Textiles & Costume

Historical costuming monkey business

I’ve been watching White Zombie, the original ‘living dead’ film. Made in 1932 on a shoestring budget, it starred the newly famous Bela Lugosi as the zombie master and Madge Bellamy as the titular ‘white zombie’ who “filled his every desire” according to the movie tagline.

Yes, this was definitely a pre-code film!

Madge wears a series of fabulous ensembles: a tropical appropriate traveling outfit, a to-die-for wedding dress (pun intended), a quaintly old-fashioned frock, and a trailing 1930s does medieval shroud.

The quaintly old-fashioned frock caught my attention. It looked so 17th century. I loved the idea of a 17th century inspired early 1930s dress. So I went looking for images of it. I found these:

Madge as Madeleine is fawned over by Bela as Murder and Cawthorn as Beaumont

Isn’t that very 1920s does mid 17th century?  The sleeves, the bows, the metal lace trim?  I wonder what the full view looks like?

It's so 17th century!

How charming!  How quaint!  I had no idea that the 17th century was such a big influence in the 1920s!

But wait…what’s this?

Huh. Same dress. Same actress. But why is she wearing a wig?

That’s Madge Bellamy all right.  And that’s definitely the same dress, just with a few tweaks.  But that is the wrong year.  And the wrong film.

Yep.  That is a publicity picture for an earlier Bellamy film: 1922’s Lorna Doone, which is set in the 17th century.

Man, I knew that White Zombie was filmed on the slimmest of budgets, and that movie studios re-use costumes all the time, but re-using a dress that the actress wore in a costume drama a decade earlier for a film set in modern times is pretty desperate!

I wonder how it happened?  Did Madge get to keep the dress, and did she bring it out when they needed something a bit out-of-time and romantic for the heroine to wear?  Or did the costumers go rummaging through the films costume shop looking for things that fit Madge and decide this was the only possibility?


  1. This is just one example in hundreds, granted an early example, but Hollywood has been raiding its own costume shops for, well, ever. She wouldn’t have owned the dress – the studio would have, and it would have been stored in the warehouse with thousands of other costumes, to be used for whichever films needed them. Here’s a great site dedicated to this practice:


    • I love picking costumes and noting all the films they have been in 🙂 This post actually started as a post about that, but it morphed!

      I have read a couple of autobiographies of silent film actresses where they mention either using their own garments as costumes, or keeping frocks after a film, so I wondered if there was any chance that was the case. It seems like it was something that happened in the transition from stage to film.

  2. I love this movie! Bela Lugosi in his heyday 🙂

    Lauren’s right–the studios had costume warehouses filled with costumes they used and reused–lots of recycling 🙂 People who really know their old movies can point out recycled costumes–I sure can’t, but I know that historic epics, especially, often reused costumes.

    For AWESOME early film does historical, have you seen Orphans of the Storm (1921)? Set during the French Revolution, the Art Deco-influenced artistocracy is completely pseudo-historical–but so fun and gorgeous! I believe the whole film is available for free viewing online…somewhere 🙂 Can’t recall where now.

  3. How funny! And she looks absolutely adorable in both movies. I love old horror movies, but I haven’t seen this one. I definitely must!

    • You can watch the whole thing for free on youtube. And yes, Madge Bellamy is totally adorable! I have a massive adorableness crush on her!

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