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Q&A with Hollywood Costume Collector Norman Tipton on the Curiosity and Challenge of Collecting Vintage

By Katia Graytok

In this interview, Norman Tipton, a San Diego area resident, shares his philosophy on collecting Hollywood vintage costumes and why he chose Margaret’s Couture Cleaners to restore and preserve three costumes worn by screen legends and icons Loretta Young, Liza Minnelli, and Betty Davis. 

KG: Tell me about your collection?
NT: I started collecting 40+ years ago. 

KG: How did you start collecting, and when?
NT: I started collecting movie posters in the 1980s, which segued into props and costumes. 

KG: Do you have a particular process in mind when collecting or a specific designer you admire?
NT: Collecting is my hobby which has enabled me to meet fascinating people. Debbie Reynolds was a great contact and friend whose personal efforts to save costumes from early Hollywood history were appreciated.

KG: What would you consider your most prominent piece in your collection?
MT: Barbara Streisand’s costume from Funny Girl, Joan Crawford from Mildred Pierce, Betty Davis from Queen Elizabeth, Faye Dunaway from The Three Musketeers.

KG: Are the three pieces at Margaret’s your latest’s acquisitions, which include the costume worn by Bette Davis in the film “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Crusades Costume worn by Loretta Young, and the long Emerald dress worn by Liza Minnelli in New York, New York?
NT: Yes 

The Crusades (Paramount, 1935) Designer: Travis Banton Loretta Young



Before and After Cleaning and Restoration: Hundreds of Seed Pearls were replaced, the fur was added back to the collar as in the original design of Loretta Young’s Cream Silk medieval gown and cape studded with seed pearls at the bodice and kirtle worn for the film The Crusades. Travis Benton designed Lorretta Young’s costume in 1935 for the movie The Crusades. Benton is considered one of the most important Hollywood costume designers of the golden age. Glamour, subtle elegance, and exquisite fabrics endeared Travis Banton to the most celebrated Hollywood royalty and one of his era’s most sought-after costume designers. 

KG: What attracted you to these pieces, the film, the star, the costume designer, or the time and place?
NT: I consider who wore it and the name recognition of the actor, how important was the movie at the peak of the actor’s career and is the piece visually arresting. Collecting is about films and not fashion. 

KG: What else do you collect? 
NT: My collections and interests are posters and women’s costumes. I don’t collect menswear because it has no eye candy value to me; a man’s suit is a man’s suit is a man’s suit.

KG: Do you have an artistic family background?
NT: My family has always been interested in culture. I personally enjoyed vintage comic books.

New York, New York (1977) Designer: Theodora Van Runkie Liza Minnelli



Before and after cleaning of an Emerald Green evening gown with bugle bead design, removed stains and restored color due to fading and repaired torn beadwork.American costume designer Theodora Van Runkie designed Liza Minnelli’s costume in 1977 for the American Musical Drama New York, New York. A commercial artist who fell into costuming by chance, Ms. Van Runkle was known for designs that combined Hollywood glamour with historical fealty. 

KG: What is the future of your collection?
NT: I am open to displaying my collections in the USA and Internationally. The V&A Museum in London in 2013 borrowed 10 pieces for the Hollywood Costume Exhibition.  I have three children that will inherit my collection. 

KG: Private collections vs. museum collections. Is there a plan to curate an exhibition with a museum or gallery in the future?
NT: I am open to sharing my collection with museums, cultural foundations, and universities. 

KG: Do you buy online?
NT: I buy online occasionally and occasionally on eBay. The Prop Store has yearly auctions, but you need to be careful since all the buying premiums and fees can outstrip the value of the costume. I prefer meeting and networking with other collectors and not working with auction houses.  

KG: In your opinion, what makes people suitable collectors?
NT: The willingness to share a collection and maintain a collection

The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex (1939)Designer: Orry-Kelly Betty Davis



Before and After Restoration below of an elaborate costume weighing approx. sixty pounds, worn by Betty Davis as Queen Elizabeth. The decorative fabric was removed that was attached to the dress from another movie and was restored to look original again. In addition, the velvet was restored in some areas damaged by time. Orry-Kelly was an American-Australian Hollywood costume designer and Australia’s most prolific Oscar winner who won three academy awards for best costume design. Orry-Kelly was known for his ability to “design for distraction” to compensate for different figure shapes. In addition to designing, Kelly wrote a column, “Hollywood Fashion Parade.” For the International News Service. Kelly’s memoirs, entitled Women I’ve Undressed, were published in 2015. The film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex is considered a grand historical epic. 

KG: How do you define vintage?
NT: Anything before 1990 that has stood the course of time. In 1935 Joan Crawford’s wedding dress, designed by Adrian from the film –“I Live my Life,” was so popular that the studio promoted the wedding dress. A family in Chicago won the costume and wore the gown to the Birthday Ball for President Roosevelt.  

KG: Why does the phenomenon of vintage appear now?
NT: Vintage is original, and the integrity of the design is trusted. Even though the costume may be recycled and pollinated from other films. You know that it was created from an original design with a historical and time-stamped reference.

KG: What does vintage contribute to fashion?
NT: This is best answered by a quote from the dressmaker Marie-Jeanne Rose Bertin to Marie Antoinette. “Bertin is said to have remarked to Marie Antionette in 1785 when presenting her with a remodeled dress, “Il n’y a de nouveau que ce qui est oublié” (“There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”) 

KG: What would you call vintage, and who determines the value of a piece?
NT: Different collections appeal to different buyers, TV, the Star appeal of the actress, or the prominence of the designer. Historically the value of a piece is always what someone is willing to pay, who the actress is and what they represent to the buyer.

KG: What haven’t you acquired, and what do you have your eye on ?
NT: I’m on the hunt for a Greta Garbo and Jean Harlow. They are enormously elusive.

KG: How long have you been working with Margaret’s and how would you describe Margaret’s services and abilities to restore your costumes?
NT: I have been working with Margaret’s for a few years and found them online, we met, and I showed them my collections, and I have been continually impressed by their cleaning, restoration, and preservation services.

About Margaret’s the Couture Cleaner Margaret’s the Couture Cleaner offers various services that you will not find at your ordinary dry cleaner. All services are performed in their award-winning processing facility in San Diego. Four generations of experience and custom processes provide us with the expertise needed to handle the most delicate couture gowns, costumes, vintage, new garments, handbags and leathers, shoes, and nearly every textile application. In addition, all services are available nationwide through our CleanByMail service.
Through Margaret’s RETAILER ALLIANCE cleaning services, their expertise is used by over 300 retailers and designers across the country to maintain their stock merchandise and assist with customer service issues. In addition, numerous dry cleaners nationwide also use the expert team at Margaret’s to help solve processing errors and entrust us to perform their most demanding cleaning challenges. The most common services requested by other cleaners include their handbag cleaning & repair, leather and suede processing, knit repair, couture wedding gown cleaning, and cleaning elaborate evening wear.

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