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King of the Costume Shop


By Randi Schmelzer

Published Jul 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Maxwell Barr oversees a place of fantastic imagination and creation.

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In a tucked-away corner of UCLA's Macgowan Hall, in a suite overflowing with girdles and garters, pinstripe suits and petticoats and sweeping, brightly colored plumed hats, is the School of Theater, Film and Television's Costume Shop. This campus treasure is the court of Maxwell Barr, costume shop supervisor extraordinaire.

For three years, Barr has overseen the shop's re-creations of contemporary, period and fantasy costumes. Both mentor and muse, Barr guides student designers in their explorations, driving them to produce costumes to time-consuming perfection. And with his staff of professional cutter/fitters — Paul Girard, Minta Manning and Turk Magnanti — Barr always incorporates a history lesson along with design details.

The master costumer has a broad range of experience in couture as well as costume construction. Trained in European couture in Sydney, Australia, Barr headed workrooms for ABC Circle Films and Western Costume before coming to Westwood. He has also made costumes for Kirsten Dunst (Elizabethtown) and Omar Sharif (Hidalgo).

Approximations don't pass muster in UCLA's Costume Shop, where Barr and his students create meticulously accurate period pieces.

In re-creating costumes, "our research always entails learning something about the history" of the period and the pieces themselves, Barr explains. Costumes for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, included pleated and braided sleeves that took two weeks to make — by hand. And all undergarments, he says, "are period-correct."

Undergarments have, in fact, played a significant role in Barr's recent work. One of his recent re-creations, from Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun's 1783 portrait of Marie Antoinette, is the infamous "chemise a la reine"; the blue-tinted dress, Barr says, was originally an "embellished undergarment" and caused a scandal whenever the queen wore it. Barr's meticulous effort in hand-re-creating the piece has generated its own buzz: He first lectured about his work at a Western Society for French History conference in October 2006, "and they're still talking about it," he proudly notes.

But the chemise is just one of many pieces Barr — who himself prefers "soft stuff, comfortable clothes" — is currently working on. He's also re-creating 35 gowns from famous 18th-century portraits for a book, tentatively titled The Age of Elegance. "You can tell I don't sleep too much," he says.

If a production "wants to do something with authenticity, Maxwell and his costumes are the way to go," says Sandy Rosenbaum, founding curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Doris Stein Research Center.

"What we're doing is almost becoming living history," Barr concludes. The UCLA Costume Shop offers "life experience: You're not going to get it out of a book."



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