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Costume designer Ann Roth built Viola Davis’ extraordinary Jazz Age wardrobe for her role as the real-life blues singer Ma Rainey in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” (She had Chadwick Boseman’s natty three-piece suit made, too.)
Yet Roth — who is nominated for a Best Costume Design Oscar for the film — had to clothe more than 100 extras and supporting players in authentic 1920s garb. So she did what so many costume designers do when they need period clothes: She turned to vintage collector Helen Uffner.
“I rented 155 dresses for that movie — and lots of men’s suits,” said Uffner, a 72-year-old fashion lover who has provided pieces for some 1,000 films, theater productions and other projects in the past 43 years.
Her enormous costume-rental warehouse, in Long Island City, boasts some 100,000 pieces spanning the 1860s to the 1980s, from gowns and workwear to shoes, hats and all matter of undergarments, including corsets, bustiers and bustles. One mannequin wears the sparkly emerald sheath donned by Beyoncé in “Cadillac Records”; another sports the flirty brown lace and chiffon number worn throughout “Ma Rainey’s” by Taylour Paige, who plays Ma’s much younger girlfriend, Dussie Mae.
“Helen was always the source where you found the special pieces that would likely become a character’s signature,” costume designer Susan Lyall told The Post, adding that she unearthed the black fringed jacket that Sacha Baron Cohen wears as Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial of The Chicago 7” at Uffner’s workshop. Lyall has also rented a number of Uffner’s 1950s dresses and sweater sets for the upcoming Lucille Ball biopic, “Being the Ricardos,” starring Nicole Kidman.
“She is a fountain of clothing knowledge,” Lyall added.
Yet Uffner — like so many costume and prop rental places in the city — is about to be pushed out of her space after just 2 1/2 years. She already had to transport her massive collection in 2018 due to a rent spike. Now, her landlord said she has to get out by September, so a developer can build LIC’s tallest residential high-rise.
“We need 6,500 usable square feet — where we can we go?” asked Uffner. “Where can creative businesses go now for affordable space to continue?”
“No one else in New York City has what she has, and to lose her would be to lose a resource which is irreplaceable,” said costume designer Tom Broecker, who often relies on Uffner for last-minute period pieces like a hoop skirt or tweed newsboy cap for “Saturday Night Live.”
He added: “She has spent her entire life collecting vintage clothing — clothing which no longer exists anywhere in the world except her showroom.”
Uffner began collecting vintage lingerie and jewelry when she was a kid.
“I would save up all my baby-sitting money and go to jewelry auctions when I was in junior high school,” said Uffner, who immigrated from Brussels to New York City with her family when she was 12. “I used to bid on Victorian baby rings, which nobody wanted, and if there was a little stone missing the auctioneer would put it in for me [for free].”
Uffner studied art at Queens College and continued buying antique clothes and lingerie even while working as a management consultant. In the late 1970s, she started letting her friends in theater borrow or buy her clothes for productions. Then one day a designer came in and bought every single last one of her pieces for Woody Allen’s 1983 mockumentary “Zelig.”
“I had one rack of clothes and I didn’t have anything left,” Uffner said. “That’s when I decided to start renting — at least I’d get the clothes back!”
Uffner first operated her space out of her Upper East Side apartment, having costume designers and actors go there for fittings. She began going to estate sales and flea markets, buying clothes in bulk. “There used to be a place in the East Village that was called Bogey’s. The owner would have big bundles of clothing, his wife would hold it up, and whoever said, ‘Want it,’ or ‘Got it,’ would get it thrown to them. I started amassing my collection there.”
One of her favorite acquisitions came from an estate sale in Brooklyn. “The woman was still there, but she was being put in a nursing home and she had these wonderful little 1950s sweater sets,” Uffner said. “She initially didn’t want to get rid of her clothes, but her family convinced her, and they sold them to me.” A week later, a costume designer came looking for clothes for the Russell Crowe film “A Beautiful Mind,” and took nearly all the woman’s sweaters. Right away, she called the family. “She was so happy — it gave her something to look forward to.” Costume designer Lyall recently rented the sweaters for the upcoming Lucille Ball biopic, too.
Uffner’s collection is organized by decade, and then hung by type of clothing, season and color, and every item has a tag with its measurements, so designers can quickly pull things that will fit their principal — though sometimes they do have to go back.
“We find that men kind of lie about their height, and women kind of lie about their waist and their hip size,” said Uffner with a chuckle. “That actually happened recently where [the talent] said they were much smaller than they were, so of course we pulled these items to fit their body, and of course they didn’t, so we had to pull all over again.”
After a shoot, the designers return everything back to Uffner — that is, unless they’re dressing Robert De Niro. “He has in his contract that he gets to keep anything that he wears,” Uffner said, adding that she’s done “half a dozen movies” with the actor. “I got a call, a couple of months ago, for another movie he was going to be in, asking for 1930s suits. I said, ‘Does this mean that if it fits him he’ll keep it?’ They said, ‘Probably.’ And I said, ‘I can’t!’ I can’t afford to lose my 1930s suits!” (A rep for the actor explained that he often donates his wardrobe to the Robert De Niro Collection in the Harry Ransom Center, a research museum at the University of Texas, Austin.)
Still, Uffer loves when the actors come for fittings.
“The actors enjoy being here, they like walking around.” After Winona Ryder came in for a fitting for 1994’s “Little Women,” the actress returned to buy some 1920s beaded dresses for herself. “She was shy but she posed a photo for us and was very excited — she said she was going to tell her friend Courtney Love about us.”
When Uffner started her rental business four decades ago, New York City had about a dozen large costume rental shops. Now, she’s the last one standing. And while costume designers can generally find vintage pieces from the 20th century, Uffner has items from the 1800s that are increasingly rare.
Recently Lisa Montalvo had to dress more than 150 actors in period clothes for the History Channel series “The Food That Built America,” which she worked on with her sister and fellow designer Celeste. Nearly every costume came from Uffner’s showroom.
“I would never have been able to [do it] without her rental house,” Montalvo told The Post.
“She’s also a great resource when I’m stumped by obscure historical practices,” she added. “She can give me the correct run down of which jacket would have been worn to which type of event in the Edwardian era, or the difference between a walking suit and a winter suit when dressing Victorian women.
“It would be a disaster for the entire costume industry … if her business were to close,” she continued. “It’s a treasure and should be preserved and subsidized.”
Although Uffner has spent 43 years in the business, she can’t bear the thought of parting with her precious clothes. “I often think of my showroom as my carefully curated private museum,” and seeing her clothes on-screen or stage allows her to share that museum with the world. “I still get excited, because it’s fun to see. You never get blasé.”
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