Costume designer Helen Rose is best known for the white chiffon dress Elizabeth Taylor wore in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Rose was the envy of every Hollywood designer when Grace Kelly asked her to design Kelly’s wedding dress. Rumor had it that Edith Head was livid she did not get the commission.
We wrote about Rose and Elizabeth Taylor here.
We blogged about the fascinating manner in which Grace Kelly’s wedding gown was transported from America to Europe here.
Raised in Chicago, Rose briefly dated a nice Jewish boy who was anything but. In fact, he ended up being one of the most notorious figures in the annals of American crime.
Helen Rose never had anything bad to say about any of the Hollywood actors with whom she worked… until Jane Fonda came along.
Rose was a sharp observer of the female form—she had to be!—and her reflections on Marilyn Monroe are fascinating.
Rose’s niece Jenny Orosel left a wonderful comment about her famous aunt.
And with the aid of genealogist Kathy Soto, we unraveled Rose’s Jewish roots.
A few months ago, after reading our Helen Rose articles, costume designer Jorjett Strumme contacted Seraphic Secret. Turns out that Ms. Strumme worked as Helen’s assistant and developed a close personal relationship with the legendary designer. We were intrigued by Ms. Strumme’s fascinating life and posed five questions about her relationship with Helen Rose to which she kindly responded.
What is your family background?
I grew up in Oregon. My father was first generation American – his parents came to America from Norway in about 1918. My mother’s family is a mix of Irish & Scottish, they go back about 4 generations before she and her siblings were born. Both my father and mother grew up in Washington state.
When and under what circumstances did you meet Helen Rose?
I truly believe that it was my destiny to meet Helen Rose. Even as a really small child, I was obsessed with old Hollywood and loved old movies. Those were the days when we only got six or seven channels and finding old movies on TV was hit or miss affair.
When I was 7, I saw “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” and fell in love with the white chiffon cocktail dress Elizabeth Taylor wears in the movie. I told my mother that when I grew up, I was going to wear that dress. Helen Rose became my favorite movie costume designer.
At age 21, about a month after I moved to Los Angeles (to work on Ronald Reagan’s Presidential campaign) I went to a lecture series at the LA County Museum of Art. It was Edith Head, Walter Plunkett, Helen Rose and Bob Mackie. At the Walter Plunkett lecture, I started a conversation with the lady sitting next to me. Her name was Kathryn McMillan – an amazing woman who had worked at MGM and then when she was made to retire at age 65 in 1958, she went to work for Helen in her retail business. Helen devoted a chapter to Kathryn in her book, The Glamorous World Of Helen Rose, called “Lady of the Golden Fingers”. Kathryn was brilliant at draping chiffon. Kathryn and I hit it off immediately and she introduced me to Helen. This was in 1979.
Helen took me under her wing and starting in 1981 I worked with her in her costume show/lecture with production where I modeled the Elizabeth Taylor and Cyd Charisse costumes. (Yes! I got to wear the white chiffon “Cat” dress) Helen introduced me to costume designer, Nolan Miller. I worked as Nolan’s assistant and model for about 2.5 years. Nolan allowed me to continue doing the Helen Rose costumes shows while I worked for him. While working for Nolan Miller, I met Elizabeth Taylor and ended up working as Elizabeth’s personal assistant and stylist for 10 years. Meeting Helen Rose set me on my path.
What was Helen’s process in designing a costume for film.
First, read the script, and do a break down of the scenes — what the character is doing, where are they going, how many changes of costume do they need. Then create the designs that apply. Who is the actress, what is her character doing, what colors work best on her. Helen had a story in her costume show about designing for a bedroom scene – Elizabeth Taylor or Lana Turner would get a gorgeous nightgown and negligee, Debbie Reynolds would get a sweet, demure, cotton nightie, Esther Williams would get pajamas.
Helen was a genius with color and color combinations. She wasn’t afraid of color. She worked a lot with chiffon and would do brilliant color combinations like emerald green over the top of chartreuse or royal blue over the top of turquoise. Her gowns were extremely feminine and felt good to wear.
In 1986, Nolan Miller, was asked to oversee the costuming for the Academy Awards. Stanley Donen was in charge and there were some fabulous production numbers – very old musical Hollywood. One number was called “The Technicolor Number” (there is clip of this on YouTube – I have link on my website) – Howard Keel and nine M-G-M female musical stars: Katherine Grayson, Debbie Reynolds, Esther Williams, Marge Champion, Cyd Charisse, Anne Miller, Leslie Caron, June Allyson, and Jane Powell. The designs for each actress and the color palette for the number was based on what Helen Rose designed for them at M-G-M. In a way, it was a tribute to Helen as well. We had so much fun!
Describe Helen’s work ethic.
Helen was smart and she was brilliantly creative. She started working professionally at the age of 15. She was dedicated and true to the people she cared about. She was very generous to me in all sorts of ways, certainly as a friend and mentor. She was like that with people she cared about.
Did you stay in touch with Helen after you finished working with her?
I worked with Helen through her very last public appearance which was a major award she was given by one of the fashion design schools. I was there as her guest and I also modeled the two Elizabeth Taylor gowns featured in the fashion show that was part of the tribute to her. I wore the “Cat” dress and the red chiffon gown from “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Helen was seriously ill at that time and she pretty much stayed at home after that. I went to Palm Springs every few weeks and visited her, often taking Kathryn McMillan with me. Helen was always happy to see us. On my last visit, I took Kathryn and some loving messages from Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck. Helen died about ten days later. That was 1985 – I miss her a lot.
Learn more about Jorjett and her amazing costume art at her website.