With a background as mystifying as any Hollywood whodunit, modiste Clare West exploded on the scene as a film costume designer in the mid-1910s, the first person credited as a movie costume designer. Working with film greats for just over 10 years, West and her lavish designs established Hollywood as a fashion leader, trendsetting looks appealing to American women, before she disappeared from the design scene…
Little is known of the early life of West until she magically appears in Hollywood. IMDB claims she was born January 30, 1879 in Missouri, but 1930 census records list her birth date as 1889, with other records appearing to show May 10, 1889 in Kansas as her actual birth date. under the name Clara Belle Smith. One newspaper listing reveals a Clare West opening a millinery/dressmaking shop in what is now the Quad Cities area of Illinois in 1899, while a few New York papers report on a Maison Clare couture shop in New York City around 1911. Film historian Allie Acker claims she attended college before studying fashion design in Paris.
Little documentary evidence shows when West actually arrived in Hollywood, but some sources state work on D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” as the beginning of her film career, followed by design for his film “Intolerance, “ earning her the credit “studio designer.” The Women Film Pioneers Project’s biography of West calls “Intolerance” “the first motion picture to period-dress leads and extras” in a story spanning centuries, focusing on four separate time periods.
West’s work delighted executives, who appointed her the first woman to lead a studio fashion department. Motion Picture News reported West’s appointment as head of Triangle’s costume department in its February 25, 1916 issue, currently designing Dutch girl costumes for the Dorothy Gish film, “Little Meena’s Romance.” During this period, West would draw costumes for director Allan Dwan for Douglas Fairbanks’ films as well as Griffith motion pictures.
Impressed with her stylish, lavish design, Famous Players-Lasky Studios hired her in 1918 to draw over-the-top, eye-catching, sensual clothing as lead costume designer for superstar director Cecil B. DeMille for his big budget spectacles. While not always credited for her work, West’s dazzling and often outlandish costumes of chiffons, silks, and velvets often drew high praise from critics as well as female moviegoers. Trades declared in 1921 that her workshop at Lasky included 50 employees – seamstresses, finishers, cutters – with Fern Frost managing finishing and Mildred Morris guarding and managing stock.
A story in the September 28, 1921 Evening Public Ledger described two women heading Lasky’s costume departments – West as DeMille lead designer, and Ethel Chaffin heading the general costume department in “exaggerated modiste shops. A great deal of material of the first quality is always on hand, in the raw and made up.” West created spectacular new gowns with long, sweeping lines, body hugging wrapping, and sparkling sequins and beading for such studio superstars like Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Mae Murray, and Agnes Ayres, while extras and bits wore stock costumes or altered pieces. Many compared her work to Paris couturier Paul Poiret.
The Woman Film Pioneer Project’s biography states that director DeMille praised ‘her lavish hand,’ “as demonstrated by outfits such as the patent leather swimsuit that reflected nocturnal watery light in “Saturday Night” (1922), or the octopus dress and cape designed for Bebe Daniels in “The Affairs of Anatol” (1921).”
West’s wardrobes also gained great praise in the press, called “ultra-modern, super fashionable type,” from her up-to-date costumes to spectacular period pieces. Her designs for “Forbidden Fruit” were declared the “most elaborate on the screen,” soon topped in praise for her “Affairs of Anatol” costumes. West designed 16 separate suits for Wallace Reid in the film., while she fashioned 25 fur costumes for the 1923 film “Adam’s Rib” employing no stitches and created jewelry by combining real feathers, claws, and bones.
West’s job was to anticipate or even premiere fashion a year before Paris modistes during the almost year long process of producing and distributing the film, “to bring gasps of surprise and admiration from critical feminine audiences.” Within a few years, Hollywood costumes influenced New York and Paris designers, setting trends and pushing boundaries, with couturiers now copying film designs.
As West told reporters, “Sex psychology plays a tremendous part in fashion creating, because women dress to impress men first, other women second, and themselves third. In each instance, intense femininity is the keynote. For it is only by making fashions tremendously feminine that one can appeal to both men and women.
What the world today may be wearing does not influence the designer of screen fashions. Instinct and good taste much combine to say what will find favor a year from now. There are no other rules by which one can work. I believe the potential power of the motion picture upon feminine fashions is limitless.”
West drew costumes to fit her characters, not her stars’ whims, per DeMille’s edicts, influencing other women to follow their own style. As she revealed in a wire interview December 3, 1922, “’This dressing for the personality is perhaps the most important thing the screen has given the American women, a gift that is placing the motion picture at the head of a really American style influence as distinct from the French who have long held sway.”
By 1923, West reigned supreme as Hollywood costume designer. She appeared as herself in the lost film “Hollywood,” a behind-the-scenes story of a young girl attempting to break into the movies. She also traveled to Paris to find inspiration for the costumes in the modern sequence of DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.”
That September, producer Joseph Schenck lured West to his new production company to design elaborate outfits for sisters Norma and Constance Talmadge and their First National Productions. She designed inspired hand-painted gowns and handkerchiefs for Norma’s film “The Lady,” including an asymmetrical one-sleeve dress, daring for its time. West also created a diverse range of costumes for the Norma Talmadge film “Secrets,” from those depicting an energetic, stylish young woman to an older but wiser female. Schenck directed her to design a few pieces for the 1924 Buster Keaton film “Sherlock Jr.” and his film “the Navigator” as well.
Some reports indicate that West created 34 costumes for star Mae Murray for Erich von Stroheim’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film “The Merry Widow” in 1925. Other sources list her contributing runway outfits for a fashion show sequence in Paramount’s film “The Dressmaker From Paris,” which also featured work from designers Howard Greer, Adrian, and Lucille.
West allowed Hamburger’s Department Store in downtown Los Angeles to display three of her designs and their matching outfits from Barbara La Marr films in 1924, drawing crowds. She also appeared in person at a 1925 fashion show employing some of her costumes at Buffum’s Department Store. Soon thereafter, West resigned her position with Schenck, claiming she would open a downtown modiste shop.
While West appears to have designed for individuals after this point, her Hollywood career virtually disappears, with newspapers rarely stating her name. In 1928, West made headlines after being knocked down by a Hawaiian ukulele player after an all-night party at her home.
Though her career lasted less than 10 years, Clare West made a tremendous impact on American film fashion, designing spectacular outfits that transformed wardrobe from simple personal outfits into deep fashion statements, gaining costume designers’ recognition for their important work in telling motion picture stories.