Helen Uffner’s private vintage collection dresses Hollywood

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Costume designer Ann Roth built Viola Davis’ extraordinary Jazz Age wardrobe for her role as real blues singer Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”. (She had Chadwick boseman neat three-piece suit made, too.)

Still, Roth – who is nominated for an Oscar for Best Costume Design for the film – had to dress over 100 extras and supporting players in authentic 1920s clothing. So she did what so many costume designers do. when they need vintage clothes: she turned to vintage collector Helen Uffner.

“I rented 155 dresses for this movie – and a lot of men’s suits,” said Uffner, a 72-year-old fashion lover who has provided pieces for some 1,000 films, theatrical productions and other projects over the years. Last 43 years.

Its huge costume rental warehouse, in Long Island City, offers some 100,000 pieces spanning the 1860s to the 1980s, from dresses and work clothes to shoes, hats and everything related to underwear, including corsets, bustiers and bustiers. A model wears the shimmering emerald sheath strung by Beyonce in “Cadillac Records”; another sports the alluring brunette lace and chiffon number worn throughout “Ma Rainey’s” by Taylour Paige, who plays Ma’s much younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae.

New York vintage collector Helen Uffner dresses dozens of Hollywood stars for Oscar films.
Tamara Beckwith / New York Post

“Helen has always been the source where you find the special pieces that would likely become a character’s signature,” costume designer Susan Lyall told The Post, adding that she found the black fringed jacket that Sacha Baron Cohen wears. as Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of The Chicago 7″ in Uffner’s studio. Lyall also rented a number of Uffner’s 1950s dresses and sweaters for the upcoming Lucille Ball biopic, ” Being the Ricardos “, with Nicole Kidman.

“She’s a fountain of sartorial knowledge,” Lyall added.

Benefits: Sacha Baron Cohen dons a 1960s leather jacket preserved by Uffner in his Oscar-nominated role in
Benefits: Sacha Baron Cohen dons a 1960s leather jacket retained by Uffner in his Oscar-nominated role in “Trial of the Chicago 7”.
Tamara Beckwith / NY Post, AP

Yet Uffner – like so many costume and prop rental places in the city – is on the verge of being kicked out of her space after just 2.5 years. She already had to transport her massive collection in 2018 after a new owner decided to renovate the space. Now, its current owner has said it has to be released by September, so a developer can build LIC’s tallest residential skyscraper.

“We need 6,500 usable square feet – where can we go? Uffner asked. “Where can creative businesses go now to continue to have affordable space? “

“No one else in New York has what she has, and to lose her would be wasting an irreplaceable resource,” said costume designer Tom Broecker, who often relies on Uffner for last-minute period pieces. like a hoop skirt or tweed newsboy cap for “Saturday Night Live”.

Uffner has purchased over 150 dresses for Oscar-nominated “My Rainey's Black Bottom,” including this 1920s piece worn by Taylour Page throughout the film.
Uffner has purchased over 150 dresses for Oscar-nominated “My Rainey’s Black Bottom,” including this 1920s piece worn by Taylour Page throughout the film.
Tamara Beckwith / NY Post, David Lee / NETFLIX

He added: “She has spent her entire life collecting vintage clothes – clothes that are no longer available anywhere in the world except in her showroom.”

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Uffner started collecting vintage lingerie and jewelry when she was a child.

“I would save all my babysitting money and go to jewelry auctions when I was in college,” said Uffner, who immigrated from Brussels to New York with her family when she was 12. “I used to bid on Victorian Baby Rings, which nobody wanted, and if a small stone was missing the auctioneer would put it for me [for free]. “

Uffner studied art at Queens College and continued to shop for antique clothing and lingerie while working as a management consultant. In the late 1970s, she started letting her friends in the theater borrow or buy her clothes for productions. Then one day a designer came over and bought each of his pieces for Woody Allen’s 1983 mock documentary “Zelig”.

Vast rows of clothes take up most of Helen's warehouse.
Vast rows of clothing take up most of the Uffner Vintage warehouse in Long Island City.
Tamara Beckwith / New York Post

“I had a clothes rack and I had nothing left,” Uffner said. “That’s when I decided to start renting, at least I would get the clothes back!

Uffner first exploited his space in his apartment on the Upper East Side, where costume designers and actors come there for fittings. She started going to estate sales and flea markets, buying clothes wholesale. “There was a place in the East Village called Bogey’s. The owner would have big bundles of clothes, his wife would hold them up, and whoever said, “Want it” or “I got it,” would throw it at them. I started to amass my collection there.

One of her favorite acquisitions came from a real estate sale in Brooklyn. “The woman was still there, but she was placed in a nursing home and she had these wonderful little sets of 1950s sweaters,” Uffner said. “At first she didn’t want to get rid of her clothes, but her family convinced her and they sold them to me. A week later, a costume designer picked up clothes for Russell Crowe’s movie “A Beautiful Mind” and took almost all of the ladies’ sweaters. Right away, she called the family. “She was so happy – it gave her something to look forward to.” Costume designer Lyall recently rented out the sweaters for the upcoming Lucille Ball biopic.

In her Long Island City warehouse, Helen Uffner stores thousands of vintage items that she rents from top movie studios to outfit actors, including the 1880s costume Brad Pitt wore in
Helen Uffner acquired the 1880s costume Brad Pitt wore in “The Assassination of Jesse James”.
Tamara Beckwith / NY Post, Alamy

Uffner’s collection is organized by decade, then hung by garment type, season, and color, and each item has a tag with its measurements, so designers can quickly pull out things that will suit their main – although they do. sometimes have to go back.

“We find that men kind of lie about their height, and women lie about their height and the size of their hips,” Uffner said with a chuckle. “It actually happened recently where [the talent] said they were a lot smaller than they were, so of course we pulled these items to fit their body, and of course they didn’t we have so had to start over.

After a shoot, the designers send everything back to Uffner, that is, unless they dress Robert De Niro. “He’s got in his contract that he can keep whatever he wears,” Uffner said, adding that she had made “half a dozen films” with the actor. “I got a call a few months ago for another movie he was going to be in, asking for 1930s costumes. I said, ‘Does that mean if he’s okay with him, will he keep it? ‘ They said, ‘Probably.’ And I said, ‘I can’t!’ I can’t afford to lose my 1930s costumes! (A rep for the actor explained that he often donates his wardrobe to the Robert De Niro Collection at the Harry Ransom Center, a research museum at the University of Texas at Austin.)

Various vintage cufflinks
Just part of Uffner’s cufflink collection.
Tamara Beckwith / New York Post

Still, Uffer loves when the actors come for fittings.

“The actors like to be here, they like to walk around. After Winona Ryder wore one of Uffner’s dresses in ‘Little Women’ in 1994, the actress showed up to the studio to buy herself some 1920s beaded dresses. “She was shy but she did. posed a pic for us and was very excited – she said she was going to tell her friend Courtney love about us.”

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When Uffner started his rental business four decades ago, New York City had a dozen major costume rental stores. Now she’s the last one standing. And while costume designers can usually find vintage pieces from the 20th century, Uffner offers pieces from the 1800s that are becoming increasingly rare.

Beyonce Knowles as Etta James wearing a Helen Uffner dress
The 1950s emerald cocktail dress Beyoncé wore as Etta James in “Cadillac Records” is one of the Uffners.
Tamara Beckwith / NY Post, courtesy Everett Collection

Recently Lisa Montalvo had to dress over 150 actors in period clothes for the History Channel series “The Food That Built America” on which she worked with her sister and designer colleague Celeste. Almost all of the costumes were from the Uffner showroom.

“I never could have [do it] without his rental home, ”Montalvo told The Post.

“She’s also a great resource when I’m confused by obscure historical practices,” she added. “She can give me the right insight into which jacket would have been worn at what type of event in Edwardian times, or the difference between a walking costume and a winter costume for dressing Victorian women.”

A sweater worn by Tom Hanks in "Bridge of Spies."
A sweater worn by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies”.
Tamara Beckwith / New York Post

“It would be a disaster for the entire costume industry… if his business were to close,” she continued. “It is a treasure that must be preserved and subsidized.

Although Uffner has spent 43 years in the business, she can’t stand the idea of ​​parting with her precious clothes. “I often think of my showroom as my carefully organized private museum,” and seeing her clothes on screen or on stage allows her to share this museum with the world. “I’m always excited, because it’s fun to see. You never get jaded.


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