Oh You Pretty Things

Vintage Virtuoso Liz Goldwyn Documents Burlesque's Golden Years

Multitalented Hollywood scion Liz Goldwyn, whose grandfather Samuel built the foundations for what would later become Paramount and MGM studios, has held a fascination with vintage clothing and costumes since childhood: “I have been into the clothing as a form of character since I was very young,” she says. “Since my family is in the movie business, it is something I identified with, the costumes, how the clothes defined the personality.” That interest is borne out by Goldwyn’s HBO documentary Pretty Things (which pays tribute to the grand dames of burlesque’s golden era), and the film’s companion book of the same title, published by HarperCollins and available in paperback on December 21. NOWNESS caught up with Goldwyn at the Current Affair Pop-Up Vintage Marketplace she hosted in LA, to talk forthcoming projects, fashion tips and the inherent eccentricity of collectors.

Be honest. Are you in the habit of throwing an elbow at fairs in order to secure prime goods?

I don’t elbow people. I can look at a rack across the way while I’m shopping [in another spot]—spy something.

Do you have parasite shoppers lying in wait to see what you are buying?

I do. If it’s a designer or a dealer I will pretend I am looking at something that is the opposite of what I am trying to collect. There are only a few people I can go shopping with, who understand my mojo. My friend Dita Von Teese is funny to go shopping with, because she will never tell me something is too much. She will say, “You definitely need that piece”—this thing, dripping with sequins.

Is there something in particular you are always on the lookout for?

I usually get some 30s nightgown or incredible robe—that’s what I live in. I’m always looking for a great garter.

Where do you keep your extensive wardrobe? 

I have a climate-controlled storage space downtown, four rolling racks in my apartment and three closets.

What is it about collecting fashion that appeals to you personally?

I use clothes as an extension of my artwork, to create a character—or to give myself some sort of mask or armor to help me deflect. Collecting clothes is like collecting stories.

Is that why you were drawn to the ladies of burlesque, about whom you made the film and book Pretty Things

When I was at Sotheby’s, I was also getting my baccalaureate at [New York’s] School of Visual Arts in photography. I was simultaneously working on this self-portrait series and collecting burlesque costumes, so I started photographing myself in them and trying to imitate these old black-and-white images of these pin-up burlesque queens. I found right away that the clothes didn’t transform me—so the clothes were a way to get me deeper into the story of their lives. Like a Pandora’s box. I started contacting these women, seeking them out through these old garments. I spent ten years opening up this whole world.  

Where does enthusiasm or passion—like collecting or historical research—cross over into fetish?

I think anyone who is a collector is totally eccentric. It is an obsession that drives them for sure. And, yes, it’s fetishistic. 

What’s next on your list of projects?

Well the next long-term project is a historical novel, which I’ve been working on for eight years, set in the world of prostitution in Los Angeles, 1897. I am going to publish that first, and am developing it as a film property too. I’m on the final chapter. It pretty much always has to do with sex and history.


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