One notable costume designer that worked at Western Costume (although briefly) was Walter Plunkett. After a salary dispute at RKO, Plunkett left and joined Western in 1930, where he knew the Greenberg brothers from his high school days in Oakland. But he was missed at RKO and hired back in 1932, just in time to design for Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game. Other early costume designers produced excellent work at Western in the 1930s, including Laon (Lon) Anthony who designed many of Errol Flynn’s costumes, Emile (Mrs.) Santiago, who could design for men or women, and Marjorie Best, who designed mostly for men but could also design for women, also worked at Western. Costume designer Milo Anderson, at Warner Bros. from 1933-1952, developed his interest in costume while working during his summer vacations at Western while a student at Fairfax High School in the late 1920s.


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