Costume designer Ann Roth built Viola Davis’ Jazz Age wardrobe extraordinaire for her role as real blues singer Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (She had by Chadwick Boseman natty three piece suit also does.)
Still, Roth – who is nominated for the Best Costume Design Oscar for the film – had to dress more than 100 extras and supporting actors in authentic 1920s attire, so she did what so many designers of costumes do when they need period clothing: she turned to vintage collector Helen Uffner.
“I rented 155 dresses for this film – and a lot of men’s suits,” said Uffner, a 72-year-old fashion lover who has provided pieces for some 1,000 films, theater productions and other projects over the past few years. last 43 years.
Huge sound costume rental warehouse, in Long Island City, has some 100,000 pieces spanning the 1860s through the 1980s, from dresses and workwear to shoes, hats and underwear, including corsets, bustiers and bustiers. A model wears the shimmering emerald sheath worn by Beyonce in “Cadillac Records”; another sports the brown lace and chiffon number worn throughout “Ma Rainey’s” by Taylour Paige, who plays Ma’s much younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae.
“Helen was always the source where you found the special pieces that would likely become a character’s signature,” costume designer Susan Lyall told the Post, adding that she unearthed the black fringed jacket that Sacha Baron Cohen is wearing. as Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of The Chicago 7” at Uffner’s studio. Lyall has also rented a number of Uffner’s 1950s dresses and sweaters for Lucille Ball’s upcoming biopic, ” Being the Ricardos”, with Nicole Kidman.
“She is a fountain of sartorial knowledge,” Lyall added.
Yet Uffner — like so many costume and prop rental locations in the city — is about to be evicted from its space after just 2½ years. She already had to move her huge collection in 2018 after a new owner decided to renovate the space. Now, its current owner says it needs to leave by September, so a developer can build LIC’s tallest residential tower.
“We need 6,500 usable square feet – where can we go?” asked Uffner. “Where can creative businesses go now to keep the affordable space going?”
“No one else in New York has what she has, and to lose her would be to lose an irreplaceable resource,” said costume designer Tom Broecker, who often relies on Uffner for last-minute period pieces like a hoop skirt or newsboy cap in tweed for “Saturday Night Live”.
He added: “She’s spent her whole life collecting vintage clothes – clothes that no longer exist anywhere in the world except her showroom.”
Uffner started collecting vintage lingerie and jewelry when she was a child.
“I was saving all my babysitting money and going to jewelry auctions when I was in college,” said Uffner, who immigrated from Brussels to New York with his family when he was 12. “I used to bid on Victorian baby rings, which nobody wanted, and if there was a little stone missing, the auctioneer would put it in for me [for free].”
Uffner studied art at Queens College and continued to buy antique clothing and lingerie while working as a management consultant. In the late 1970s, she began letting her theater friends borrow or buy her clothes for productions. Then one day, a designer came along and bought each of her pieces for Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary, “Zelig.”
“I had a rack of clothes and I had nothing left,” Uffner said. “That’s when I decided to start renting – at least I would get the clothes back!”
Uffner first operated his space from his Upper East Side apartment, where costume designers and actors went there for fittings. She began going to estate sales and flea markets, buying clothes in bulk. “There was a place in the East Village called Bogey’s. The owner had big bundles of clothes, his wife held them, and whoever said, “I want it” or “I have it,” had it thrown away. I started amassing my collection there.
One of his favorite acquisitions came from an estate sale in Brooklyn. “The woman was still there, but she was placed in a nursing home and she had these wonderful little sets of 1950s sweaters,” Uffner said. “At first she didn’t want to get rid of her clothes, but her family convinced her and they sold them to me.” A week later, a costume designer came to pick up clothes for the Russell Crowe movie “A Beautiful Mind,” and took almost all of the woman’s sweaters. Right away, she called the family. “She was so happy – it gave her something to look forward to.” Costume designer Lyall also recently praised the sweaters for Lucille Ball’s upcoming biopic.
Uffner’s collection is organized by decade, then hung by garment type, season and color, and each item has a tag with its measurements, so designers can quickly pull things out that fit their principle – although they sometimes have to go back.
“We find that men are kind of lying about their height, and women are kind of lying about their height and hips,” Uffner said with a laugh. “It actually happened recently where [the talent] said they were much smaller than they were, so of course we pulled those items to fit their bodies, and of course they didn’t, so we had to start all over again.
After a photo shoot, the designers give everything back to Uffner, unless they dress Robert De Niro. “He’s got it in his contract that he can keep whatever he’s wearing,” Uffner said, adding that she’s done “half a dozen movies” with the actor. “I got a call a few months ago about another movie he was going to be in, asking for 1930s costumes. I said, ‘Does that mean if it suits him, is he going to keep it?’ They said, ‘Probably.’ And I said, ‘I can’t!’ I can’t afford to lose my ’30s suits!” (A rep for the actor explained that he often donated his wardrobe to the Robert De Niro Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, a research museum from the University of Texas at Austin.)
Still, Uffer loves when actors come for fittings.
“The actors like to be here, they like to walk around.” After Winona Ryder wore one of Uffner’s dresses in “Little Women” in 1994, the actress showed up at the studio to buy herself some 1920s beaded dresses. “She was shy but she posed a picture for us and was very excited – she said she was going to tell her friend Courtney Love about us.”
When Uffner started his rental business four decades ago, New York City had a dozen major costume rental stores. Now she is the last one standing. And while costume designers can usually find vintage pieces from the 20th century, Uffner offers pieces from the 1800s that are increasingly rare.
Recently, Lisa Montalvo had to dress over 150 actors in period clothing for the History Channel series. “The Food That Built America” which she worked on with her sister and fellow designer Celeste. Almost all of the costumes came from Uffner’s showroom.
“I could never have [do it] without his rental house,” Montalvo told the Post.
“She’s also a great resource when I’m perplexed by arcane historical practices,” she added. “She can give me the right insight into which jacket would have been worn to which type of event in Edwardian times, or the difference between a marching suit and a winter suit for dressing Victorian women.
“It would be a disaster for the entire costume industry…if his business were to close,” she continued. “It is a treasure that should be preserved and subsidized.”
Although Uffner has spent 43 years in the business, she can’t stand the thought of parting with her precious clothes. “I often think of my showroom as my carefully curated private museum,” and seeing her clothes on screen or on stage allows her to share that museum with the world. “I’m always excited, because it’s fun to see. You never become jaded.