Margaret Whistler in Motion Picture News.
Many women made contributions to silent film, often in more than one field. Then as now, some found a job gaining them entry to the profession before moving on toward what they loved or desired. Margaret Whistler began acting in silent movies in the early 1910s, eventually transitioning to her true loves: costuming and wardrobe.
Born July 31, 1888, as Louise Margaret Pepper in Louisville, Kentucky, Whistler grew up in Washington D.C., and attended the Notre Dame Academy there. Records don’t show if she married and gained the last name Whistler, but by the time she gained fame in the moving picture industry during the mid-teens, she called herself Margaret Whistler. The actress also claimed in her 1916 Motion Picture Year Book entry to have played on the stage, vaudeville, and in the circus across the United States and England, and with Bostock’s Trained Animals at Coney Island, though these credits have not been verified. Whistler supposedly entered the movie business in 1911 with the Pennsylvania-based Lubin Film Company before joining Universal in 1912. Her first credits with Universal appear in 1915, where she mostly played character parts, heavies, and second leads in films with stars like Cleo Madison, Lee Moran, and future great Lon Chaney.
Trade biographies also describe her talent for wardrobe and costume design. Her film costume design career appears to have begun as early as 1915, as trade papers mention she created costumes for actress and director Cleo Madison’s Universal films. The August 13, 1915, Helena Daily Independent described one of the costumes for Madison’s film as blue silk, featuring blue and pink flowers and lace on the bodice. Her writeup for Motion Picture News players’ edition promoted her talent for costume designing.”Besides being a talented actress, Miss Whistler is an authority on dress and very successful as a designer.”
Whistler’s talents seemed to impress those she worked with, as trades mention that she designed offscreen wardrobes for some stars, and in 1916 she gained publicity for a hat she created. She purchased an ad in a 1918 issue of Camera promoting her acting and designing, claiming “eight years in pictures” playing character parts and heavies, going on to state, “Will soon be back on screen with some WONDERFUL NEW CREATIONS in gowns and imported character clothes.”
After the start of World War I when the studios saw younger men go off to service, women stepped in to fill certain positions. Whistler transitioned into working as head of the costume and property departments at Vitagraph, and serving as a “property woman,” building and putting up sets, featured in Picture Play magazine cutting wood. She deployed her creative skills in helping design, build, and put together sets and props. She also volunteered her time in the American Red Cross in Los Angeles, though in later biographies she would claim to have served as an ambulance driver overseas during the war. Later in 1918, Whistler headed both the wardrobe and property department at Vitagraph in East Hollywood.
When Fine Arts Studios converted into a rental lot in 1920, Whistler was named head of the costume department, available for rent to outside producers. While having little opportunity to create original costumes for productions, she was able to pull together outfits for pictures and offer creative output.
Within a few months, however, Whistler departed Fine Arts to design costumes at Fox Film Studios. Newspaper stories announce her move, with some naming her as head. She first designed costumes for a six-reel comedy, Skirts, creating appropriate wardrobe for chorus girls as well as the film Connecticut Yankee. At this time, Whistler gained her greatest opportunity and highest achievement, designing costumes for Fox’s over the top spectacle, The Queen of Sheba starring Betty Blythe. Newspaper stories like the Los Angeles Herald credit her with designing 26 costume changes for Blythe, “dazzlingly beautiful, with headdress and hairdressing all it’s own.” Many of these can actually barely be called costumes, as photographs show some to be merely sheer lace, beads, and string, with many almost topless. Blythe complimented Whistler’s work to the Herald, stating that “nothing I ever wore in former days compared with the frocks I now have, and which were made after designs by Miss Margaret Whistler, a Los Angeles woman. I may safely safely say, my Los Angeles wardrobe is the finest and most dazzling I have ever owned.”
Margaret Whistler in Picture Play Magazine.
Designing wardrobe for such a massive spectacle would seem to cement a career, but instead it began a downward spiral for Whistler. Instead of staying at a major studio creating fantastic outfits for lavish dramas, the modiste found herself let go by Fox. Ads in 1922 trade papers reveal her back at Fine Arts Costume Department, basically renting out costumes or possibly making creative alterations to outfits. In 1923, Whistler headed the downtown-based Cinema Mercantile Company’s costume department. Mostly renting out wardrobe once again, she did receive the opportunity to create comedy and gag costumes.
Between the mid-1920s and 1930, Whistler married Merle Farnsworth, a radium researcher, becoming Louise Farnsworth in real life. Within a few years, the two divorced. She would continue to work under the name Margaret Whistler but her career was never as successful as those days in the late 1910s and early 1920s.
In 1933, Whistler left or was forced out at the Cinema Mercantile Co., joining Columbia Studios, where she worked in the mechanical department. Over time, she was able to transfer back to costume work, her true joy, joining Columbia’s wardrobe department as a designer in 1937. While she was no longer in charge of the department or perhaps even a designer, she was once again employing her skills for fashion.
Trade papers announced her sudden death after a short illness on August 25, 1939, listing her real name, Louise M. Farnsworth, in their short obituaries. None of these stories gave details on her background in designing or list of credits, leaving little for younger people to remember her by or even give her praise for her talents. Like many women from the silent period, by the 1930s, Whistler’s skills were underutilized and successes downplayed or forgotten.
Whistler achieved at least one major film designing credit with The Queen of Sheba to be forgotten now, like so many women of the early silent film industry. May other information and credits come along to fully display and acknowledge her skills, experience, and life, showing how integral she was in creating costumes for the booming United States’ silent moving picture industry.
Sad ending, but thanks for finding this info! Early film-costume history is an understudied subject.