Costume designer Gregg Barnes calls working with the Hilton sisters, “One of the most incredible experiences I've had.” For those of you wondering why Paris and Nicky don't seem to have benefited from advice from the man who glams up the Rockettes, this particular pair of Hiltons were Daisy and Violet, the conjoined twins of Sideshow. Barnes' work on Sideshow is a good example of his modus operandi, which is to get as close to the source as he can while researching, it's also a good example of the extraordinary luck he has finding the links between people in this industry, and not just Kevin Bacon. One of Barnes' assistants, Stephen Stratton, happened to be the grandson of a dancing partner of the real Hilton twins in their vaudeville show and had saved scrapbooks from his years on the road. Barnes says, “They had pictures of them that even Lincoln Center Library didn't have.”
Because the actresses who played the famous twins simply stood next to each other, rather than wearing any kind of attaching apparatus, Barnes didn't have to work around any awkward straps, instead he used small details to accentuate the sense of being conjoined. The twins wore matching outfits but when they were in harmony together the designer used mirror-image outfits so that two necklines formed a heart shape and the clothes looked balanced. To emphasize confrontation in the relationship the line of the clothes flowed away from the join, instead of to it, and the details were asymmetrical.
Another Broadway show Barnes found personal connections to was Flower Drum Song, set in Sixties America but with historical elements from the Peking Opera and recent Asian immigrants. The parents of one of the actresses, Jodi Long, had been performers at the Forbidden City, a Chinese nightclub in San Francisco in the sixties. “She told me stories about how Asians dressed at the time and how you could tell a theatrical person by how they dressed and the quality of their jade and she had all the photographs.”
Barnes also traveled to the major China towns in the US and amassed a huge file of photographs of the fashion, art, and architecture of the period. Barnes also discovered that Chinese opera consultant and fight director Jamie H. J. Guan had worked for the Peking Opera, and, coincidentally, his sister ran a costume company in Beijing. This connection assured a certain authenticity to his designs for the opera costumes but allowed the designer to make them his own, he says, “Within the confines of this incredible tradition that's been going on for centuries I got to take it and warp it into the Flower Drum Song vocabulary.”
Sometimes historical accuracy comes off the rack, especially when it's a classic. While trying to match a jacket for Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way, Barnes went to Burberry to find out more about the classic coat and discovered that they still make the exact model. Barnes also trawls the vintage clothing stores in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where clothing from the 50s and 60s often shows up, unworn, complete with original tags and present-day inspiration. (For more information, see next month's column on Los Angeles resources.)
Being aware of images and points of inspiration, even with no project in mind, is an ongoing process, and one that Barnes emphasized to his students at NYU. “I always said to my undergrads, ‘you have your whole lifetime to start collecting and you should really start now, and you will build an incredible library that is so unique.’” He does concede that you have to be neurotic about filing it, by type or year or category. That beautiful photograph of a Mexican festival won't do you any good if you leave it in the in-flight magazine. So find it, keep it, and catalog it, and it doesn't hurt to find a personal connection to use as a jumping off point.
If you have any secrets you want to share with the world, contact Kinnersley at firstname.lastname@example.org.