NEW YORK — For the last seven years, Liz Goldwyn has been rooting through the wardrobes of some of the most famous burlesque dancers from the Thirties and Forties. It’s all in the name of research for “Pretty Things,” a documentary exploring these women’s extraordinary pasts, which premieres tonight on HBO.
An avid vintage clothing collector, Goldwyn has been gathering material for the film and an upcoming exhibition. But, as she’s been going through closets, she’s taken the opportunity to pad her own wardrobe, as well, with some priceless hand-me-downs. When these women weren’t wearing pasties and G-strings, they trotted around town in some very chic dresses and overcoats.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Goldwyn went treasure-hunting at the Gramercy Park apartment of Sherry Britton, a feisty 86-year-old former dancer who’s traded in her burlesque costumes for embroidered mandarin-style jackets and knit pants.
The two share a sort of grandmother-granddaughter rapport. Goldwyn keeps a close eye on pieces she hopes to inherit (Britton has no daughters, but does have a few female cousins who can’t quite fit into any of her 18-inch-waist dresses), and she comfortably rummages through the racks and piles of clothes stored in a spare room, along with memorabilia, a few potholders and a dozen cheap handbags. But no matter how well Goldwyn knows her way around the inventory, she’s always finding something new.
Take, for instance, a scarlet Pauline Trigère dress with a matching mink-trimmed cape.
“Sherry, Sherry, Sherry,” she chastises, interrupting one of Britton’s many stories, “this is Pauline Trigère.”
“Yes, it’s cashmere and sable,” Britton says.
“Do you wear this?” Goldwyn asks.
“I did,” she replies.
Goldwyn scurries into another room to try the dress on. Of course, it fits like a glove.
“You got into it — you’re too much, you’re too much!” Britton exclaims. “Oh, I have gorgeous clothes.”
“Don’t you think it needs a little bit of life?” Goldwyn hints. “I could just borrow it,” she says.
“I never lend anything,” Britton says definitively. “I either give or I don’t give.”
This story first appeared in the July 19, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“What about trade? What about some jewelry?”
“I won’t wear it.”
“Well,” Goldwyn continues, admiring the dress in the mirror, “what do you think?”
Britton pauses and says, “I’m going to be 87 this month and I think I’m still too young to give away stuff that gives me pleasure in its memories. So I think for the moment, you’re out of luck.”
Turns out, the former dancer wore the outfit during her love affair with the late actor Gig Young, and it appears she’s not ready to give up the memory of him or the dress. Fortunately for Goldwyn, Britton is more willing to part with a kelly green satin frock by Lillie Rubin.
“This is going to go in the Liz pile, too,” Goldwyn suggests.
“Look how that fits her waistline! I can not believe it,” Britton says. “Would you wear that? It’s yours.”
“Why, because you didn’t have any love affairs in this dress?” Goldwyn asks mischievously.
“Yes I did,” Britton says, “but they didn’t mean as much.”
Before the afternoon is over, Goldwyn sifts through a clear plastic box of costume tiaras (“I always stripped with a tiara,” Britton reveals); a tattered shopping bag full of G-strings, fishnets and pasties, and a drawer full of belts. In the end, she makes off with the green Lillie Rubin; a leopard-print jumpsuit, also by Rubin; some hair combs; a belt, and a straw bag. Set aside is a pile of pieces the two can negotiate over the next time Goldwyn drops by.
“Is there anything else you want to look at?” Britton offers.
“Well,” Goldwyn stalls.
“See,” Britton says, “that was a ‘What are you going to give me?'”