'Serial Mom' costumer comes to suburbia from fashion's seamy side Killer Outfits


Middle-aged, middle-brow. Hardly the stuff of John Waters movies. Van Smith, costume designer for "Serial Mom," Waters' newest, shopped such moderate shops as Casual Corner and Talbot's to dress the stars. This costuming from the man who dressed the grotesques in all the Waters films. The man who practically invented fright fashion, which he pulled from dusty thrift bins and seedy sex catalogs.

"I really enjoyed the early movies," Mr. Smith says. "It was a great creative outlet, creating a character, a totally different venue. I got work as a result of the early Waters notoriety from people who wanted that crazy look."

This time around, Mr. Waters has settled in suburbia, and the nastiness is dressed up in squeaky-clean style.

"We wanted this film to look as contemporary as possible, so I shopped the malls," says Mr. Smith. "For the young girls I hit the younger shops. Urban Outfitters in D.C. was a wonderful source. You know, plaid shirts, funky jackets. Half of what I was buying they already had and in some instances I let them wear their own clothes."

Sam Waterston, who plays dad to Kathleen Turner's serial mom, had to have that Baltimore boring look. "For Sam, Joseph Abboud sent some fabulous suits, but they were too fabulous, so we ended up with a quieter Brooks Brothers sort of wardrobe."

No glamour, no glitz, although he says Ms. Turner wears clothes very well -- and she wears them hard.

"Kathleen Turner is tripled a lot because she can really go through clothes. She likes to move," he says. Tripled means three identical outfits -- down to the shoes and accessories -- to cover loss and accidents.

In that sense, costuming a movie has more to do with logistics than a clever way with a feather boa.

"The key factor is money. So much is allocated to an actor. Then one has to consider all the actors in a picture and the number of costume changes. Then you plot out which actors are on camera together to avoid the possibility of their costumes clashing," Mr. Smith says.

"If there's a lot of action we have to be careful the clothes aren't chewed up before the shooting is completed and then you dress not only the actors, but the stunt people as well."

Here's a designer who now has to anticipate soil, wear and tear. In the early days of "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble," rips or dribbled food stains were a plus.

"When we did 'Pink Flamingos,' we were living in Provincetown [on Cape Cod] and John said, 'Look I can give you a couple of dollars, do you want to do the movie?'

"I was working at Women's Wear Daily as a fashion illustrator and didn't really want to go back to New York. I had a little extra money to keep going, so we came down to Baltimore and did it," Mr. Smith says. "In those days we didn't buy costumes, we found them."

The entire collection of John Waters' Baltimore weirdos and night-crawlers has been dressed by Mr. Smith since the first "Pink Flamingos" venture of 1974.

Miss Edith Massey, the snaggle-toothed entrepreneurial bag lady who sold old clothes and bits out of a basement shop, is gone now. So is Divine, the 300-pound drag star whose stage persona was invented by Mr. Smith.

"Divine wanted something outrageous. We started with the shaved eyebrows and head and took it from there," he says.

"People suggest that I've been influenced by bad B-movies. Actually my designs are closer to couture. If you take an enormous figure and personality like Divine's, nothing but originality will do. Divine's looks were fashion originals."

Richard Cardone, national artistic director for Clairol, says the look Mr. Smith gave to the early Waters characters may have had shock value back then, but it's fashion now. "Who would have thought shaved heads, torn clothes and hooker makeup would be seen on the runways of the top designers?"

New York designer Betsey Johnson, who in the Seventies was herself something of a fashion renegade, says, "I loved 'Pink Flamingos' and 'Polyester' and Divine looked divine. I can't remember the clothes specifically, but the way they were put together built the essence of these marvelous, bizarre characters."

Mr. Smith was a painting student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and shifted to illustration, and then fashion.

"I even tried production designing for Irka, a line that did a lot of raw silk," he says. "I can't sew, and it only took me six months to realize I didn't belong on 7th Avenue."

He does belong in Baltimore and has settled in. "I have a shop for 20th-century antiques on Maryland Avenue called Nigel Smith -- named after my dog. At the moment, I have nothing new coming up, but if something wonderful came up I would travel."

He has done all the Waters films, TV costuming for "Homicide," ads and some period costuming for PBS.

He admits that it is not easy to make a living at fashion here, but it's an easy way to live.

"The thing here is that no one really cares what they wear. In my days in New York, I would put on my tap shoes and really dress up to go out.

"Here, half the time, I'm not even aware of what I have on," he says.

"Nobody dresses, except for people in the business, possibly. It's not that we don't have good stores, such as Ruth Shaw. It's just that when people here think of high fashion, they think of Escada."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad