By JOAN KRON
The New York Times
Published: October 18, 1992
"MY God, what's happening to the world!"
Nolan Miller is quite serious.
"The magic!" he adds. "The glamour! The star quality! It doesn't exist anymore!"
Until glamour has its moment again, those who need a fix can head for the Museum of Television and Radio at 25 West 52d Street, where Nolan Miller style will be in reruns until the end of March. "Nolan Miller: Costume Designing for Television," which opened Thursday, is the museum's first exhibition dealing with design for television.
On display are 12 extroverted gowns worn on television by Mr. Miller's glamour galaxy -- Joan Collins, Linda Evans, Elizabeth Taylor, Diahann Carroll, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann-Margret -- and 75 costume sketches signed "Nolan Miller" but mostly done by Donna Peterson, his ghost illustrator. (Mr. Miller has his priorities. He believes it's more important to be present at every fitting than to do every sketch himself.)
With a museum show under his Hermes alligator belt, the 57-year-old designer, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., will perhaps now be less of a target for those fashion elitists in New York and Paris who love to belittle him.
"Nolan suffers in the same way television does," the museum's president, Dr. Robert M. Batscha, said. "It is still to be recognized how wonderfully significant his work has been. Nolan Miller brought a largeness of concept and the glamour we associate with film to television."
The show is organized in three sections: "The Early Years: 1959-1975" (including "The Addams Family," "Green Acres" and "Honey West"); "The Glamour Begins: 1976-79" (including "Charlie's Angels" and "The Love Boat") and " 'Dynasty' and Beyond: 1980 to the Present" (including "Dynasty," "Hotel," "The Colbys," "Poker Alice" and "Hollywood Wives").
Or in the spirit of Nolan Miller, one can think of the career of the 6-foot-5 designer, usually clad in Savile Row pin stripes, as a mini-series, with the plot turning on a chance meeting with the producer Aaron Spelling.
"Nolan and Aaron were made for each other," Dr. Batscha said. "Aaron gave Nolan the opportunity, and Nolan gave Aaron's shows ambiance."
Their relationship started in the mid-1950's. Hollywood was in the doldrums. Films were being made abroad. Studio wardrobe departments were shutting down. And only the most farsighted film types could see the potential of television.
Aaron Spelling was a writer from Texas who, to make ends meet, played drug addicts on "Dragnet." Nolan Miller, the grandson of a Comanche and the son of a Louisiana oil-field worker (who didn't appreciate his son's insistence on eating by candlelight), was fresh out of Chouinard Design School in Los Angeles. His portfolio of sketches was always under his arm. He wanted to be another Adrian, the designer who dressed Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer at M-G-M in the 1930's and 40's.
To support himself between occasional commissions for custom gowns, Mr. Miller worked in a flower shop where Miss Stanwyck shopped. He admits, with embarrassment, that she befriended him after he inundated her with gifts of gardenias, her favorite flower.
One day, Mr. Spelling came to the shop to buy flowers for a date. Miss Stanwyck was there. "I had just written a 'Zane Grey Theater' script for her first TV appearance," Mr. Spelling recalled. "She introduced me to Nolan. She said, 'He's a terrific designer. You've got to use him.' "
The two men became friends, and Mr. Spelling vowed that when he became a producer, he would hire Mr. Miller to design costumes. It was the beginning of a 33-year relationship that would include some of the most memorable television shows of their time, if not all Mr. Miller's favorites.
"They say the 60's are back," he said in an interview this month. "I hope not. I hated doing 'Mod Squad' and 'Starsky and Hutch.' Nobody got to dress up."
"Charlie's Angels," which ran from 1976 to 1981, was a little better. Mr. Miller dressed its three policewomen in a "very modern, professional-of-the-time look" that had a great deal of influence, said Dr. Batscha, perhaps becoming the first to suggest that Mr. Miller is a feminist.
The most radical thing Mr. Miller remembers about the show is: "We threw away their bras. It was the first show that allowed nipples to show through."
He nonetheless tried to put the Angels into evening gowns and furs at the slightest provocation.
"When Aaron called in 1980 to tell me about his proposed new show 'Dynasty,' " Mr. Miller recalled, "he said, 'At last I have a show that will make you happy.' 'Dynasty' was a designer's dream."
During the show's nine seasons (1981-89), Mr. Miller designed and custom-made, often in 48 hours, some 3,000 outfits that trod a fine line between parody and elegance. "Dynasty" became an adjective -- a synonym for shoulder pads, peplums, veils, gloves and over-the-top glamour -- as in "I want, or don't want, a Dynasty look."
Joan Collins, who played the ruthless Alexis Colby, could handle props better than anyone since Miss Crawford, Mr. Miller said. "She can take her gloves off, smoke her cigarette, bite an hors d'oeuvre, stir her martini and eat the olive all at the same time. I always put Joan in gloves on 'Dynasty.' "
Once he took his wife to Bergdorf's to buy her some gauntlet gloves. He said, "The saleswoman told me, 'These are Alexis gloves.' "
Mr. Miller's clothes enabled Mr. Spelling to lure more and more film stars into television. "We dangled Nolan," Mr. Spelling said. "Instead of offering more money, we said Nolan will do your clothes."
Many a career was rehabilitated in the process. "Hollywood is terrible as it relates to age," Dr. Batscha said, "but through Nolan's work on 'Love Boat' and 'Hotel,' " older stars got a break. "Aaron was exceptional in creating the budget for this."
In the 80's, when Mr. Miller was designing costumes for "Hotel," "The Love Boat," "The Colbys," "Dynasty," "Fantasy Island," "Hart to Hart," "Matt Houston" and several movies of the week all at once, he was spending nearly $2 million a year on costumes, Mr. Miller said. For Elizabeth Taylor's guest spot on "Hotel," the designer spent more than double his $15,000 budget for guest stars to dress her alone. The average costume budget for an episode of "Dynasty" was about $25,000, plus $100,000 at the beginning of each season for staples, including a dozen suits, 50 ties and 6 dozen shirts for John Forsythe, its male star. At the time, such budgets were unheard of.
But only the stars were given made-to-order clothes. Other actors on other shows might wear recycled garments from "Dynasty." A few years ago, Mr. Spelling's company decided there was gold in its costume warehouse and began renting the "Dynasty" clothes.
"My costumes are in residuals now," Mr. Miller said. "Aaron made $800,000 in rentals in the first year. At last he's recouping his expenses."
At the height of "Dynasty's" popularity, when 40 million to 60 million people were watching each episode, Nolan Miller was receiving almost as much mail as the stars -- up to 1,000 letters a week. By then, he was the highest paid costume designer in Hollywood, making, he said, in excess of $10,000 a week -- more than half a million dollars a year. For a bonus one year, Mr. and Mrs. Spelling surprised him with a 1965 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, the car of his dreams. The car is still purring along, unlike the television shows that paid for it.
For the first time in his career, Mr. Miller is not under contract to Mr. Spelling. The teen-ager shows that Mr. Spelling is producing -- "Beverly Hills 90210" and "Melrose Place" -- are not Mr. Miller's flute of Dom Perignon. "Have you seen the clothes?" he said with a groan. "It's not the kind of thing you need to design and make to order. Probably if I did '90210,' they'd all look like Sandra Dee."
TODAY, hardly anyone gets to dress up on television, except at Academy Awards ceremonies and on mini-series, which are what Mr. Miller now designs for. He also makes clothes to order for Miss Taylor, Sophia Loren and other stars, who pay $3,000 for a suit and $5,000 to $10,000 for an evening gown.
Mr. Miller has two ready-to-wear lines carrying his name, which have had their ups and downs. He recently tested a line of jewelry he designed with Mr. Spelling's wife, Candy. It is being sold on QVC, a television shopping channel; $350,000 worth was sold in 40 minutes on July 7.
Mr. Miller operates out of two adjacent one-story ateliers on Robertson Boulevard in Beverly Hills. In one building, he makes some of his ready-to-wear. In the main building, which is worthy of a scene in "Scruples," he runs his couture operation. Many of his 40 employees -- cutters, fitters, sewers, shoppers -- have been with him for 15 to 25 years.
Scattered around the bustling workroom are naked dressmaker dummies of his clients. Cotton batting pinned on in strategic places proclaims to one and all who has gained weight recently.
The heart of the couture operation is the spacious pink-silk-walled dressing room where private clients have their fittings among Louis-something settees. Anyone who is not sure she is in the right place can scan the tabletops, a sidewalk of stars, with silver-framed photos each endorsed adoringly to "Nolan dear" or "Nolan darling."
An autographed picture of Miss Taylor occupies a position of honor on Mr. Miller's desk, next to one of his wife, Sandra. Sandra Miller, who is 43, is the daughter one of her husband's earliest private clients, Matilda Stream, a New Orleans socialite. Mr. Miller did Sandra's sweet-16-party dress, her debutante gowns and her first wedding dress. "That marriage lasted 10 minutes," he said. "Ten years later, I married her. It sounds like a mini-series."
The couple live among fine French furniture in a Spanish-style house in Beverly Hills. Mrs. Miller is resigned to sharing her husband with the world's most glamorous women.
"They're all people I adore," she said, adding without specifics: "I've only been jealous twice in 15 years. When Nolan comes home from work and says he's been in every bedroom in town and he's exhausted, I find it hard to work up any sympathy."
Mr. Spelling said: "All the stars became his friend. Nolan is a great confidant for women. The stories he could tell -- but he would never do a kiss-and-tell book."
Mr. Miller said, "I was lucky to cut my teeth on glamorous women."
Bette Davis "knew exactly where her hem should be," he said. "Dietrich told me she would only wear taupe-colored shoes -- to match her hosiery and give the leg a long line.
"Stanwyck taught me to stop worrying about the shoes. 'If they're looking at the shoes,' she said, 'everything else is a mistake.' She thought the top of the dress was the most important, especially in TV where it's all close-ups. She called them 'tabletop dresses.' She wanted her gown simple: in a beautiful fabric with a four-inch hem." Forced to wear let-down hand-me-downs when she was young, "Stanwyck believed a tiny hem said 'poor,' " he explained.
Ginger Rogers, he said, "knows just how full her skirt should be for dancing." Jane Wyman, one of his most loyal clients, "refuses to wear anything in navy trimmed with white because that's what she wore when she was a chorus girl," he continued, adding, "Every night she had to wash and iron those organdy collars and cuffs."
Of Lana Turner, Mr. Miller said: "Lana can put you through your paces. She was raised at M-G-M. There was no such thing as reality there. It was all image. Lana could fit for three hours at a time, fine-tuning every detail, over and over.
"And I put up with it. My aim was to please. There's nothing worse than an actress unhappy in a dress. It destroys her confidence. I knew it was necessary to make them feel secure."
Joan Crawford, who, he said, would play with her jewels on her bed, had "horrible taste."
"She put plastic covers on furniture," he said, "but she knew all about lighting and photography. She taught me how to pack a dress after something I sent her arrived all crumpled up in the box." (She told him to stuff the dress with enough tissue to simulate a body.)
For every outfit in her closet, Miss Crawford had an index card with a photograph and swatches attached and a list of all the right accessories. "With Joan, everything had to match," he explained. "On the back of the card she'd write where she wore it and who was there. Before she went anywhere, she'd ask for the guest list so she could decide what to wear. When she'd get there, she'd say. 'Oh Mr. So-and-so. How nice to see you. I haven't seen you since that night in New York.'
"I can't imagine what she would have done if she'd had a computer."
Elizabeth Taylor was a big catch for Mr. Miller. "I used to have a joke at my workroom," he said. "When I went out to lunch, I'd say, 'If Elizabeth Taylor calls, tell her I'll be back in an hour.' Then one day she called."
That was in the mid-80's. Mr. Miller went on to design clothes for her Passion perfume tour and ads. Valentino, a friend of longer standing, designed her most recent wedding dress, but Mr. Miller did the rest of the family. He said he did not take it personally.
Perhaps that's because he knows the service he provides is irreplaceable. For example, Miss Taylor called him just two weeks ago. She needed several outfits for a trip to New York for the Elton John AIDS concert last weekend.
Sketches and swatches were taken back and forth on Tuesday by assistants. The clothes were cut and fitted on Wednesday on Miss Taylor's dummy. ("We make it and pray that it fits," the designer said.) On Thursday, Mr. Miller and a fitter went with the garments to Miss Taylor's house. The clothes were finished on Friday.
Can any French couturier compete with that?
No matter how many women he dresses in real life, Mr. Miller concedes he will always be remembered for the fantasy world of "Dynasty."
Richard Martin, the newly appointed director of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said, "The 'Dynasty' look so codified power that we won't see its likes again for a long time."
Or will we?
"In a depression," Mr. Spelling said, "people need fantasy, they don't need reality." He said he was developing "a glamour show in a beautiful setting -- a Nolan Miller show."
The Presidential election, the economy and the national mood certainly do not worry Mr. Miller. "Honey," he said, "the ladies I know aren't going to look down-home no matter who gets in the White House."
He tells of the forest-green sequined gown he made for the actress Susan Hayward, a close friend, to wear as a presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards. She was terminally ill and died less than a year later. She was buried in the gown, according to her wishes.
"When she got to heaven," he recalled her saying, "she wanted to look like a star."