LOS ANGELES — Costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, who created the iconic costumes for “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Myra Breckinridge,” died from lung cancer at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles on Friday night. She was 82.
This story first appeared in the November 8, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“It is a huge loss,” says Mary Rose, president of the board for the Costume Designers Guild, who knew Van Runkle for 25 years. “Theadora was one of the most iconic costume designers we’ve ever had as well as one of the greatest illustrators and artists. On a personal level, she was whimsical, most charming, sometimes childlike, and always kind. She was a free and wonderful person, and will be greatly missed.”
Born in Los Angeles in 1929, Van Runkle married at age 16 and began working as a fashion illustrator at 19. After seven years, she became a sketch artist for costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, who was originally offered the job on “Bonnie and Clyde” and turned it down. Jeakins recommended Van Runkle, who had only been working for her for a month. Van Runkle’s film debut was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costumes in 1968. She would go on to receive two more Oscar nominations, for “The Godfather: Part II” in 1975 and “Peggy Sue Got Married” in 1987, but the Thirties period costumes she designed for Faye Dunaway — berets, tight-fitting knits, pencil skirts and belted plaid coats — would be among her most memorable, along with their lasting influence on fashion.
Van Runkle followed up her debut with the hippie costumes of 1968’s “I Love You, Alice B. Toklas!” That same year, she was the costume designer for “The Thomas Crown Affair,” starring Steve McQueen and Dunaway, which again proved influential in fashion terms, and later outfitted McQueen in “Bullitt” and “The Reivers” and Dunaway again in “The Arrangement.” Though best known for her period costumes, the designer proved her diversity with Raquel Welch’s campy costumes in “Myra Breckinridge” (1970) and Lucille Ball’s in “Mame” (1974). For the former, she worked alongside Edith Head, who designed Mae West’s costumes.
“Theadora was so charming and funny and without doubt one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with,” Welch said Monday. “She was knowledgeable about every period of fashion. She was a joy, and I will miss her.”
Among the other iconic women she designed for was Dolly Parton, who wore her flashy costumes in 1982’s “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” and 1984’s “Rhinestone.” Van Runkle’s last film credits were 1999’s “I’m Losing You” and “Goodbye Lover.”
Her notable television projects include Emmy Award-winning work in the 1983 medieval-themed series “Wizards and Warriors” and costumes for Mario Puzo’s “The Last Don” (1997).
The recipient of the Costume Designers Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002, Van Runkle remained a true character, regaling the crowd for nearly 20 minutes with tales from the Golden Age. Her other passions included art collecting, interior design and gardening, and her last home, in the Hollywood Hills, has been featured in coffee-table books and magazines.
“My mother could garden and work harder than anyone I’ve ever seen in my life. Every home we lived at she completely transformed,” said her son, Max Van Runkle, a veteran home builder who has worked on numerous movie star residences. “That was almost a bigger part of her life than her art. To me, the great loss besides her amazing personality itself was her phenomenal memory and knowledge of the history of art.”
In addition to her son, Van Runkle is survived by a daughter, Felicity Van Runkle, and grandson Teo Van Runkle. Funeral plans had not been finalized at press time.