Wednesday, March 13, 2019

From Helen Rose to Nolan Miller - Interview with Designing Woman Jorjett Strumme

There are many of us who long to have lived during the Golden Age of Hollywood, or at least during the last breath of that glorious time. I recently became acquainted with someone who did just that - Jorjett Strumme. You could consider her a classic film Zelig. She left Oregon in her early 20s for the glamour of Los Angeles, and almost immediately entered the inner circle of costume designers who were giants in the industry. MGM's Helen Rose was first, with Jorjett forging a relationship that ranged from professional to personal. She worked with the costume designer as a model, muse, and event producer while also becoming very close friends. That relationship led to one with another kindred spirit Elizabeth Taylor; Jorjett would become her assistant for a decade. Her life intersected with other stars, too - many who also became friends - including everyone from Barbara Stanwyck to Lana Turner. Then as Hollywood shifted its focus from film to television, Jorjett became close with a leader in the next generation of great costume designers - Nolan Miller. As with Helen, she became the assistant, in-house model, and friend of the designer. Not surprisingly, a book of Jorjett's incredible life will soon be in the works.

Because she has lived out just about every fantasy I've ever had, I persuaded Jorjett to share some of her story and insights into the talented people she inspired. Helen Rose was the original reason for our conversation since she's a costume designer who made a big impact on my own style, especially when it comes to color combinations. She's also responsible for the costumes of two films that are among The Style Essentials - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Butterfield 8 (1960). I love any opportunity to share more about Helen because she is not mentioned nearly enough as one of the great talents of Hollywood. You can read about her early days as a designer in this article I did on Designing Woman (1957), and then delve even deeper into her life and contributions in the interview below.


I am absolutely thrilled that we’re doing this, Jorjett! I find it fascinating that we both came from the Pacific Northwest and found our way to a life in classic Hollywood. Movies impacted us at a very early age. How did you first come to meet Helen Rose in film?

I was 7 and in the 2nd grade. I was obsessed with movies from the Golden Era of Hollywood from the time I was a very small child. There was an afternoon movie on every day and I would often watch it after school – whatever it happened to be. Remember, this was 1965. Our TV got 8 channels and old movies were totally hit or miss. No videos. I would get the new TV Guide every week and go through it and circle the old movies I wanted to watch. Greer Garson was my favorite actress and I had first seen Elizabeth Taylor in a Greer Garson movie called Julia Misbehaves. I watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof because Elizabeth Taylor was in it. I had no idea what it was about. I also used to read all of the opening titles and I read "Helen Rose" that day. When I saw that white chiffon cocktail dress, I screamed at the top my lungs. My mother, who was in the kitchen fixing dinner, came in and asked what I was shouting about – I had scared her. I said, “LOOK AT THIS DRESS!” My mom said, “Fine. Don’t shout, you scared me!” I followed her back into the kitchen and said, “When I grow-up, I am going to wear that dress!” After that, Helen Rose was my favorite movie costume designer. 

When you first moved to Los Angeles, you attended an event at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that featured several great Hollywood costume designers. Edith Head and Walter Plunkett were there along with Helen. What do you remember?  

First, I was thrilled to be there. I had just turned 21 and I had only lived in LA a few weeks. I went by myself. This lecture series is how I met Helen Rose. I had met Edith Head at fashion event when I was a college student in Portland, Oregon. Plunkett turned out to be my neighbor in Brentwood. And fate seated me next to Kathryn McMillan, who Helen referred to as the “Lady of the Golden Fingers” because of her incredible ability to drape chiffon and jersey. We were strangers, who started talking to each other and Kathryn introduced me to Helen. I am so lucky. Fate has placed me in the right place at the right time, again and again.

Your childhood prediction did come true - you had the honor of wearing the white chiffon dress from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tell us about the dress itself and what it felt like to wear it. 

First, it was a dream come true. I was at Helen’s house and we were talking about something and I mentioned the red gown from The Last Time I Saw Paris. She said, “Why don’t you try it on?” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” We went into the guest room, where she kept the costumes for the fashion show, and she handed it to me. “Put in on and come out and model for me.” I put it on and it fit – I came out and did a big Cyd Charisse twirl with the chiffon skirt. Then Helen said, “Now go try on the Cat dress.” I was absolutely dying! I changed dresses, came out, and twirled again. After that I wore those dresses in Helen’s [costume fashion] show. Helen’s designs were absolutely magical – her dresses made women, of any size and any shape, feel sexy and female and BEAUTIFUL! Her draping was amazing. And her dresses were cut so they would flatter almost any kind of figure. I never got tired of wearing those dresses.

In 1985, Helen was given an award from Otis Parsons in Los Angeles. She was very ill and it was one of her last public appearances. The event had a mini costume fashion show – there were 10 [dresses]. We were standing on big wooden platforms on a stage and a spotlight would go from model to model. I was first, in the red chiffon. Then I climbed down a ladder to get backstage, changed dresses, and then was the last model in the Cat dress. I was also Helen’s special guest that night. I wore a vintage Helen Rose cocktail dress from 1958. Me and the dress were the same age - 27 years old. My dress is made out of royal blue pleated chiffon. The lining of this dress is turquoise. All night, people kept asking where I got my dress – “Your dress is gorgeous!” Yes, my 27-year-old Helen Rose dress was timeless and gorgeous and made me feel gorgeous. And people still wanted to buy one.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is on my list of The Style Essentials, which are 50 films with iconic costume design that impacted fashion when they first premiered and continue to be influential today. What can you tell us about the design process for this movie?

Like all movies and TV shows, it is pretty much the same process. You get the script, go through it and do a break down – what scenes require costume changes and what are the appropriate costumes for each scene. And based on the character and the actress playing the character, the costume designer creates the costumes. Helen has great stories in her books about this movie. Elizabeth was away while she was creating the costumes. [The main character] Maggie only wears 3 costumes in the film - a skirt and blouse, a slip, and the white dress. The costumes for the film were not only designed before Elizabeth got back, they were also made and ready to be fitted. 

The skirt and blouse and the slip were pretty basic. Richard Brooks, who directed the film, rejected the chiffon dress. He wanted Maggie to wear a white silk shirtwaist dress. Helen told him that Elizabeth would not like the shirtwaist and wouldn’t want to wear it. He said he didn’t care, he was the director and she would wear what he told her to wear. Elizabeth hated the shirtwaist and Helen told her that she would have to convince Richard. Helen expected an argument – both Elizabeth and Richard Brooks could be free with 4-letter words. Before Richard arrived, Elizabeth changed into the slip, combed her hair, and put on fresh lipstick. In The Glamorous World of Helen Rose, she says,
When the director knocked on the door of the dressing room and was told to enter, the first person  he saw was the lovely Elizabeth who had never been more beautiful in her entire life. She could have worn a house dress and she still would have been sensational. When a big smile crossed Richard’s handsome face, I knew the dress I had originally designed would be in the movie. After warm greetings between the star and director, and a bit of small talk, Elizabeth in her most dulcet tone of voice said, “Richard, love, I can’t wear this shirtwaist. I look awful in it.” And Richard, being such a complete man who appreciates beauty in women, looking at those gorgeous, blue-violet, black fringed eyes said, “Darling, you wear whatever will make you happy!” 
And she did.

A hint of Helen's love of color can be seen in the orange belt
Elizabeth wears in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Helen's talent for color can also be seen in Butterfield 8 (1960)
in the orange coat, olive sweater and skirt, and cobalt blue statement necklace

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a movie that has a hint of something I love about Helen, which is her gift for color. You see it in the orange belt Elizabeth wears with her blouse and skirt ensemble. There is even more of an example in Butterfield 8, which is another Helen Rose/Elizabeth Taylor film that’s on The Style Essentials. It’s the olive sweater and skirt with the royal blue necklace paired with an orange coat. You also admire her gift for color. What was Helen’s approach to using color?

Helen was not afraid of color – she loved color. Her beginning was designing nightclub costumes where flash and brightness and sparkle was necessary. And designing for the Ice Follies was the same – she LOVED designing for the Ice Follies. She was a genius at layering colors like royal blue over turquoise or emerald green over chartreuse. In many of the MGM musicals, the skirts are layers and layers of color.

Last night, I watched Royal Wedding (again) and Jane Powell has a number where she is dancing in a pale lavender dress. The skirts are layers of lavender until the last layer, which we see when she twirls, is purple. And on this pale lavender dress is a bright coral belt! And it works – who else would think of this? Also the number in the movie called “I Left My Hat In Haiti” is dripping in fabulous color. One of my favorite Helen Rose combinations is raspberry and bright orange. Or in Hit the Deck, she has Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, and Jane Powell dressed in gold lamé dresses with bright turquoise petticoats. And she could also be genius with subtle color like Cyd Charisse’s beige and white chiffon evening gown in Silk Stockings. Or Grace Kelly’s costumes in The Swan.

Jane Powell in a lavender gown with coral sash in Royal Wedding (1951)
and turquoise petticoats under gold lamé in Hit the Deck (1955)

I'm also a huge fan of two Helen Rose-Ava Gardner movies - The Barefoot Contessa (1954) and Mogambo (1953). Mogambo is particularly impressive because it's set on safari - normally a sea of brown - and Helen still worked in incredible color combinations.

Helen’s brilliant use of color is what got her hired at MGM. Louis B. Mayer saw the movies she did at Fox – he loved Coney Island and Hello, Frisco, Hello. Then he saw Ice Follies and loved those costumes – especially Helen’s combination of turquoise and chocolate brown together. The same designer had done the Fox movies and the Ice Follies and he decided that MGM needed Helen Rose.

There's always color in Helen Rose's world
as Ava Gardner proves on safari in Mogambo (1953)

For me Butterfield 8 is also outstanding for the cavalcade of fur Elizabeth wears. It's incredibly glamorous. In thinking about it, I'm not sure it could be done today.

Back then, no one thought twice about wearing fur. There was no taboo associated with it. Women wore fur and wanted fur. Fur coats, trim, cuffs and collars – also hats, muffs and handbags. Fur is beautiful, luxurious, and glamorous. Elizabeth used to wear lots fur in real life. The dream of many women was to own a real fur coat. The sable coat in Butterfield 8 is an especially important part of the plot line. Helen said she was the first designer to use fur on the inside of a coat as a lining, which you can see in the coat with the black and white fur lining.

Two important coats from Butterfield 8 - the sable and 
gray tweed coat lined in skunk fur

Let’s talk a little about Elizabeth. She and Helen were very close. And then you became close with the two of them. In my opinion, they were one of the great designer-star partnerships (like Adrian-Joan Crawford). What worked so well in their relationship?

They loved each other and they trusted each other. Helen had known Elizabeth since she was a child.  She watched her grow-up. Elizabeth’s first grown up looking costumes were Helen’s designs in A Date with Judy. Helen knew what Elizabeth would like – like being able to design the costumes for Cat with Elizabeth not even there. And knowing both women as well as I did, all of us had a major intuitive connection with each other. 

What was their process like working together on a film?

The same – Helen would create the appropriate sketches based on story line and character and then Elizabeth would look at them and say, YES! 

Too few people understand that Helen was responsible for designing wedding dresses for both Elizabeth and Grace Kelly. The one she did for Grace is iconic and highly influential, including inspiring Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. I actually authenticated the one she created for Elizabeth when it was up for auction at Christie’s. The workmanship was INCREDIBLE. Did Helen share any stories from designing these dresses?

Helen said she designed Elizabeth’s first 3 wedding dresses. Obviously, the dress for the Nicky Hilton wedding and I believe she designed what Elizabeth wore when she married Michael Wilding. I know she designed the periwinkle chiffon dress Elizabeth wore when she married Mike Todd. The workmanship in all of the costumes and clothes made at MGM was incredible and so were the clothes made for Helen’s retail line, in her own workroom.

Weddings by Helen Rose - Elizabeth Taylor's first wedding dress
and Grace Kelly's influential wedding dress

Helen loved Grace Kelly and stayed friends with her until Princess Grace died.  Helen was thrilled that Grace asked her to design the wedding gown and the suit for the civil ceremony.  Every designer in the world wanted to have that job. Helen made about 10 sketches and Grace chose the one she wanted. MGM gave her the dresses a wedding gift – they did not assign a budget.  

I know Edith Head wanted to design Grace's dress very badly (that's an understatement), but Grace was a MGM star so she didn't really have a right to expect the commission. Do you have a ballpark figure of how much MGM spent in making the wedding gowns for Elizabeth or Grace?

Helen loved designing wedding gowns. I have no idea how much Elizabeth’s first wedding gown cost. The suit for the civil ceremony and the wedding gown for Grace Kelly cost a little over $7,000 and the labor cost was not included in this amount of money. Helen actually was worried that she would get fired for spending so much. The lace for the bodice and the train was 125 years old and had been purchased from a museum for $2,500. All of the beading and appliqué was done by hand. Thousands of seed pearls were used. In the layers of silk tulle petticoats, tiny blue bows were sewn in for the “something blue." MGM got lots of publicity. Helen said the final cost of the 2 wedding outfits was never mentioned [at the studio]. Everyone was happy.

Did Helen discuss any of the challenges of being head of costume design at MGM, especially on the heels of Irene's departure in 1949?

When Mr. Mayer hired Helen, he did not consult anyone in the costume department. He wanted her and he hired her. She had had a very unhappy experience working at Fox and didn’t want to work at another studio. She loved doing the Ice Follies and was happy just doing that. When MGM approached, she said no. They kept coming back and offering her more money each time and she kept saying no. Finally, the money was so much that she could not say no again and they also allowed her to keep doing the Ice Follies.  

In the beginning, Irene and Irene Sharaff were resentful and really unpleasant to Helen – actually mean to her. Not only had she been hired without their approval, she was making A LOT more money than anyone else in the costume department. It was so bad that Helen asked to be released from her contract. Mr. Mayer said no and said to get her working. Helen finally got to design a number in Ziegfeld Follies – the gorgeous hot pink number with Lucille Ball for “Bring On The Beautiful Girls." Then she started getting whole movies. Her first one was The Harvey Girls. Helen was talented and knew her stuff. She could costume any kind of movie. By the time she became head designer, she had paid her dues and she knew what she was doing. She admired Irene’s designs a lot and was very respectful of Irene’s talent. Helen also knew that she was fully capable of being head of the department. Helen was never petty or mean to anyone.

Then you eventually became Elizabeth’s assistant for 10 years.

A wonderful magical experience. Elizabeth was kind and generous and lots of fun. I have been all over the world in the best ways possible. I have seen and done amazing things and met incredible people. I am sure we have known each other in [past] lives.

Did she have any rules that she lived by as far as style?

She just went with what she liked. 

Another important person in your life was Nolan Miller. You went from working with one great costume designer to another and were with him for nearly 3 years. What was it like working with Nolan?

I absolutely adored Nolan Miller. I loved Nolan. We were kindred spirits – he was 23 years older than me, but our stories were the same. We were kids who grew up in small towns who dreamed of going to Hollywood. And we got there. When I went to to work for Nolan, Dynasty was at its peak. I grew up in a very unglamorous time and I dreamed of wearing evening gowns and negligees and hats and gloves and furs – this didn’t exist in the 1970s. Now, in the 1980s we have Dynasty and fabulous clothes, gloves, hats – glamour again! I fit perfectly into Joan Collins' costumes –  among the many jobs I did in Nolan’s salon was to be in-house model. I can’t even tell you how much fun I had. And when we would go on a trip to do fashion shows or TV shows, believe me, I was dressed when we went out to dinner or to an event – dress or suit and all of the accessories. I loved it. 

Aaron Spelling was the King of Television then and Nolan did costumes for Aaron’s shows. There was Dynasty, but also Love Boat and Hotel and TV movies. Aaron was brilliant about having movie stars from the Golden Era and when stars were guests on any of his shows, Nolan did the costumes. Like Lana Turner on Love Boat. And Nolan was personal friends with many actresses who were in and out of the shop, like Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, and Bette Davis. I was thrilled. And I was lucky enough not just to work with these ladies, but I became friends with many of them as well.

Nolan and I were friends forever.  I miss him terribly. 

With friend Barbara Stanwyck
and working with Nolan Miller as his in-house model

In what ways were Helen and Nolan similar?

They were both very talented designers, who were in love with what they did. And they were in the right place at the right time to do what they wanted to do. They both worked hard and were always humble about what they did. They also both respected and admired each other. And they both worked with the amazingly talented Donna Peterson. Donna had been Helen’s sketch artist at MGM and then at Helen’s design studio. Later, she became Nolan’s sketch artist.

Dynasty is an iconic TV show, namely for its style. Nolan really brought old Hollywood glamour to the small screen. What was that design process like, especially when he was designing for both Joan Collins and Linda Evans?

On Dynasty, each of the main characters had their own “look” which was established early on. Linda was blonde and her character, Crystal, was nice. She had a blonde/Summer color palette – beige, cream, white, light blue (generally). Joan is dark haired and dramatic, and Alexis was mean and scheming. Her palette was brunette/Winter - lots of red, hot pink, black, and white. Big hats, fabulous gloves, lots of fur - over-the-top looks. When Diahann [Carroll] came on as Dominique, Nolan created a look for her as well.

When I used to produce the Dynasty fashion shows we did, I had a really specific set of models to hire because they had to represent the character whose costumes they were modeling.

You got to work on the 1986 Academy Awards with Nolan. It was a tribute that featured many of the greatest Hollywood stars of all time - Barbara Stanwyck, Ginger Rogers, Lana Tuner, just to name a few. Can you talk a little about that incredible experience?

Nine ladies in a musical number, and Nolan designed a color palette and gowns based on the idea of what Helen Rose would have put them in at MGM. Each actress got to choose her color, first come, first serve. Marge Champion was the first lady who came in. The Academy Awards is planned in advance, but the actual physical show doesn’t come together until about a week before it happens and then you work 20 hours a day for 7 days. It was crazy and exhausting and absolutely wonderful. I was up at 2:00 am hand-painting June Allyson’s shoes. She wanted to to wear her own shoes which were clear plastic Amano shoes with blue and pink leather butterflies on them. I had to paint all of the leather parts silver, so the shoes would go with her dress. This Academy Awards was one of my favorite Hollywood experiences ever. 

I love that Nolan was channeling Helen Rose. You were so close with her - what was she like?

Helen was completely down to Earth and was a very frank and honest person, which is something I love and respect. She was lots of fun and had a wonderful dry, witty sense of humor. She liked to work – she loved to work. She told me that when she closed her factory (the first time), she couldn’t wait to be able to do things that she has missed out on, like going to luncheons and being a guest at fashion shows instead of [putting on] the fashion show. That lasted about 2 months and she said she was bored out of her mind and she started working again.

Helen liked going to events and she liked to entertain. She was always beautifully dressed herself. She gave bridal showers and baby showers for her MGM girls. She also gave wonderful parties. Her last house in Beverly Hills was an amazing home Mid-Century house in Trousdale and “The Rose House” is featured in the book Trousdale Estates by Steven M. Price. She loved her friends and family. Helen was a very loyal friend. Helen did not know how to drive a car.

Aside from being such a talented designer, Helen was a seriously talented writer. [The 1957 film] Designing Woman was based on an idea of hers and she has a credit [for the story] in the titles. She wrote two books about her own life - Just Make Them Beautiful and The Glamorous World of Helen Rose. She also wrote many newspaper stories about fashion, design, etc. And she wrote 3 absolutely brilliant novels that, unfortunately, never got published. There have been 2 books in my life that I literally stayed up all night reading – Dominick Dunne’s The Two Mrs. Greenvilles and one of Helen’s novels. Sidney Sheldon tried to get them published, but the publishers wanted her to add really graphic sex descriptions and Helen wasn’t willing to do that. As I reader, I think she was right The stories didn’t need it. 

She had a great sense of humor about herself also. She got a letter from Miss Piggy, asking her to design a gown for her – something like Helen would have designed for Lana Turner. Helen loved this and she designed a gown based on Lana’s fabulous white fox trimmed gown from The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Helen read Miss Piggy’s letter in her [costume fashion] show and we made the dress (in human size) and had it in the show. The dress in the fashion show had a cape also, but it wasn’t finished when the photos of me were taken.

Helen Rose's Oscar® winning costume for Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful
and Jorjett modeling the full size of Helen's design for Miss Piggy

I also wanted to touch upon Helen's experience with her own fashion line. I've read she may have started it largely because other companies were ripping off her Cat and Butterfield 8 designs, among others. Did she enjoy designing for "fashion"?

Helen was thinking about doing a retail line before the Cat dress – she wanted to do a line of wedding gowns. She said that when she looked into it, the market was so saturated that it didn’t seem like a good idea. When the Cat dress appeared on screen, she was inundated with requests to buy the dress.  MGM gave her permission to go ahead and that is when her retail line was launched. The Cat dress – or versions of it - stayed in her line season after season. It’s the only design she repeated. She loved designing for fashion and her collections sold like crazy. Her designs from the movies were being “knocked off” and she knew it. She also knew that there was practically nothing she could do about that. But she knew that the women who wanted a genuine Helen Rose design would buy her gowns. 

MGM had a policy that many of their workers had to retire at age 65. In 1957, the year Helen started her retail line, Kathryn McMillan - who was a draper, cutter, fitter and had been at MGM since 1927 - was retiring because she was 65. Helen referred to Kathryn as “The Lady of the Golden Fingers” because of her genius skill for draping chiffon and jersey. Kathryn worked for Helen for another 14 years. To this day, if you see an original Helen Rose gown or cocktail dress, the hem will still hang evenly. The inside of the dress is as beautiful as the outside.

I am fortunate enough to be able to attest to that - the inside of the Elizabeth Taylor's wedding gown is breathtakingly beautiful and stunning in its craftsmanship. Well, I can't thank you enough for sharing all of this with us, Jorjett. It's been such a pleasure!

You're more than welcome. It has been a lot of fun! 

To see some of Jorjett's artwork, visit


Silver Screenings said...

An amazing interview! You have a way of eliciting the best stories from people, so that we get a sense of their personality. Learned so much here – thank you.

Christian Esquevin said...

An absolutely fascinating interview with Jorjett on Helen Rose and Nolan Miller and her various adventures as a model and muse.Thank you for giving us a insider look at what it takes to present film fashion and develop character in a movie. Helen was one of the best, and Jorjett was there to capture her spirit.

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