Judging from auction prices, vintage Hollywood costumes are wearing well

If trick or treaters at your door are cloaked in unusually spiffy costumes this Halloween, they may be among the many collectors who have been snapping up vintage apparel at auctions, shops, antiques shows and flea markets coast-to-coast. From "haute couture" to authentic Hollywood haber--ery of the stars, used clothing has emerged as a favorite treat this season. Judging from recent auction results at Butterfield & Butterfield in Los Angeles, and William Doyle Galleries and Christie's East in New York, star-struck collectors and those vying for vintage chic often are willing to pay hauntingly high prices to own pieces of fashion history.

"The market for vintage Hollywood costumes is in its infancy. We're where Disney cels were a decade ago," observed James G. Comisar, a Hollywood archivist who organized Butterfield & Butterfield's Oct. 10 dispersal of about 335 outfits from Western Costume Co.'s "Star Collection."


"Despite the worst economy since the 1930s, prices are still going up," he said. Katy Kane, a leading antique clothing dealer based in New Hope, Pa. (Katy Kane, Inc., 34 West Ferry St., New Hope, Pa. 18938, [215] 862-5873), said she was surprised by the strong prices paid at the New York couture auctions, because in some cases they surpassed what dealers charge at retail.

Provenance, rarity, condition, nostalgia and sometimes notoriety all helped raise prices to record levels at Butterfield's. Costumes worn by contemporary stars such as Tom Hanks, Jessica Lange and Bette Midler shared center stage with enduring garb once worn by Bette Davis, Rudolph Valentino and Lucille Ball. Among the films represented were "Hello Dolly," "The King and I" and "Planet of the Apes." Two of the top four lots were from the classic, "Gone With the Wind"


Mr. Comisar and his crew spent nearly a year sifting through 6.5 million outfits stored in Western's warehouse. Missing or incomplete labels made matching some costumes to stars and the films in which they were worn resemble looking for a needle in a haystack, he said.

But costumes didn't need to be complete to fetch top dollar. Errol Flynn's brown silk and velvet three-quarter-length coat, worn in "Captain Blood," sold for $31,050 without the pants, shirt, boots or belt he wore with it in the 1935 Warner Bros. film. A group of pieces of 1960s Batman costumes flew off the auction block for $11,500.

Although Batman's boots and gloves and Robin's red vest might survive an evening of trick or treating, most of the relics offered at Butterfield's are too small, fragile or valuable to don at dusk for Halloween merry-making. Many simply wouldn't fit their new owners, while others are in such delicate condition they should be admired only from afar and stored boxed with acid free tissue away from heat, humidity and sunlight which speed deterioration, observed Hollywood wardrobe archivist and dealer Bill Thomas, of "The Collection" (2705 West Burbank Blvd., Burbank, Calif. 91505, [818] 558-1427), who helped catalog the Butterfield sale and purchased several lots at the auction.

Lack of "wearability" didn't deter bidders, according to Mr. Comisar, who said Lucite-framed vintage costumes are replacing Andy Warhol paintings on the walls of the trendiest Hollywood homes and businesses. When it costs $33,350 to buy the star of Butterfield's sale, a pale blue ribbed cotton antebellum traveling suit with black trim worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," it's easy to understand why a new owner might choose to display it proudly rather than wear it.

Bidders had to be quick draws to corral John Wayne's suit from the "The Cowboys" (1972), which hit $10,350. Katharine Hepburn's eight-piece outfit from "Rooster Cogburn" (1975) brought $6,900 (estimated at $2,000 to $3,000). Charlie Chaplin's military jacket from "The Great Dictator" (1940) commanded $10,925. The seven Von Trapp children's sailor-style linen uniforms from "The Sound of Music" brought $19,550 (estimated at $1,500 to $2,500).

Mr. Thomas expects Hollywood costume prices to continue rising largely because of increasing demand and limited supply. Studios rarely maintain wardrobe archives anymore and today's stars' contracts often give them ownership of their costumes after a film is completed. For some new films, few original costumes are made; directors are relying on authentic vintage clothing.

"It's much cheaper for filmmakers to rent vintage clothing rather than reproduce it," said New York costume historian Helen Uffner, who has rented old fashion garb to directors for many years. She specializes in late 19th-century and early 20th-century everyday outfits. Her huge inventory comes from auctions, dealers, flea markets and occasionally attics.

"Contemporary fashion currently is going through a boring phase. That's why there's so much interest in vintage couture," noted fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank, who cataloged Doyle's Sept. 30 couture auction, which included stage gowns worn by opera star Marian Anderson.


Current designers were among the active bidders, possibly buying vintage items by great names in fashion history for new inspiration, Ms. Milbank said.

The costliest lot at Doyle's was a 1949 Balenciaga wool and taffeta evening dress, pictured on the auction catalog's cover. An English dealer paid $7,820 for it against a $2,000 to $3,000 estimate. Its consignor was not identified.

Vintage couture is eminently wearable and sometimes hard to recognize, added Ms. Milbank, who claims that few people realize it when she's wearing a piece.

For example, a jacket sold in a grouped lot of 1920s riding clothes ($546) is as fashionable today as it was when it was new. For savvy shoppers, there are bargains to be had in vintage yet "au courant" styles.