Poppy Cannon-Reese gives a fast tour of the Universal Studios Costume Department. Universal video
Color photos by Judy Graeme. Click any photo to enlarge
When Poppy Cannon-Reese became manager of the Universal Studios Costume Department two years ago, she already had an insider's knowledge of the warehouse-like place. During her long career as a costume designer and stylist for commercials and feature films, Cannon-Reese had been a frequent client, routinely making Universal the first stop of her day. "Because it's open at seven in the morning, before the stores open, you can come here and get a fix on what you need and get organized.....like if you have to dress a bunch of guys walking down the street in flannel shirts and jeans, we have all that," she says. Almost anything that is required to create the look of a character can be found there — more than a million pieces from monster masks to cowboy hats in many sizes are available for rental.
Universal's costume department takes up the whole fourth floor of the Edith Head Building.
The department, which dates to when Universal opened as a studio in 1915, occupies an entire floor of the Edith Head Building on the lot. Items cater to all kinds of productions, including feature films, television, commercials and music videos. The Universal Costume Department is on the circuit of essential resources that Hollywood costumers rely on, along with Western Costume in North Hollywood, the Warner Brothers costume department in Burbank and Palace Costume in West Hollywood.
Cannon-Reese already knew everyone in the department when she arrived, including her predecessor, Larry Harnell, who retired after 46 years. When the job opened up, she says it was "like a bolt of lightning. I knew I needed to apply! I was excited about the possibilities and what I could do. Our clients are basically people who shop all day long, so my goal is to make them as comfortable as they are at Neiman Marcus or Bloomingdales. If you can speed up anybody's day by making it easier, that's my goal."
The Costume Department, she says, is like a giant closet. "You have to know what you can keep and what to get rid of. We edit periodically and donate to charitable organizations." She oversees a staff of 18, including dressmaker John Hayles, who worked with Marilyn Monroe early in his career. (All are members of Costumers Union Local 705.) They service costumers and stylists all day, including A-list Hollywood designers such as Colleen Atwood, Marlene Stewart and Sanja Hays. She finds them fun to work with because they "have a strong point of view, and a strong sense of what they are looking for. Plus, their personal styles are always fascinating. They always know exactly what they want."
Since the closet always gets full, Cannon-Reese and her staff are always on the lookout for pieces to send to the Universal archive located in Sunland. They recently found Tippi Hedren's dress from Alfred Hitchcock's "Marni," Michelle Pfeiffers dress from "Scarface," and Marlon Brando's costume pattern from "Mutiny on the Bounty." "Once something goes to archive it never gets worn again," she said.
The Costume Department has also recently been added to the Universal Studios Hollywood VIP Experience tour. This tour, unlike the one most visitors take, is conducted in small groups and includes more work-a-day, hidden areas like sound stages and the props warehouse. "I think it's really important for us to be on the tour...for visitors to the lot to see the costumes because to me there's a magic, an inherent value and beauty," says Cannon-Reese. "I love my clients and the stylists but in some ways it's as important to show the public the glamour of the film industry in person — where you can actually be right there with it and touch it. I think we give them a really good look behind the scenes."
The Universal costume department circa 1916, courtesy of Universal Studios archive.