Birth of a Costume Designer

How Clare West revolutionized film fashions forever

There’s a mythical quality to the costumes worn in silent films. Maybe it’s the way the lighting hits them. Maybe it’s the Edwardian and flapper-esque cuts. Or maybe it’s just me, but the clothing always adds a special touch to the filmic experience. It’s surprising then that in the silent film era, costumes weren’t that important. Actors often wore their own clothing, a trend that continued well into the 1930s, and it was common for actors with better personal wardrobes to win better roles (a prime example: Lilian Gish had most of her costumes made by her mother). Things remained pretty much the same until Birth of a Nation, when director D.W. Griffith created Hollywood’s first costume department and hired film’s first-ever costume designer: Clare West.

Along with Birth of a Nation, Griffith later hired West to design for Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages. After making her name, she was hired by the great Cecil B. DeMille and created some of the most memorable costumes of the era. Despite working with the big names, West’s role as costume designer was less than glamorous. She received no credit for her work on Griffith’s films, and was left off the end credits in a few of Demille’s. Still, her costumes helped characters transcend the silent medium, allowing them to communicate through costume. Here are three of our favourite examples of her work:

1 // Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages, dir. D.W Griffith, 1916
An apologetic sequel to Birth of a Nation, Intolerance is a mighty long epic spanning four eras, each hundreds of years apart. It was West’s second and final film with Griffith, and while many of the ancient costumes West designed weren’t historically accurate, they left a lasting impression in both their evocative charm and complexity. Particularly striking were the scenes in ancient Babylon, where the Queen was decked out in ensembles that looked more Josephine Baker than anything ancient. The decadence worked perfectly with the over-the-top and complex scenery that Griffith employed, making everything appear larger than life.

My favourite character in Intolerance is the Mountain Girl. She is both jovial and brave, and takes shit from no one. She fights and dies for her city and doesn’t get plopped in to the role of helpless love interest (like most female characters of the era). West perfectly defines who Mountain Girl is through her spunky fruit head dress and leather armour, which is totally reminiscent of Xena: Warrior Princess—only 70-plus years ahead of Lucy Lawless’s time. Plus, she fights in a tin cone helmet. How can you not love her style?

2 // Male and Female, dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1919

DeMille is famous for one quote: “Creativity is a drug I cannot live without.” True to form, his films never lacked outside-of-the-box flair. Many of his movies were popular because of their costumes, which were regularly designed by West. Male and Female was the first film they worked on, and West’s costumes were as over-the-top as the characters in the film. The outfits, particularly those of Gloria Swanson, epitomize the beginnings of the jazz age and the era’s obsession with luxury. The headpiece Swanson wears, and the beautiful silks she rocks, make you want to jump into this film and live like a 1920s aristocrat.

3 // The Affairs of Anatol, dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1921

For this film, West created one of her most iconic costumes for actress Bebe Daniels: a dress in the shape of an octopus. The outfit’s whimsy flawlessly captures the unique visual creativity of Demille’s films. Daniels plays the cool Satan Synne, a high-class prostitute with a chilly demeanor, armed with a bat-shaped dressing table in her sensual boudoir. Despite not getting a lot of screen time, she is totally eligible for the title of “Grandmother of Goths.”