Rhinestones & Feathers
Karan Feder, eyes gleaming behind large glasses, reaches for a box filled with vintage glass beads once used in Les Folies Bergère, one of Las Vegas’ first large cabaret shows. Chunky strands of rhinestones, sparkling as they would have on an elegant showgirl, were now cut into random pieces.
Feder, the Nevada State Museum’s guest curator of costumes & textiles, explains that from the start of the show in 1959, through 1974, the costumes and sets were made in Paris then shipped to Las Vegas. To avoid the import tax, the Tropicana, where the show resided for nearly 50 years, elected to destroy the stage sets and costumes with alarming regularity. Feder, holding up her shining treasure, says these valuable rhinestones were saved while others were given new life over the years, re-incorporated into another of the many dazzling pieces worn by the performers.
“This choice [to destroy] served them well in the short term as the hotel imported a new edition of the Folies Bergère approximately every two years,” says Feder. “Of course, in the long term, the decision to destroy the visual imagery of the show created an unfortunate void in the city’s entertainment legacy.”
Today, the Nevada State Museum houses what is left from this long-running show in the exhibit Les Folies Bergère – Entertaining Las Vegas One Rhinestone at a Time. Through the years, Las Vegas’ Parisian cabaret show was a shimmering spectacle that captured the glamour and fantasy of top-class Las Vegas entertainment. Costing a quarter of a million dollars to originally stage and produce, the iconic production boasted a legacy that was considered artistic, chic, sophisticated, and irresistible by American audiences.
In the exhibit, the legacy of the production is interpreted via rarely seen photographs and video footage, narratives from cast and crew, and an array of costumes. But piecing it all together was no easy task.
“The Costume & Textile team spent six months organizing and inventorying the archive,” says Feder. Costumes and accessories from the 1960s through the closing of the show in 2009 arrived in boxes and bags containing approximately 8,000 pieces. From the elaborate costumes of topless and leggy showgirls, male and female dancers, acrobats, circus performers and vaudevillians, to headpieces, wigs and loose beads, the process of identifying, organizing, cataloging and recreating silhouettes has been a project of passion borne out of the desire to preserve a piece of Las Vegas history.
“Stage costumes are notoriously difficult to acquire yet are so important to telling the story of Las Vegas. My professional background is as a Hollywood costume designer and so I am especially eager to share these pieces with the community.”
Feder’s team has cobbled together the costumes and accessories on display with the help of archival photographs and video footage from the Las Vegas News Bureau. Collaboration also came from Nevada State Museum, UNLV Library Collections, and the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority.
Determining the origination of each piece is an arduous task, requiring diligence and a detailed eye. Feder says she is able to determine which pieces came from Paris, specifically the work of the designer at that time, Michel Gyarmathy.
“Mr. Gyarmathy had a style distinct from the later American costume designers (Nolan Miller and then Jerry Jackson),” explains Feder. “Gyarmathy’s work is designed for an intimate theatre setting where the audience is afforded the opportunity to appreciate the delicate nature of the design. The collection includes dozens of multi-color sequined appliques from the Parisian period. Each are small works of art that obviously were born from one hand.”
She is also able to determine the date of the costumes found in the collection based on a study of the applied embellishments, the fabrication of the piece, the sewing or manufacturing techniques used to build the costume and, at a last resort, the performer’s name noted on the interior of the costume.
Among Feder’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is the large headdress, which greets visitors upon arrival. The headdress was created for a scene with the royal court at the Palace of Versailles in the 18th century France, as a common theme in cabaret costume design involves references to historic fashion trends. This particular piece is an example of the extraordinary design of Nolan Miller. The headdress represents the 1770s fashion trend known as the “pouf,” which was a short-lived 18th century fad, but provides an enduring theme for the cabaret stage.
The Nevada State Museum’s Las Vegas’ Costume & Textile Collection as one of preeminent museum collections of cabaret costume in the world, and Feder says there are enough Folies Bergère pieces to create similar exhibitions elsewhere. Beyond the current pieces on exhibit are thousands more which are not available to the public. Racks of costumes from entire numbers, boxes of gloves and g-strings, moving walls made of cubicles holding delicate headpieces, and vertical metal racks on which hang elaborate feather headdresses.
“This exhibition is merely the first of many to come, designed to share the Folies Bergère archive with the world,” says Feder, emphasizing the huge impact the show has made on Las Vegas residents. “Many of these individuals [who worked on the show] served as Las Vegas’ mid-20th century pioneers. Our mission is to interpret the significance of the Folies Bergère and accurately interpret the significance of entertainment costume to the legacy of the City of Las Vegas.”