The Monetary Value of Fashion

Dorothy dress at auction, 2011

As Monica previously mentioned, the auction of Debbie Reynolds’ extensive Hollywood costume collection was (not surprisingly) a smashing success, in that it set new new highs for what collectors would pay for literal fabric of Hollywood history. Items that have been reported on most have included:

  • $4.6 million for Marilyn Monroe’s white subway dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955):

Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch subway dress

  • $3.7 million for Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady (1964) Ascot race dress:

Ascot dress from My Fair Lady

  • $910,000 for Judy Garland’s Dorothy dress from The Wizard of Oz (1939):

Wizard of Oz Dorothy Dress

  • $50K for Judy Garland’s Dorothy ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (these actually look like the shoes as worn by the Wicked Witch of the East, and not Dorothy, to me):

Wizard of Oz Ruby Slippers

  • $100K for Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (1963) headdress:

Cleopatra headdress

Some items that were not so popular were some pantaloons from Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and a lock of Mary Pickford’s hair (this is indicative of the under-valued silent screen era, I think– Ms. Pickford was one of the most popular actors of the silent era, though few remember her name, even as a founder of United Artists Pictures production company). Predictably, few articles about the auction results even mentioned these low-sellers.

An interesting peculiarity about costumes is that they are generally made in multiples, as they experience accelerated wear-and-tear from being changed into and out of, often hurriedly between scenes. This sets it apart from most art forms (excepting photography and screen-painted pop art, for example) which prize the uniqueness of The Single Object.

San Giorno Maggiore at Dusk, Monet, 1908

People often conflate worth and importance with monetary value, a result of America’s aggressive capitalistic leanings. One of my favorite moments in The Thomas Crown Affair remake (1999) was during the opening museum sequence where a teacher is desperately trying to wrangle the attention of her disinterested class; after unsuccessfully trying to impress them with historical details about Monet’s San Giorno Maggiore at Dusk (1908) she finally says (I’m paraphrasing): “Get this: it’s worth a million bucks.” Her young audience snaps to attention at the mention of money, and collectively gasps, their attention suddenly focused. They have been brought up in a culture that values money above all else — including personal preference, historical import, quality or craftsmanship. If some wealthy patron is willing to blow a wad of bills on some painting, the press attention it receives increases exponentially, as does the public opinion of the work. Money subjugates all other artistic criteria.

Valerie Steele, in a NYTmes article from earlier this year which explored the rather tiresome question of whether fashion objects are museum-worthy, astutely noted:

“Most museum administrators are not particularly keen on fashion because it is not generally considered art, and these shows do take place at art museums…. Of course we realize that art is commercial, but it has a reputation for transcending that, whereas clothing does not” (my emphasis).

This commercialism is precisely the value system that leads to “fast fashion” — if a temporarily trendy skirt costs only $15 at (non-Unionized) Target, it’s easier to discard it after a season or two because the buyer doesn’t feel she’s throwing very much money away. This kind of monetary thinking omits the ecological impact of this careless behavior (an estimated 9.8 million tons of textiles were generated in 2001), and subjugates personal preference and individual style to fashion runway schedules and retail seasons which all promote planned obsolescence. But I digress….

I suppose what irritates me about this whole costume auction business is not that these garments do not deserve the press attention, or to be preserved or collected in the first place, but that it is only newsworthy if there is an impressive price tag to report on — articles almost always omit costume designer, technological film context, world politics of the day (which always imposes interesting constrictions on fabric availability, sexual mores, etc.), in favor of attributing all “worth” to the famous bodies these items hung on in one of the last stages of a costume’s long life. In the most basic, visceral sense, isn’t it utterly disconcerting to see the Dorothy dress divorced from its film environment? Compare the flattened, empty dress in the first photo of this post to the dress on Judy Garland’s body, within the Wizard of Oz environment:

Wizard of Oz poster

For me, the Dorothy dress is significant as an iconic piece of a film with breakthrough technology (color and black-and-white film in 1939); not to mention its powerful juxtaposition of the harsh Great Depression reality (Dorothy on her Kansas farm, portraying the devastating Dust Bowl that swept American and Canadian plains in the ’30s) with the fantasy dream world of ultimately rewarded optimistic aspirations. It differed from most ’30s Hollywood films where the Great Depression was completely omitted and a wealthy and/or comedic alternative reality was portrayed in lighthearted slapstick comedies and musicals. Dorothy’s gingham dress signified her farm heritage and her youth, while the ruby slippers were, in addition to being sparkly and fancy, were heeled, hinting at Dorothy’s needing to grow up. The literal contrast of texture and color between the blue cotton dress and spangly heels echoed the uneasy transition from innocent immaturity to worldly, grateful young woman. (Says me.)

Few articles have bothered mentioning the designer of auctioned costumes. It is extremely possible that many familiar with the “Marilyn Monroe dress” don’t even know it was worn in The Seven Year Itch (1955). The photos we see of this dress most often are actually from saucy publicity shots of Marilyn ineffectually hiding her panties while standing over a wind turbine-equipped subway grate, eclipsing the film itself — in which she was only filmed from the thighs down briefly (no underwear shot at all), and mostly from the waist up, due to censorship issues (as Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips were similarly cropped out of a ’50s performance).

Film posters had fewer restrictions, and so could get away with posters like this:

Marilyn Monroe publicity shot for The Seven Year Itch

Though I admittedly haven’t gone too deep into the histories of these garments, I have not even found an attempt to deepen the public’s understanding or appreciation of costumes in any article about these costume auctions, and once again, I feel that fashion has been given short shrift as an effective cultural educating tool, relegated instead to the realm of quaint prettiness, and graded by money spent to own it.

(Post has been updated to include costume designers.)

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  • Sarah June 21, 2011 06.36 am

    Excellent post Tove! You touched upon a lot of deep issues in it, bringing sense to the auction madness.

  • Heather Vaughan June 21, 2011 09.27 am

    Always love your analysis Tove! Couple of quick notes that I thought were important to mention though. A you recognize, many of these are mulitples and in fact the “Dorothy Dress” is a screen test dress not even actually made of gingham. Though you mention that these costumes designers are rarely mentioned in any auction articles, you also failed to mention them – and both were extremely important and influential during and after their time: Gilbert Adrian designed the Wizard of OZ and The Seven Year Itch costumes were designed by Travilla. One final note, on your well done piece here: I would argue that it is Costume (and it’s designers) and not Fashion that has been given short shrift…

  • Tove Hermanson June 21, 2011 03.59 pm

    Heather, you are absolutely right– and I have updated the post to add the costume designers. Though there is certainly a difference between the field of Costume Design and fashion, I actually do think C.D. falls under the umbrella of fashion, as I define it (which I consider broad enough to include body studies, makeup, hair, and fashion performance like runways and films). You are right again though, that Costume Design gets short shrift in the news– which I see as a continuation of the fluffy way in which fashion at large is treated (or ignored) in “serious” articles.

  • Kat June 21, 2011 07.20 pm

    Loved it! I always wonder about what condition collectors will keep these garments in post-auction. It’s such a shame that the Debbie Reynolds museum went under because I would have loved to see these things themselves and I bet a lot of other people would too. With all the money spent by these collectors they could have funded the damn project but I suppose that is the allure of the auction…

  • Corey June 21, 2011 09.19 pm

    Could it be that costume design is not valued as much as it could be because it’s only a component part of the end product? The goal of the primary artists behind these endeavors wasn’t to make beautiful costumes–they were just tools to reach the actual goal and end product: The Film. Appreciating a costume could be considered similar to appreciating a frame or something–beautiful in it’s own right but not the real artistic statement.

    In that sense (and I’m not saying it’s correct, mind you), it’s easy to see how it’s really hard for art collectors to appreciate costume as artistic in it’s own right. Yes, there is an artisan’s skill and craft that makes it valuable, but in a way it’s not a complete “whole”…

    And accordingly, couldn’t it be presumed that (to art collectors and fandom) a costume’s value might be dependent upon the success/failure of that whole, not it’s own intrinsic quality or artistry?

    By extension, it’s easy to see how Fashion garments–i.e. McQueen, Versache, Worth, Poiret, etc.–can be valued as artistic works in and of themselves because they are the “end product”. It’s easier for the general public to wrap their heads around that. It’s not a “step removed” which costumes are, as they inadvertently require a layer of aesthetic appreciation that isn’t necessary in he same way as for Fashion.

    Just a thought. I’m not saying it’s right. Or good. Or that I like it. I hate it, cuz I AM a costume designer. And it’s not fair. But it’s a thought.

    –Corey in San Diego

  • Tove Hermanson June 22, 2011 05.53 pm

    Corey: Your raise some interesting points. However, I would argue that costumes are particularly interesting precisely *because* they are obviously part of a whole production and must not only reflect the play / film’s setting dates, be activity appropriate, indicate gender, etc., but also because they should (subtly) integrate character personality into the plot. I’m not even just limiting the “value” of garments to the technical sewing skills needed to compose them, but to integrating these signifiers into a larger project. How does a costume reflect the character? The character’s setting, wealth, social status, desires, etc.? And if we zoom out a little further, looking back on old film costumes, how did those films reflect (or reject, or challenge) the times they were created in?

    But you are right, I think most people simply look at the (monetary) success of the film when contemplating blowing a wad on a costume. And that’s still a shame.

  • Virginia Postrel June 30, 2011 01.47 pm

    It’s clear from the prices that the value of the individual pieces is highly influenced by who wore them and in what movies they were worn. The market for Marilyn Monroe memorabilia is thicker than the market for costumes. That said, the price of the Audrey Hepburn Ascot dress also reflects the appreciation of Cecil Beaton’s design, not just for the dress but the scene and, indeed, the film as a whole–though, not surprisingly, the beautiful dress sold for considerably more than Rex Harrison’s accompanying suit

    I wrote about the tension between the higher market value of selling pieces separately versus the historical value of a collection in this article for Bloomberg View:


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