Courtesy, Brandon Ruckdashel
With the Oscars upon us this weekend and acceptance speeches being delivered virtually by celebs in pajamas (albeit chic ones), the lack of a red carpet shines an even brighter light on the costume designs of this year’s buzziest films. For more than four decades, New York-based Helen Uffner has been a go-to for many of the industry’s biggest names.
Her skilled eye as a vintage collector first caught the attention of Woody Allen, who purchased her entire stock for his film Zelig in 1982. “I had a friend who owned a boutique in Soho and Woody’s costume designer came in looking for 1920s clothing,” says Uffner. “He sent them to my apartment where I had one rolling rack in the bedroom full of 1920s clothes, and they bought absolutely everything I had. That’s when I realized I had to start from the beginning.”
What was once a modestly sized bedroom is now an 8,000 square foot warehouse in Long Island City that houses thousands of garments and accessories from the Edwardian era all the way up to the 1980s. The films that have followed include The Color Purple, Cadillac Records (featuring a dress worn by Beyoncé), and this year’s Academy Award-nominated Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. ELLE.com caught up with Uffner to chat about the excitement surrounding the most recent film and her path to industry prominence.
When when did you first start collecting?
To be perfectly honest, I probably started collecting in the womb. When I was very little, I went to a neighborhood auction and the only thing I could afford were some antique books that were a dollar each. That really started my collecting bug. Later I began going to thrift shops and just picking up things that I thought were beautiful to look at. It didn’t even occur to me to actually wear the clothing because I saw them more as art objects.
Was this something you gleaned from your parents?
My parents are European and my mother always used to tell me that it’s all about the quality of the garment. So in Europe, she would buy one beautifully hand embroidered Austrian silk blouse and then she’d wear it all season rather than a lot of inexpensive things. So I really got to appreciate that. They collected art, they collected other things, so they always had a very good eye. I also majored in fine art so my collecting really stemmed from an appreciation of something visual, what something looked like, rather than what the function was.
Do you follow fashion?
I never really studied fashion magazines to see what was in fashion because I always marched to my own drum beat. Eventually, because fashion is cyclical, I would be in style. I’d be wearing a stretch stirrup pants when no one else was then then three years later, suddenly stirrup pants were big again. So in spite of myself, I became fashionable.
What are some of your most treasured pieces?
I have this amazing Norell coat which is completely covered in three dimensional red silk poppies that’s that’s really quite amazing. As far as my personal collection, I like things that have a bit of whimsy, like bust enhancers from the turn of the century—they’re beautifully embroidered cotton stuffed with horsehair. As far as “names,” you name it: Vionnet, Fortuny, Madame Gres, Chanel—I once rented a Chanel corset to Karl Lagerfeld so that he could make a pattern.
Where are your favorite sources to shop?
I feel shopping in the States is best. I think a lot of things were maybe destroyed in the war [in Europe]. I had some people from a European film come in and they were even looking at the house dresses that I had from the 1950s. They said, “we don’t even have these kind of colors in Europe because everything in Europe was so much darker and sadder. And America, they were still doing bright colors.”
Tell me about the pieces you lent to the Ma Rainey team
Now most of the Ma Rainey costumes were created but we did rent about 150 items. One of the more prominent is the beautiful brown silk chiffon and lace drop-waist dress, which Dussie Mae (played by Taylour Paige) wears the entire movie, which is why it came back a little bit shredded, but I’m thrilled the film has been so well received.
A short film called Torte Bluma, which actually won first prize at the LA short film festival. In 2005, the costume designer came to me and it was only an 18 minute short, but they had big actors involved. It was based on a true story that took place in Treblinka about a German commandant and his Jewish servant.
They didn’t have a big budget but when they told me what it was about, I donated everything for free because it so happens that I have about seven immediate relatives, all of my grandparents and my uncles, who were killed in Treblinka. My parents are also Holocaust survivors. In exchange, I had a dedication to each of them so I now have a timeless memorial. I think that’s probably the most close thing to my heart that I’ve done.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io