A two-time winner of the Academy Award for Costume Design—The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, 1955—Helen Rose (1904 – 1985) was one of Hollywood’s greatest wardrobe designers.
Born on Chicago’s South Side, Rose studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Her first job was designing costumes for chorus girls in vaudeville and nightclub acts.
Rose moved to Los Angeles in 1929, worked for 20th Century Fox for several months, and then political back-stabbing at the studio—ruthless people these costume designers—put an end to that gig. She was chief designer for the Ice Follies for fourteen years.
L.B. Mayer became aware of her work and signed her to MGM in 1943 where she gradually became a favorite of producer Joe Pasternak. Rising young stars Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor, Ann Blyth, Jane Powell, Pier Angeli, and Debbie Reynolds loved Rose’s strong silhouette adorned with simple, subdued decoration. Rose gave these young actresses a soft, practical look that still managed to be glamorous. They all asked Rose to design their private wardrobes and their wedding gowns.
Expert at the difficult art of chiffon design, Rose ascended in the cut-throat MGM wardrobe department. Soon enough, head designer Irene, aristocratic and arrogant, resigned in anger to open her own couture shop.
Rose’s autobiography, Just Make Them Beautiful, written with Sidney Sheldon, is really just a series of vignettes. Rose does not give the year of her birth—not unusual for women at that time—and she never gives her maiden name.
Rose claims that her paternal grandfather was Scottish, pious, and read the Bible in the original Hebrew.
I suspect that Rose was Jewish, but like so many American Jews who were desperate to assimilate, perhaps Rose wanted to obscure her origins.
Legendary costume designer Edith Head, the daughter of Max Posener and Anna Levy, was ashamed of her parents because, she said, “They looked too Jewish.”
When Rose was a teenager in Chicago, a struggling designer, she had a boyfriend:
Though my father had a terrific sense of humor, he was extremely puritanical and dignified. Anyone in show business or at least arty I could not bring home. He disapproved of most of my boyfriends, with the exception of one whom my mother also liked. Babe came from an affluent family, drove a big Stutz, took me to the finest places, was very well-mannered and never fresh.
The never fresh might have been something of a red flag.
I was working downtown for Ernie Young [a costume house] but at night I would often have to go to the Chez Pierre, or one of the other clubs, to follow up on some new costume. Babe had a car, plenty of money and was always eager to accompany me—a rarity among my boyfriends. My parents felt I was quite safe in his company.
For Grace Kelly’s wedding gown Rose used twenty-five yards of silk taffeta and one hundred yards of silk net. The 125-year-old rose point lace was purchased from a museum and thousands of tiny pearls were hand-sewn on the veil by a small army of wardrobe assistants. The wedding dress has been preserved in the permanent collection of the costume department at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Prohibition was still in effect; the Depression hadn’t yet arrived. It was the Roaring Twenties in Chicago and the night clubs, cafes and theaters were booming. Everybody danced and had fun, but Babe was not a good dancer. Today he would have been considered “square,” instead of the usual box of chocolates or flowers, he brought me books. He gave me Indian Love Lyrics and a beautiful colored book on costumes which I have in my library today. More important—he encouraged me to continue my career.
He once invited me to see his laboratory as he was studying ornithology. Once was quite enough. It frightened me and I was repulsed. His father and brothers had given him a room at the top of their mansion in an affluent section of Chicago’s South Side. The laboratory was complete with operating table, glass cases of surgical instruments. On the walls were birds he had shot, stuffed and mounted.
Shades of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho, 1960.
Helen Rose’s costume design sketch for Debbie Reynolds in Goodbye Charlie, 1964.
About six months after I met him, I was on my way to work one morning and saw in huge headlines that an atrocious, senseless murder had been committed. I almost fainted when I saw the picture of Babe and of a fellow he had introduced me to as “his best friend.” They had been accused of murdering a young boy. I immediately called my mother and she had already heard the news. We had no radio, but in those days when something unusual or important happened, paper boys would run through the streets with a bundle of newspapers crying, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” I was sure that some mistake had been made and my mother shared my feelings. To connect my friend with such a crime was just ridiculous; he was the last person in the world we would suspect capable of such a thing. Though we called him “Babe” his full name was Nathan Leopold, Jr. and his friend was Richard Loeb.
Rose founded her own ready to wear label in 1958. Among her largest buyers were Bonwit Teller of New York, Joseph Magnin in San Francisco, Giorgio’s of Beverly Hills, Marshall Field in Chicago, and Sara Frederick’s of Palm Beach.