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Costumes: United American Costume

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There are certain geniuses at their craft and legends in their fields who are known by few other than their crew and inner circle of artisans. Luster Bayless, founder of United American Costume Co., is one of those people.Like all good Hollywood stories, Bayless’ 40-plus years as a costumer, costume designer and founder of one of the biggest and best known costume rental repositories of authentic American and native American period clothes, hats and accessories, began with a lucky break.In 1959 the self-described “rag picker and poor boy from Ruleville, Mississippi,” and at the time a freshly returned Navy vet, received a phone call from fellow Ruleville native Jimmy George convincing him to come out to Hollywood and give him a hand costuming for film productions.Bayless got his Costumers Local 705 union card and before long, under the mentorship of IATSE Local 705’s Frank Beetson, Sr., a tenacious Bayless had managed to work his way up as a freelance costume designer and costumer. He soon met an actor who would change his life: John Wayne. “Son, I’d like you to do all my movies,” said The Duke. Bayless’ reputation for getting the hat and the duds just right for each film meant his stock and his fortune kept growing. As proprietor of his own costume company, United American—the first independent costume company not part of the studio system—Bayless worked alongside some of the era’s best directors, including John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Andrew McLaglen, Bill Weir, Robert Stevenson, Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Francis Ford Coppola.Bayless’ numerous stories include a first meeting with Steve McQueen, who summoned Bayless to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, wanting him to costume the movie Tom Horn. Armed with beautifully rendered sketches depicting looks for McQueen’s character, he was told upon arrival that McQueen “couldn’t think about costumes today.” But from that point on it was McQueen who was chasing down Bayless, eventually making truce and coming out to Bayless’ warehouse in the San Fernando Valley to be fitted and to select the garments and hats for this particular film. McQueen was also keenly aware of budgets and how they affected his pay, so he kept a close eye on all expenditures. “He turned into a line producer on that film,” quips Bayless. Other actors also became fierce Bayless allies. Charles Bronson made quick work of an AD and a production manager who disrespected Bayless and his wardrobe people on the 1977 film Telefon. Bayless continued working with Wayne, becoming his regular costumer and designer. “When they sign me, they sign you,” said the Duke to his friend. Bayless has often had to physically chase down and demand his property back, and recalls many prop men similarly complaining about actors making off with items. Over the years he has met and befriended many iconic actors, and eventually became known as a specialist in authentic costumes from Western and American history.His personal love for this field led him to build the largest collection of original garments from the 19th and 20th centuries, including custom-sewn designs for specific movies. His collection grew over the years through his sheer resourcefulness and luck in being in the right place at the right time. He often bought up treasures slated for storage or disposal at studios where he worked, like CBS or Fox, as well as original garments and artists’ sketches of costumes and characters, most of which are now on display at United American Costume.Unimaginably, all forms of hats, Indian hides, and assorted clothing were often discarded after movies wrapped. Today these garments are precisely organized by period and separated into children’s, women’s, men’s, and specialty goods such as hats, shoes, accessories, wearable Indian artifacts sorted by individual tribes and time periods. All are all considered irreplaceable. Entire wardrobes from many films such as 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans are arranged like soldiers, each piece tagged and perfectly cleaned. The HBO series Deadwood also utilizes the stock to recreate the American Gold Rush period. United American Costume is now overseen by Bayless’ daughter Diana Foster, one of two Bayless girls, both born on the same day in different years, during their father’s work on separate John Wayne movies. One of the challenges their business faces today is garment mishandling. A big studio film recently wrapped in Calgary, where the Canadian costume crew assigned to care for and clean some of the rented garments from United American mishandled a few key pieces. “They don’t understand how to care for these fabrics that are over a hundred years old. You can’t just press the raw silk and fragile fabrics or treat them like other costumes,” said Foster. Another problem United American faces is the constant trimming of costume designers’ budgets, which makes it difficult to properly dress certain movies. Foster stresses that the impact authentic costumes add to the actors’ presence is immeasurable, and she balances the requirements of the costumers and designers with the budget they are given to work with. It’s a new era. “Try telling an actor like John Wayne he would be wearing something made in China that looked Western,” she adds. “It just wouldn’t fly.”Bayless now lives in Ruleville, Mississippi once again. Yet he is still actively involved with United American Costume’s business and confers with today’s top costume designers as a consultant. He had created a museum and bed-and-breakfast in Ruleville celebrating films he has worked on, and the great American clothes he loves, in a Victorian mansion he has restored. It’s a home he used to visit when he was a poor, sharecropper’s son, wondering what it would be like to live there.

Written by April MacIntyre

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