“I am more proud than ever of our own Unites States. Our designers, especially those whose work is reflected on our screen, are months ahead of those of Paris, and London, and the Europeans very evidently realize it.”
- Clare West, after returning from a research/ fabric purchasing Paris trip for the film “The Ten Commandment”.
On January 30, 1879, in Clinton, Missouri, Clare West, born Clara Belle Smith, was introduced into the world. She was the sixth child of eight children of Abraham Chapman Smith, a Civil War solider, and Jane Smalley. The little girl was raised on a farm in Caldwell.
On August 24, 1898, West married salesman Otis Oscar Hunley. She was 19. In 1902, after settling in Billings, Montana and birthing one son, Maxwell Otis Hunley, the pair divorced. In 1903, West married for a second time to Marshall Elmer Carriere, a musician, in Tulare County, California. They had two sons, Leonard (1907) and Lester (1910). Shortly after relocating from their home in the Midwest to Los Angeles, the two divorced in 1912.
In 1914, West, who was selling her sketch designs to makers of fine clothing, made her acquaintance with director, DW Griffith. Her life would forever be changed. Though some film experts believe she worked on “A Birth of a Nation” (1915), creating the design of the Klu Klux Klan costumes, most sources say it was with the film “Intolerance” (1916), where it all began. West, along with French designer, Paul Iribe, spend two years designing costumes for all cast members, including extras.
In 1918, West was hired by Cecil B. DeMille to oversee the costume department for Famous Players Lasky, which would later become Paramount Pictures. He knew the importance of costuming to a film and he saw West’s talent to make the audience “gasp”. The pair would collaborate on at least ten films together, including “The Affair of Anatol” (1921), where West designed the famous “Octopus Gown”, worn by Bebe Daniels, “Adam’s Rib” (1923), where she created twenty-five fur costumes using no stitches and formed jewelry from real bones, claws, and feathers, and “The Ten Commandments” (1923), working feverishly to create over three thousand costumes for the film’s production.
In the midst of her busy and thriving career, West would marry for a third time to Paul P. Perry, a cinematographer. After two years, they were divorced. She never married again. Unfortunately, three years later, West’s film career in Hollywood would come to an end. Her final film with Mr. DeMille would be “The Road to Yesterday” (1925).
Following her time with the director/showman, West became the dress designer for Norma and Constance Talmadge, who she previously worked with on “Intolerance” and for a brief time, she operated her own clothing salon in Los Angeles. By 1930, she was designing for a chain of upscale department stores in Southern California.
On March 13, 1961, Clare West died of a heart attack at the age of 82. She was living in a mobile home community in Ontario, California.
The feature that I’ve chosen to showcase Clare West’s flair for fashion is “Why Change Your Wife?” (1920) - a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille. Though West’s name isn’t listed in the film’s credits, her presence is very much seen throughout the film with long, flowing gowns and beaded headdresses. With the assistance of Mitchell Leisen, who created the swimsuit for the hotel pool outing scene, West transforms Gloria Swanson from a homely housewife to a 1920s style icon. While watching this film, you come to realize why West was the first costume designer to achieve celebrity status.
So, if you’re ready for a well-orchestrated cat fight and a grand fashion affair, fill up your favorite mug, find a comfortable spot on the sofa, and kick up your feet. “Why Change Your Wife?” can be viewed on YouTube for free.