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Western Costume Co. and the battle for accuracy

June 16, 2012 |  6:00 am

"Battleship" Uniforms

As part of my research for this Sunday's Image section story about Western Costume Co. -- which turns 100 this year -- I took a tour of the costume house's cavernous 120,000-square-foot headquarters in North Hollywood. I had expected to see the miles of hanging racks crammed with period clothes and get an up-close look at some priceless Hollywood costumes once worn by the likes of Jane Russell, Rudolph Valentino, Vivien Leigh and Christopher Plummer.

But what truly surprised me was Western's uniform department -- a collection of military and police uniforms (with a handful of bellhop and hospital outfits here and there) that occupies one of the three hangar-like rooms. It's a collection that, over the years, has provided Civil War uniforms for D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), outfit the fighting men of both the 1960 and 2004 versions of "The Alamo," and costumed police forces from TV shows like "Southland" and "Castle" to the '70s cops of Collinsport, Maine, in Tim Burton's "Dark Shadows" remake.

Western's president, Eddie Marks, explained that the uniform department has added $2 million worth of stock in the last decade "because with the military, it seems every new movie requires buying new uniforms ... it used to be just the [olive drab] green or a camouflage, but the uniforms seem to change every time there's a war."

It's part of Western's battle to make the uniforms they rent as accurate and up-to-date as possible, Marks explained. Much of the responsibility lies with Kurt Cox, Western's uniform specialist, who says he tries to keep up with the U.S military's myriad uniform changes by subscribing to publications like "Army Times" and "Navy Times," and dealing directly with the Department of Defense.

A good example of the challenges involved, Cox said, is the recent movie "Battleship." "The Navy uniforms were going to be different by the time the movie came out," Cox said. "And we didn't have the new camouflage -- nobody did. The result was we were able to buy it from the Navy even before it was issued to [Naval personnel] because the Navy wanted it to be as accurate as we did."


Fun facts about Western Costume Co.

Designer Western Costume Co. memories

Military supplier Massif heads to the front lines of fashion

Western Costume: Preserving Fabric of Hollywood History

Johnny Depp's 'Dark Shadows' sunglasses were a costume challenge

-- Adam Tschorn

Photo: Taylor Kitsch, left, and Rihanna wear an accurate -- and recently updated -- U.S. Navy camouflage pattern in a scene from Peter Berg's Navy action movie "Battleship." Credit: ILM/Universal Pictures.