Little information is available on Clare West although she trail-blazed the status of costume designer, costumed classic films, and in 2003 was entered in the Costume Designer Guild’s Hall of Fame. Allie Acker alone gives us pre-1915 details, and she finds that, after college, West studied in Paris, becoming an accomplished fashion artist. Edward Maeder (220) starts her career with D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), but all sources agree that she worked for two years on his ancient-to-modern epic Intolerance (1916), the first motion picture to period-dress leads and extras. West’s exact role is unclear, but it is possible that she supervised all costuming. Clearly her work raised the level of exoticism of screen fashion and separated it from haute couture by making stunning clothing that were wearable only on film, commencing the important demarcation between the two costume modes. In the teens, actors often wore their own clothes and “wardrobe” was a division of the drapery department, which only purchased, rented, or tacked ready-made items. The costume department as such was not de rigueur until the late twenties, but West inaugurated its initial office when, with Intolerance, she attained the unprecedented credential of “studio designer,” a feat still notable almost ten years later when Motion Picture cited it (Calhoun 116-117).
Clare West with design sketch. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library.
In 1918, Cecil B. DeMille hired Clare West to oversee costumes for Famous Players-Lasky because he recognized that she could “make people gasp” and knew that the new motion picture audience was hungry for larger-than-life clothing. Dressing superstars such as Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, and Mae Murray with outlandish, sexual elegance, West’s career was eagerly watched by contemporary film fan magazines. In 1923, Screen News quoted her declaration that Hollywood led Paris in fashion, an opinion shared, by the late twenties, by costume designers Howard Greer and Gilbert Adrian (14). Fashion historian Mulvagh adds that even French couturiere Elsa Schiaparelli saw Hollywood as in the ascendance (123). West appeared as herself in the film Hollywood (1923), a celebrity-studded comedy.
Despite her maverick achievements, Clare West is mentioned rarely, but when she is, words like “dazzling,” “outré,” and “versatile” are commonly used in reference to her designing. Her costumes are exceptional for their extravagant imagination, modern lines, thorough research, and honest rendering. West enjoyed sweeping drapery, tightly wrapped cloth, sumptuous headgear, and ornate beading. DeMille extolled her “lavish hand” (DeMille 1985, 232) 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). For prehistoric scenes in Adam’s Rib (1923), West made twenty-five fur costumes using no stitches (as sewing was unknown to Ice Age tribes), and formed jewelry from real bones, claws, and feathers (Prichard 354).
Clare West. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
For several years, West supervised all Famous Players-Lasky studio productions, where many pictures made huge, costly costume demands such as those in Manslaughter (1922), where Leatrice Joy’s furs alone were worth over $100,000. West worked on ten DeMille films including The Ten Commandments (1923), devising extensive research files, still used in the fifties, to help create three thousand costumes constructed by over a hundred seamstresses. In 1924, the designer left Famous Players-Lasky and went to First National Pictures, where she exclusively costumed Norma and Constance Talmadge. That year, Screen News reports that she made special garments such as Kathryn McGuire’s lingerie with bird-of-paradise fringe trim in Buster Keaton’s The Navigator (1924) while working for Joseph Schenck’s organization (13). In 1925 she made thirty-four costumes for Murray in Erich von Stroheim’s Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of The Merry Widow (1925) and, along with designers such as Lucille, Adrian, and Howard Greer, made runway outfits for fashion show sequences in Paramount’s The Dressmaker From Paris (1925). After that, her career becomes difficult to follow.
West’s birth and death dates are elusive, and her name is variously spelled (Clair, Clare, or Claire), but Prichard stresses that “Clare” is correct (247). West does not appear in The Silent Film Necrology or the AFI Catalog of Silent Films; the Brigham Young University Cecil B. DeMille Archives Index does not list her; and the Costume Designer’s Guild has little West information. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has no obituary, but one of a few clippings cites her 1922 divorce from cinematographer Paul Perry. There is much contradictory information about her, and credits on films with which she was associated are inconsistent. Chierichetti’s biography of director Mitchell Leisen, who started as a costume designer and who apprenticed under West on Male and Female (1919), quotes Leisen as saying that he “sweated” alone because West shunned him (1995, 21). The American Film Institute catalog gives Leisen sole costume design credit for Male and Female (1925) although Chierichetti accords him only one sequence (the Babylonian scene). The American Film Institute gives Eric von Stroheim and Richard Day costume credits for The Merry Widow (1925), but, according to Prichard, the Mae Murray biographer, credits Adrian while both Dorothy Calhoun and Elisabeth Leese credit West (109).
Photoplay declared that the costumes in Intolerance (1916) swayed current fashion, a defining characteristic of West’s style from the outset (20). She outdid French designers to become the favorite of her era’s screen superstars. Her film designs, pushing extremes, were also important contributions to shifts in the wider fashion vanguard, nationally and abroad, and more scholarship is needed to track her invaluable progenitor role in fashion as well as her influence on other film designers.
Calhoun, Dorothy. “Styles Are Dictated in Hollywood and Paris Designers Follow Them.” Motion Picture 29 (March 1925): 28-9, 110-1, 116-117.
Chierichetti, David. Hollywood Costume Design. New York: Harmony Books, 1976.
------. Hollywood Director: The Career of Mitchell Leisen. Los Angeles: Photoventures, 1995.
DeMille, Cecil B. Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille. Ed. Donald Hayne. New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1985.
Foote, Lisle. Buster Keaton's Crew: The Team Behind his Silent Films. Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2014.
Higham, Charles. Cecil B. DeMille. New York: Da Capo, 1973.
Adam’s Rib. Dir.: Cecil B. DeMile, sc./st.: Jeanie Macpherson, cost.: Clare West (Famous Players-Lasky Corp. US 1923) cas.: Julia Faye, si, b&w, 10 reels; 9, 526 ft. Archive: George Eastman Museum [USR].
Ashes of Vengeance. Dir.: Frank Lloyd, sc.: Frank Lloyd, H.B. Somerville, cost.: Clare West (for Talmadge only) (Norma Talmadge Film Co. US 1923) cas.: Norma Talmadge, si, b&w, 35mm., 10 reels; 9,893 ft. Archive: Library of Congress [USW], George Eastman Museum [USR].
The Song of Love. Dir.: Frank Borzage, Chester M. Franklin, Frances Marion, sc.: Frances Marion, Margaret Peterson, cost.: Clare West (Norma Talmadge Film Co. US 1923) cas.: Norma Talmadge, si, b&w, 35mm., 8 reels; 8, 000 ft. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
The Goldfish. Dir.: Jerome Storm, sc.: C. Gardner Sullivan, Gladys Unger, cost.: Clare West (Constance Talmadge Film Co. US 1924) cas.: Constance Talmadge, si, b&w, 35mm., 7 reels; 7,145 ft. Archive: Library of Congress [USW].
As mentioned in the article, confirming Clare West’s credits proves difficult as AFI, Paul Spehr, and FIAF rarely list costume designers. Shari Benstock and Suzanne Ferriss’s 1994 book On Fashion discusses West’s collaboration with both deMille and set designer Paul Iribe and confirms a number of titles. While The Song of Love can’t be confirmed as a West film, she is listed in a number of sources as dressing all Norma and Constance Talmadge films in the early 1920s.
Stutesman, Drake. "Clare West." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013. <https://doi.org/10.7916/d8-7r5s-ge73>