Natalie and I

It’s been movie stars all over the place at Circa lately – and Natalie Wood holds a special place in my heart.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to purchase some costumes from the film “The Mystery of Natalie Wood” – I still have some, but most went off to happy homes including a Kimbra film clip for her song “Settle Down” and Candice DeVille’s personal wardrobe.

A costume from a film about Miss Wood is one thing, but an actual costume she wore in one of her major roles is another thing entirely.

Then Peter walked in the door with a box full of sparkles – the costume that Miss Wood wore as Gypsy Rose Lee for the finale in “Gypsy (1962)”. Here she is:

And here she is strutting her stuff and singing “Let Me Entertain You”.


If you’re reading this via email, click here to see the video.

The costumes were designed by Orry-Kelly, the Australian who had previously won three Academy Awards including one for Marilyn Monroe’s beaded dresses in “Some Like it Hot”.


Any excuse for a MM pic.

I wish I’d known about Orry-Kelly when I was a costume student: he would have been my idol. Plus he lived with Cary Grant for a decade! He received a fourth Academy Award nomination for “Gypsy” and according to Wikipedia, when he died two years later “His pallbearers included Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Billy Wilder and George Cukor and his eulogy was read by Jack Warner.” That’s one heck of a supporting cast to see you into the next world.

Back to Miss Wood – I can tell you that there are four pieces to the Gypsy costume: essential for a strip tease… to undress in stages – and here is the order that Miss Wood removed them – the skirt, the jacket, the high waisted knicker and the strapless bra. The set was split – the undergarments were sold last year. Rumour has it that Dita von Teese now owns them.


An example of what they would have looked like on, if you weren’t as petite as Miss Wood: the bra and knicker should meet, so that it looks like a one piece garment. It’s a pity the set was split up but so it goes. The best pieces are still the jacket and skirt.

The jacket is tiny: it has a hook and eye at the dazzling rhinestone encrusted collar and a pair of big press studs to secure at the base – Natalie wore it crossed over about three inches, but the modern size 8 mannequin is too enormous for her costume. There are half-sleeves, and a big train that hangs down almost to the floor, with a beaded tassle and more rhinestones.

Then the skirt – it wraps around, secured with a large hook and eye, producing a draped effect over her hips. There are more hooks that perhaps attached to her undergarments – she must have been quite curvy for her tiny frame, because the skirt fell down when I put it on my vintage mannequins.

The skirt also has a tail, capped with a beaded tassle and rhinestones – plus several weights to keep it down, and a loop so she could pick it up and play with it. She must have done this a bit, because the skirt “tail” had the most damage.

Are you wondering why the mannequin is standing on a yellow sheet? This was so I could pick up all the beads and rhinestones as they fell off. It was my task to secure the beadwork, mend the holes and generally restore the costume so it could be displayed without endangering the condition. Everything I did was on the sheet, to capture all of the beads.

Tell me more?
The ensemble is made of silver bugle beads machine sewn onto silk jersey in feathered lines and partially lined in fine nylon. Then additional bugle beads were hand sewn in areas that needed to be more heavily ornamented (like the bust), or perhaps they were repairs? Then thousands of rhinestones of various sizes were glued onto the fabric. Additional glass crystals set in prongs were hand stitched on too.

I was thrilled to see pencil marks under the bugle beads indicating that they had a beading machine to apply a specific design but then realised – this is Hollywood! Of course they had a beading machine, they wouldn’t just pop down to Clegs and buy it by the metre like us plebs.

Working with two sizes of needles (a sharps and a thin beading needle) I moved my hands gently over a section at a time, searching for loose beads, loose threads and loose rhinestones – the latter fell off and were collected. The first two were secured with the required needle on the underside. I used pure cotton thread, like the one that was used on the original costume (even though polyester thread is stronger, I prefer authenticity if I can get it).

It was a painstaking process and I limited myself to 45 minutes at a time, because my eyes would start to go funny after a while. I’m surprised I wasn’t dreaming of rhinestones!

Here’s a close up of the fabulousness – you can see the different types of beads and rhinestones, the prong set ones sit up higher than the glued ones, which sit flat. The dark misshapen bits are the remnants of silvered backing from absent rhinestones.

I tried gluing the dropped rhinestones back on but it didn’t work of course, they needed their intact backing and it had crumbled away. This is why sewing will always last better than glue, but back when Orry-Kelly inspected the finished costume, I’m sure he wasn’t thinking of the people who would still be admiring his work more than fifty years later.

The costume will be going on display in a couple of weeks in Brisbane – you can see it (if you’re over 18) at Club X, 160 Brisbane Road, Booval, Queensland.

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9 comments

  1. Wow Nicole! What an amazing story. You’ve done an incredible job as always. I’m guessing Natalie must have been a tiny size 4 or thereabouts. Ek!

    And what could be done with those areas where you couldn’t glue the rhinestones back on? Presumably they’re not very noticeable due to the thousands of glittering beads and stones already present.

    Fabulous work! 🙂

  2. Love hearing about your painstaking work on this piece of history, and learning about how it was originally constructed. If you can get someone to take a photo of you working on it, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to see that! x

  3. I came in to buy a copy of your book “Love Vintage” whilst you were working on this beautiful costume and was delighted and honored that you showed it to me. I went home to replay the the scene on DVD and get a thrill every time I think about it.

    I also love your book. I read it it all in one evening and refer back to it regularly. I highly recommend it.

  4. Thanks Suzanne, I’m glad you were able to see this beautiful costume while it was here. I only wish that I could add it to my collection 🙂

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed the book too – thank you.

  5. That is so amazing. I just love Natalie Wood and GYPSY with her in is my favorite all time movies. It is so cool to see that beautiful outfit. I also wondered if you could help me, i am looking for the amazing blue dress she wore when she steps out of the dressing area and realized how beautiful she was..I would love to purchase that one, but have not seen or heard of anywhere it may be. Any help would be much appreciated.

    Again so glad you were able to work on such a magnificent dress.

    Thank you.

  6. You’re welcome Georgette: so glad you enjoyed the post. I loved working on a piece of Hollywood history – it was very exciting to be able to restore it.

    I’ll keep an eye out for information on the blue dress, perhaps it’s in Debbie Reynold’s collection? She’s having more auctions to sell her vast collection of costumes.

  7. Hello and thank you very much for this article and information it was very much appreciated. I loved Natalie wood in this movie she did an incredible job. Could you tell me who owns this costume? And why they would sell the undergarments to this very ICONIC costume? It just doesn’t make any sense to me why they would break up the set, especially when it has so much Hollywood history. I wish I would’ve had the opportunity to view Debbie Reynolds collection I’m sure it would have blown my mind. It’s saddens me so that Hollywood did not value it’s history and did not try harder to provide a museum to house and protect these collections for generations to come.

  8. Hi Philip, yes, I was sad that Ms Reynold’s amazing collection was sold too. Up until fairly recently, costumes weren’t really appreciated and so they were often reused in other films and sometimes split up. I can confirm that Dita von Teese does indeed own the undergarments, and I’m sure she’s looking after them well.

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