White Christmas: The Exhibition at the Upcountry History Museum

I’ve talked a lot about nostalgia here in the past, especially how Baby Boomers were brought up with a sense of nostalgia, not for our own past, but for that of our parents and grandparents. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I was fascinated by my mother’s stories of her Christmases, especially when she was a young woman living in Asheville in the early 50s. Maybe that’s why I love White Christmas so much.

I was thrilled to discover that Greenville, SC’s Upcountry History Museum was presenting an exhibition of clothing, props, and ephemera from the movie. Like most movies from the past, the costumes from White Christmas were reused, sold, and scattered over the years since the movie was made in 1954. I was surprised to learn that the Rosemary Clooney House in Augusta, Kentucky has been collecting items from the movie for fifteen years. What they have achieved in assembling a collection of costumes from the movie is remarkable. I’ll talk more about this as I show the collection.

Let me start with the costumes that probably are the most iconic – the red Santa costumes worn in the finale. These are both replicas, as the whereabouts of the originals are unknown. It is suspected that the gowns were actually repurposed into other costumes, but the evidence of this does not exist other than the fact that repurposing was a common studio practice. The Clooney House has worked closely with Paramount Studios to locate lost items, but the bright red suits and gowns seem to have disappeared.

Note the color of the replica, and the color red in this original poster. More on that later.

Here are Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen as they performed “Sisters” in the movie. The Clooney House is lucky to have both dresses.

This is the dress worn by Clooney. It evidently had been displayed in bright light and the top, while original, is badly faded. The skirt was in shreds, and had to have a complete restoration. The fan is one of two found in storage at Paramount. The other was badly broken, perhaps due to Crosby and Kaye slapping one another with it.

Vera Ellen’s dress was found in the holdings of a private collector in Texas. The bodice had been cut and badly altered into a sweetheart neckline. But the skirt was intact. Having both dresses made the needed restorations clear. Matching lace was found, and Vera Ellen’s high neckline was restored.

Note the difference in color between the studio photo and the actual dresses. Some of it is due to fading, but it seems a bit more is at work here.

Here is a set of costumes from an ensemble dance number featuring Vera Ellen. In true 1950s style, the song is about marriage, and Vera Ellen as Mandy, is a bride.

As a bride should be, Mandy is attired in white, and her chorus-girl bridesmaids are in red. But look at the costumes on display. The color difference is most obvious in the bridesmaids’ costumes, but all are considerably different in reality than in the movie. The difference could be partly due to dye degradation, but a more likely explanation was that color had to be adjusted for the technicolor process.

I tend to go with that explanation because even the matching accessories were the same color as the outfit. And I’ve never seen dye fade that uniform.

The two men dancers’ outfits are the most recent additions to the collection. We were told that the museum is actively adding to the collection, and sadly, the museum was recently outbid for a desired object on eBay

Greatly adding to the exhibition was the inclusion of enlarged photos of the actors wearing the costumes.

Another scene well-represented in the collection is the party scene where Vera Ellen and Danny Kaye announce their “engagement”. Rosemary Clooney wore this lovely dress, which is a much deeper green in the film.

This is Vera Ellen’s dress. At this point I need to point out that Edith Head was the designer of the costumes. At the time, Vera Ellen’s weight had fallen quite low, so Head used tricks to beef her up a bit. The high neck hid a thin neck, the white added a few pounds, and the swag across her hips help disguise her thinness. In recent years some have tried to blame her weight on anorexia, but there’s no supporting evidence that her weight was due to any medical condition.

This dress and the pearls were worn by the great Mary Wickes, the busybody housekeeper.

Costumes from the men in the movie are much less represented. But they were able to locate the uniforms worn by Dean Jagger, Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye near the end of the film. The uniforms had been reused and altered by Paramount, so the museum had replica patches and ribbons made to match the ones worn by the stars.

The hat was worn by Vera Ellen, and the gloves were worn by Clooney in her famous solo night club act. The gloves were found at Paramount, but the dress has disappeared from sight.

There’s more, but these were the highlights. After watching this movie every year for decades, it was such a treat to see these costumes, and to know they are assembled in one collection. It would have been nice to see any one of these costumes individually, but how much more impactful it was to see them together. As a collector, I tend to not think of garments as “museum quality”; I tend to think more in the lines of how does a garment fit into a collection.

There are many collectors of Hollywood costumes, and I salute them for saving so many artifacts that would have otherwise been lost. The leader in this area was Debbie Reynolds, who not only saved many items, but inspired others to do the same. Hopefully, some other White Christmas items are thriving in these collections, and that they will someday make their way to the Rosemary Clooney House.

As always, seeing an exhibition is more fun with a like-minded friend. Thanks to Liza for meeting me at the museum!

12 Comments

Filed under Holidays, Museums

12 responses to “White Christmas: The Exhibition at the Upcountry History Museum

  1. It was so good to see you after far too long. I think it’s time for me to finally watch the movie start to finish. Oh, and thanks for sharing my current state of sartorial shame with the world, lol. At least you captured me at my favorite item of the exhibit!

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  2. FABULOUS! What a wonderful thing to share this with us all! Amazing to see the details of the costumes and the history you provided to us all! Happy Holidays! We watch the movie at least once a year! A real gem that we never get enough of…

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  3. jacq staubs

    Thank you for this tour. I love the movie as well-the inn especially. Never knew the cavalier attitude existed regarding the costumes within the industry.

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  4. Wow! Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this!!!
    It has been years since I went to see an exhibit of Hollywood Golden era costuming! Due to Covid, the wait seems doubly long! (I am in 🇨🇦.)
    I am so pleased that the Rosemary Clooney Museum did this!
    Quite a Christmas gift for so many fortunate visitors.❤

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  5. wow, just wow. Every year I watch it and marvel at Vera-Ellen’s skill and her neck! I always think that even my favorite Danny Kaye couldn’t dance as well as John Brascia. Can’t wait to watch it again this year!

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  6. I recognized that red dress with the white trim and muff before I read your text! What a fun exhibit. White Christmas is my favorite holiday movie, I think. The glamour! And, of course, Vermont at Christmas.

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