T.C.G. (Takin' Care of Glamour)
MARY WILSON: Q&A AT THE V&A
The Supremes’ first couture gowns were designed by a young black woman from Louisiana, LaVetta King, who met and impressed the group when they were appearing in one of California’s most prestigious cabaret sites.
“She brought the gowns over when we worked at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, on top of the mountain,” Mary Wilson told me in London last week. “At the time, we were buying our gowns at Saks Fifth Avenue and places like that. We had no idea what couture meant. We grew up in the projects, right? So they were our first couture gowns. LaVetta made those herself.”
No, this isn’t Women’s Wear Daily, but it is about the Supremes’ experiences with what they wore and how they wore it, rather than the music they made. Hey, a change is as good as a rest, right?
Mary Wilson was in the U.K. to promote Supreme Glamour, her new, coffee-table book with Mark Bego which illuminates how the Supremes looked during their remarkable run in the spotlight, with and without Diana Ross. On August 20, Mary took part in an intimate Q&A at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the same venue where costumes from her collection were the basis for a crowd-pulling “The Story of The Supremes” exhibit in 2008. Well, as intimate as the V&A’s Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre filled with 300 souls can be.
So back to that designer from N’Orleans who created those couture outfits, identified in the book as “LaVetta Delight” and worn by Diana, Mary and Cindy Birdsong in 1968-69. “The skirts are decorated with green broken lined bugle beads along the pleating,” declares Supreme Glamour. “The halter-neck bodice and coat lapels are beaded with various sizes of emeralds and silver lined seed beads. Rhinestone buttons fasten the coats.”
LaVetta’s story is almost as inspiring as that of the Supremes, coloured with some of the same prejudice the Motown trio encountered. “I came from New Orleans, where a Negro has no chance to move out of his ‘place,’ ” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1968. In San Francisco, LaVetta worked in a theatrical supply house and sewed at night until she had saved enough to open her own dress-making shop. To gain clients, she attended the opera and first nights in extravagant clothing. “I hired a limousine and rode up to the carriage entrance and I always sat in one of the best seats. I knew everyone would have to notice the only Negro there – and one whose clothes were magnificent. People began asking who I was. Soon I had plenty of customers.” Among them was singer Nancy Wilson, and later the Supremes, for whom she created five sets of gowns.
The group’s next designer was Michael Travis, responsible for the attractive “Multi-Colored Halter” outfits seen on television during 1967, and then all the costumes – but particularly “Green Swirls” – on display in the Supremes’ first TV special in 1968, T.C.B. (Takin’ Care of Business), with the Temptations. “A great designer,” said Mary, and a Detroit native, to boot. “I never really knew that until later on.”
‘EVERYTHING WAS SEQUINS’
For their second TV special, On Broadway in late ’69, another couturier came on the scene. “Bob Mackie designed all the gowns, not only for the Supremes but for the Temptations as well,” explained Mary. Among the outfits were “Peach Feathers” and “Black Butterfly.” The latter was accented with pearls and jewels. “They look like they’re heavy, but they’re not, they’re very light. And everything was sequins.” The designs by Mackie (known as the “Sultan of Sequins”) for On Broadway earned him an Emmy award, as well as the distinction of having the “Butterfly” chosen for the Supremes’ last performance with Diana Ross on January 14, 1970.
Two years later, a return engagement in San Francisco connected the reborn trio with designers Pat Campano and Richard Eckert. “In 1972, we were doing an all-male production of ‘Dames At Sea,’ at the Village,” Campano told the San Francisco Examiner. “The Supremes were performing at the Fairmont at the same time, and someone told them about my costume designs for our show. I received a call from them asking me to come to Los Angeles the following week and discuss designing for them.”
In Supreme Glamour, Mary notes that Campano was the designer and Eckert, his inspiration, was a drag queen. At the V&A, she elaborated, “They came down and said they could make us gowns. The funny part about it is that Pat made the gowns, but it was Richard who would dress me. He was the one who came up with all the fabulous creations…and he would tell Pat how to make them and what looked good on girls.”
Among those were “Crème de Menthe,” “Silhouette” and “Sunburst,” worn by Mary, Cindy and Scherrie Payne in the mid ’70s. Campano became well-acquainted with Wilson, personally driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas to deliver a wedding gown for her marriage there to Pedro Ferrer in 1974; later, he made a maternity version of “Crème de Menthe.”
The images in Supreme Glamour of the “Silhouette” costumes are recreations, however: the originals were destroyed in a fire in Mexico. And that raises the issue of decline, loss and theft which has afflicted Mary’s collection over the decades. “Some of them have really deteriorated quite a bit,” she explained in London. “Some of them were so very beautiful, but they were very fragile. I tour with approximately 50 to 60 gowns, but there are more than that. We still have hundreds of our earlier gowns that are missing.”
SOLD ON THE FAN UNDERGROUND
Stephen Woods, probably the world’s foremost authority on the Supremes’ costumes, would agree. “There were 168 sets from 1960-1977,” he advised me, “and the vast majority were stolen, and have been sold on the fan underground all over the world.” When Motown Records moved its Detroit HQ from West Grand Boulevard to downtown Woodward Avenue in 1968, the group’s gowns were systematically pilfered, according to Woods. And when I asked Mary at the V&A if that were true, she replied, “You said that, I didn’t say that.”
The singer confessed to buying some of the missing costumes on eBay, and said she encouraged others who have seen such outfits online to acquire them on her behalf – quickly. “I’m like, ‘Buy them! Buy them!’ I’ll pay you later.’ ”
As much as it’s a feast for the eyes, Supreme Glamour is also advantaged by an energetic, engaging account of the Supremes’ career as the most popular girl group in living memory. Co-author Mark Bego is a prolific writer with more than 60 books to his credit, including Martha Reeves’ autobiography, Dancing in the Street, and a New York Times best-seller about Michael Jackson.
Bego first met the Supremes’ co-founder more than 40 years ago, while working for trade magazine Record World. An opportunity to interview her when the group debuted a new act led to a discussion circa 1983 about her autobiography. In the event, Wilson worked with Patty Romanowski for that book (Dreamgirl) and its successor (Supreme Faith), but she and Bego stayed in touch – and it was to him she turned as Supreme Glamour began coming together.
Of necessity, the new book’s narrative – as opposed to the visuals – returns to familiar territory: the Supremes’ advance from those Detroit projects to the heights of stardom and showbusiness. But, to paraphrase Bego, it does so with less baggage. “The nice thing about this book,” he said, “is that yes, it is a retelling of the Supremes’ story, but in Mary’s two [previous] books, she went into great detail, which she needed to do, about the history of Motown, what Berry was like, what Mary’s brother and sister were like, what Diana’s family was like, what Florence’s music teacher was like. This was an opportunity to reprise just the story of the Supremes, not all the ancillary characters. What we’ve come up with is much tighter and much more understandable about what went right – and wrong – in the Supremes.”
Bego is in no doubt about Wilson’s role in Motown’s success. “Those three girls worked their butts off, and then Diana got all the glory – or the lion’s share of the glory. But it really was a group, it really was a trio of three talented women. You get that in this book. It really reminds everyone how significant they were, and how much they accomplished, even after Diana left the group. Mary really made sure the Supremes’ name was solidified in history.”
Book notes: Supreme Glamour is published by Thames & Hudson, and is available now in the U.K. and in the U.S. from September 17. Mary Wilson’s Dreamgirl and Supreme Faith combo is currently offered as a Kindle edition. Mark Bego’s many books are available, too, including 2017’s Eat Like A Rock Star, featuring an introduction by Mary Wilson and more than 100 recipes. Among them: Martha Reeves’ smoked turkey necks and lima beans.