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Haute Horror - The Costumes Designed by Vera West

Posted on 15 October 2014

Elsa Lanchaster in The Bride of Frankenstein 1935
Elsa Lanchaster in The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

 

e·nig·ma 

iˈniɡmə/  noun
a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.

I recently acquired one of the most incredible vintage pieces I've ever seen from the daughter of a very famous Hollywood actor. (Coming soon to the Dressing Vintage website)! It was created by a costume designer named, Vera West. I was familiar with West's work, but her life and death are still shrouded in mystery. She isn't as easily recognizable to the general public as Orry-Kelly, Gilbert Adrian, Howard Greer, Irene Sharaff, Travis Banton, Walter Plunkett, or Edith Head. She didn't receive awards during her lifetime, and yet she designed the gowns for almost 400 films during the 1930's and 1940's for Universal Studios. She designed for quite a few dramas and even some comedies, but the majority of the films were either in the horror or mystery genre.  Her most recognizable designs include the iconic Bride of Frankenstein gown worn in the film by Elsa Lanchaster in 1935 and the dress Ava Gardner wore in The Killers in  1946.  

 

Left - Vera West with actress Deanna Durbin and right - Vera West
Left - Vera West with actress Deanna Durbin and right - Vera West

 

West had studied under the masterful couturier Lady Duff Gordon (Lucile) after studying at the Philadelphia Institute of Design. Then, while working at a couture salon in New York,  the mysterious part of her story begins to unfold. 

 

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin in Vera West's first film as a Universal Studios credited costume designer The Man Who Laughs 1928 
Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin in Vera West's first film as a Universal Studios credited costume designer The Man Who Laughs 1928


Historical information if scarce but seems to consistently report Vera leaving New York for California somewhat quickly, and under suspicious circumstances. The date she arrives in California seems to be between 1924 and 1925.  She eventually replaces Lucia Coulter at Universal as head designer. She is first given credit as a costume designer at Universal in the film, The Man Who Laughs, in 1928, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

 

She Wolf Of London 1946 
She Wolf Of London 1946

 

Vera West's last film at Universal in the horror genre was She-Wolf of London with June Lockhart and Don Porter in 1946.  With all of the information available on just about any studio costume designer in the 20th century, it is disappointing that you will find very little on Vera West.  I am still searching for basic information like her maiden name, marriage date, etc.. Even her birth date is listed differently on different documents. Her death was a tragic lost to the film industry and still seems to be a mystery that was never really solved. The newspaper articles for a day or two after she died were endless, but then, everything stops and there is no more information on Vera, her death or her life before she came to Hollywood.  I did discover that her husband had their home demolished not too long after she died, but other than that, it's as if they both vanished without a trace.

 

 

You can't make this stuff up.  It seems that her own life and death had become as mysterious as the movies she was involved with as a costume designer.

 

 Vera West costume sketch for Maria Montez as Tollea in Cobra Woman Universal, 1944
Vera West costume sketch for Maria Montez as Tollea in Cobra Woman Universal, 1944

 

The above costume sketch Features Maria Montez in an exotic 2-piece Pacific Art Deco gown with a turquoise halter matching a long skirt with rose and gold tasseled sash and gold wrap draped about hips. In a sad twisted, ironic sort of way, Maria Montez drowned in her bathtub at the age of 39 in 1951, after suffering an apparent heart attack.  James Whale, the director of Frankenstein, like West, committed suicide by drowning himself in his pool in 1957.  

 

Maria Montez in Cobra Woman 1944
Maria Montez in Cobra Woman 1944

 

Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in Dracula 1931
Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in Dracula 1931

 

Helen Chandler Dracula 1931
Helen Chandler Dracula 1931

Vera West created gowns that were worn by leading ladies who were draped across the arms of monsters, zombies, mummies, and invisible men.   From a wedding dress made of hospital sheets and bandages to lace trimmed silk negligees and formal evening gowns, she designed some of the most important horror film costumes for queens of scream in an era of extreme Hollywood glamour.  Not too long before she died, she left Universal and opened her own boutique in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel that catered to industry wives and celebrities. I have no doubt that she would have been a huge success as a fashion designer own her own if she had lived longer.  Costume historians will argue that West never developed a signature style, but I believe her true talents were best expressed in her sleepwear.  Of course, today, her lingerie would be considered much to beautiful to wear only at home and I could see a bride easily wearing one of her gowns as a wedding dress.  Helen Chandler (above) is wearing one of Vera West's most recognizable creations of lace and silk in an elaborate evening lingerie ensemble. 

 

Dracula - 1931
Dracula - 1931

 

Mae Clarke 1931 Frankenstein
Mae Clarke 1931 Frankenstein

 

Lon Chaney and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand 1932
Lon Chaney and Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand 1932

The Mummy 1932 

Zita-Johann The-Mummy 1932
Zita-Johann The-Mummy 1932

 

I am fortunate to own a large library of vintage fashion and costume books, and I consider myself a pretty masterful internet sleuth.  BUT.. the life of Vera West has become my toughest challenge to date.  So, in trying to find out more about Vera West, you might say that I fell down a rabbit hole of MONSTER proportions! I've decided to continue in my research (because I am weirdly obsessed) and am determined to find out more about this talented designer - I've already uncovered a few things that I believe no one else has, but I will keep you in suspense for a while.. For now, please enjoy looking at the designs of Vera West and in honor of Halloween, take the time to watch a few of her films.

 

Joan-Bennett and Claude-Rains The Man Who Reclaimed His Head 1934
Joan-Bennett and Claude-Rains The Man Who Reclaimed His Head 1934

 

Elsa Lanchaster in The Bride of Frankenstein 1935
Elsa Lanchaster in The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

 

Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers in The Wolf Man 1941
Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers in The Wolf Man 1941

 

Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney in The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942
Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney in The Ghost of Frankenstein 1942

 

Gloria Holden and Otto Kruger in Dracula's Daughter 1936
Gloria Holden and Otto Kruger in Dracula's Daughter 1936

 

Louise Albritton Son of Dracula 1943
Louise Albritton Son of Dracula 1943

 

Lon Chaney and Louise Albritton Son of Dracula 1943
Lon Chaney and Louise Albritton Son of Dracula 1943

 

House of Dracula 1945 Martha O'Driscoll in Vera West Nightgown
House of Dracula 1945 Martha O'Driscoll in Vera West Nightgown

 

Martha O'Driscoll House of Dracula 1945
Martha O'Driscoll House of Dracula 1945

 

Ava Gardner in The Killers 1946
Ava Gardner in The Killers 1946

 

Conspiracy theories on Vera West are interesting to read, so if you are intrigued, here is a list of websites and blogs with some thoughts on her death:  Vampire Rose, Universal Monster Army Forum, and Fanzine.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

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