Vera West

Derek McCormack


Larry Talbot is a wealthy Welshman, son of a Sir. He escorts Gwen and Jenny to a gypsy camp. Gwen’s the lady he loves. Jenny’s a third wheel. Jenny has her fortune told. For a laugh. A pentagram appears in her palm. She’s cursed. Doomed to die by a werewolf’s hands. Paws.

Jenny flees. A werewolf finds her. Her jugular. Larry bludgeons the beast to death. But not before being bitten by it. The next night, Larry becomes hairy. The Wolf Man. He hunts Gwen across a misty marsh. She’s not hard to catch. She’s in a tailored suit—the jacket hits at the waist, the skirt at the knee. Pumps sink in peat.

The suit was designed by Vera West.

Edith Head was head costume designer at Paramount Studios for forty-four years. She won eight Academy Awards for her work. Gilbert Adrian costumed casts at MGM. Adrian’s signature silhouette—a waspish waist in the shadow of shoulder pads—became au courant coast to coast.

Diamond Jim Brady, Show Boat, Rage of Paris—Vera West designed clothes for the casts of scores of movies made at Universal City in the 1930s and 1940s. In My Little Chickadee, Mae West wore West. Vera West never won an Oscar. Never became associated with a signature look. Most of the movies she made are forgotten. Most, but not all. There’s Dracula. Frankenstein. The Mummy. The Wolf Man.

What West is remembered for—making clothes for monster movies.

Haute couture? No—haute horreur.

Vera West was born in New York City on June 28, 1900. She attended the Philadelphia Institute of Design, studying dressmaking with Lucile, Lady Duff-Gordon, a couturière with clienteles in London, Paris, and New York. Around the turn of the century, Lucile had made history by staging a live runway show in London. The first fashion show anywhere. A “mannequin parade,” she called it.

After graduation, Vera West designed dresses for a salon on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where, in the words of costume historian W. Robert Lavine, “she learned how to get along with rich, often spoiled women who demanded special attention.” West’s stint at the salon was cut short. She committed a crime. She had an illicit affair. She had an illegitimate child.

This is speculation. What’s known: in the mid-1920s, she became involved in some sordid, secret scenario that would haunt her late in life. She fled to Hollywood. In 1927, Universal Pictures named her head costume designer.

According to Dr. Deborah Landis, current president of the Costume Designers Guild in Hollywood, Vera West “only designed the principal women’s clothes in the horror films.” A mad scientist’s fiancée, a mummy’s long-lost love, a zombie’s crush—these were the roles most principal women played. Virginal victims whom monsters menaced. How did West dress damsels in distress?

For day, she favoured smart suits in tweed or wool, fringed with furbelows. The Carpathians could be cold. For evening, evening gowns in the style of Schiaparelli and Chanel. Almost all of West’s women wound up wearing something white at night. A negligée. Or a wedding dress.

In 1931, Bela Lugosi played Dracula in Tod Browning’s Dracula. What kind of shoes does a vampire wear? Bat-ent leather. Dracula desires Mina Seward, played by Helen Chandler. West swathed her in white satin. A nightie. When Universal shot a Spanish-language version of Dracula on the same stage sets, West sexed up the wardrobe. Décolletage deepened. Watch Lupita Tovar’s character as she frolics with her boyfriend. Visible beneath her negligée—nipple.

In 1931’s Frankenstein, Dr. Henry Frankenstein stitches together a monster from dead body parts. The monster—Boris Karloff with bolts in his skull—frightens Frankenstein’s fiancée, whose wardrobe seems to consist of nothing but white lace gowns. Her wedding dress is beaded, embroidered, the train twenty feet long and covered with fancywork flowers. It wasn’t West’s most famous wedding dress. Elsa Lanchester played the monster’s betrothed in The Bride of Frankenstein of 1935. Her ensemble: a gown cut from white surgical sheets, opera gloves made of bandages and tape.

It’s difficult to know if West designed the Bride’s outfit by herself, or if she had help from James Whale, the film’s director. As horror historian David J. Skal said, [S]adly, not a single costume sketch from any of the classic horror films seems to have survived.”

West worked on every monster movie of Universal’s golden era. She costumed actresses in The Invisible Man. And in The Invisible Man Returns. And The Invisible Man’s Revenge. After The Mummy, she made The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Curse, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Tomb. Frankenstein’s monster returned to the screen as The Ghost of Frankenstein.

The Wolf Man? He died in the original movie. He rises from the grave in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. A werewolf zombie. He’s miserable. He begs Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter to cure him. Or kill him. In House of Dracula, he takes matters into his own hands. About to change into a wolf, he leaps off a cliff.

Vera West, it seems, was as tired of costuming the Wolf Man as he was of turning into a wolf. In early 1947, she resigned her role at Universal. She designed a couture collection for a dress shop at the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel. She would no longer serve monsters and their maidens. She would clothe actresses. Wives of studio heads.

“This is the only way. I am tired of being blackmailed.” A suicide note. Vera West wrote it. Police found her floating in the pool behind her home on June 29, 1947. Her husband, a businessman, was away. From her note: “The fortune teller told me there was only one way to duck the blackmail I’ve paid for twenty-three years…death.”

Who was blackmailing her? Why was she being blackmailed? The New York Times reported that police detectives were investigating West’s case. The Times reported nothing more about it. She was buried in the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Her blackmailer was never found. Nor was her fortune teller. Presuming they were two different people. Who knows?