By Alexandra Lippin | February 16, 2021
Archaeological records show that the history of beadwork goes back at least 5,000 years. Beads and embellishments were perhaps mankind’s first indulgent luxury, fashioned from seashells, stones, nuts, seeds and carved wood.
Throughout the Middle Ages, beads were used to embellish embroidery work. In Renaissance and Elizabethan England, clothing, purses, fancy boxes, and small pictures were adorned with beads. Since the first bead was strung, almost every culture has employed prized embroidery and beadwork. Even Alexander the Great commissioned a gorgeous Eastern robe when he conquered Persia in 331 BC.
For many of these ancients, embroidery was a royal art, a token of status for kings, sultans, and emperors, for whom designs were created out of precious gold and silver threads drawn through luxurious fabrics. Oftentimes, the embroidery was further embellished with bright beads, peacock feathers, luminous pearls and gemstones.
The art of hand-beading is derived from skills and techniques that require precision, patience, and consistency. Many factors must be taken into account when designing and executing a beaded project on fabric. One of the key factors is weight. Beading fabric affects the drape of the fabric and may exaggerate any stretch the fabric might have. The weight of beads may also distort the weave of the fabric or tear the fabric if too great. When working with woven fabrics, areas that hang on the bias will stretch more than adjacent areas, while knits stretch much more in the horizontal direction than in the vertical direction. Garments are almost always beaded before the pieces are cut from the fabric; however, smaller areas, such as fringes and trims, are often applied after the garment is completed.
This month we are featuring Paule A. Drissi, master embroiderer and beading designer, and iconic Costume Designer Bob Mackie to find out more about the art and skill of beading—as well as highlight some of the most famous hand-beaded pieces ever featured on stage and screen.
Born in Northern France in 1932, master embroiderer and beading designer Paule Drissi has always had a passion for working with her hands. While in junior high school, Drissi began taking home economics classes where she learned table setting, flower arrangement and how to cook, but what interested her most was the sewing, embroidery and embellishment. In a short time, Drissi had mastered the skills and her teacher suggested that she attend a special school.
In 1944, at the age of 14, Drissi entered the famous Maison Lesage in France.
The history of Maison Lesage dates back to 1924 (during the Roaring Twenties) when Albert and Marie-Louise Lesage purchased the embroidery workshop of Michonet, supplier to Napoleon III and Worth (couturier to the Empress Eugénie), the haute couture house of Paquin and the illustrious couturier Madeleine Vionnet. In 1931, they moved to the Rue de la Grange-Batelière, where the workshops of Lesage remain to this day. When Albert Lesage passed away in 1949 his 18-year-old son François took control of the business. He became well known for his embroidery work and collaborated with many of the high fashion houses in Paris, including Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel, Givenchy, Christian Lacroix, Balenciaga and Dior, as well as fashion designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Vionnet. Until his death in 2011, and along with his right-hand woman, Murielle Grzesczyk, François was immersed in every aspect of the business, including the three workshops: one that invents samples and complex creations, and the other two that fulfill haute couture and ready-to-wear orders. François Lesage sold the Maison Lesage to Chanel in 2002 in an attempt to ensure their continued survival in a changing fashion industry. In November 2011, just one week before his death at the age of 82, Lesage was awarded the Maître d’Art from the French Ministry of Culture. At the time, Minister of Culture Frédéric Mitterrand said, “I cannot imagine fashion without embroidery, embroidery without Monsieur Lesage.”
It was at Maison Lesage that Drissi first learned the art of beading. She was at first timid, deciding that perhaps she would stick to the embroidery because beading proved to be more difficult. After much practice and self-discipline, Drissi realized that she could use the same hook (that she used for embroidery) along with a tiny needle when beading with fine fabrics such as silk. With fabrics such as chenille, leather and velvet, the size of the needle varies. Drissi would secure the fabric using four pieces of wood, nails, and clamps to ensure that it was pulled taut, like a drum. With an olive-wood hook and a spool of thread, Drissi works from the underside explaining that, “you don’t see what you do, you feel what you do.” Patience, a strong back and sharp eyesight are all vital traits. Sketches produce the copies of each sample or design for transfer on to tracing paper.
The outline of the design is pricked out and transferred to the fabric using a white powder called marl, a 50/50-mixture of calcium carbonate and clay. Once the pattern is transferred, she begins production, individually threading and securing each bead along the lines. Unlike many beading designers today, Drissi has always worked by herself, insisting that when multiple people work on one garment, “it will never be exactly the same.” In addition to her vast knowledge of beading and embroidery, Drissi is also well-versed in the art of millinery (hat making), draping and clothing and accessories restoration.
When she was in her early 20s, Drissi, her husband and their two little boys came as immigrants to the United States. They stayed for a short time in New York, then Omaha, where Drissi sold lingerie in a small boutique, before finally settling in in California where the weather was warmer.
Dressed in a dark suit with nothing but a letter of recommendation in hand, Drissi went to the J.W. Robinson’s store in downtown Los Angeles and applied for a job. She was first placed in the Fashion Fabric department where she selected fabric and patterns for the sewers but was soon moved upstairs to Ready to Wear. Her skill set was quickly discovered when she offered to fix a dress by designer Helen Rose, who was coming out of retirement. Rose realized Drissi’s talents and suggested that she go to Paris Embroidery (in downtown L.A.) and speak with a French woman by the name of Andres Reilly. Reilly immediately put her to work designing sample beaded appliqués and designs for which Drissi was paid $1.35 per hour. They would present the samples to designers and before they knew it, they were receiving orders for the designers’ upcoming collections.
When leaving work one day, Drissi was stopped by iconic American Costume Designer Irene Sharaff. Sharaff, who had seen Drissi’s incredible work, insisted that she get into her car (which was being driven by a chauffeur). She took Drissi to the wardrobe department at MGM Studios and insisted that they give her a job. Two days later she was told that they could not have her work at the studio but that they would like her to continue her work from home. At the time, Drissi did not understand what she had done wrong. While walking through the parking lot, Irene Sharaff stopped her and asked why she was leaving. She realized immediately that Drissi was not in the Union, so Sharaff took her to the Union office on La Brea to get her papers. Drissi was the first person to receive the title “Head Beader” as at the time there no classification for her area of expertise.
Through word of mouth and referrals, Drissi became incredibly sought after for her workmanship and beautiful hand embroidery and beading. Wherever she was needed, she went—contributing her amazing talents to some of the most iconic clothing and accessories in the world.
For over seven years, Drissi also worked for acclaimed American fashion designer James Galanos. Many of his pieces featured gorgeous beadwork and embroidery, all done by hand by his staff of talented craftsmen, one of whom was Paule Drissi. In the 1980s, First Lady Nancy Reagan declared Galanos to be her favorite designer. One of the pieces of which Drissi is most proud is the stunning hand-beaded and embroidered Galanos gown that Mrs. Reagan wore to the first state dinner at the White House. At the time, the dress was over 14 years old, a testament to the timelessness and durability of the workmanship and design.
Throughout her career, Paule Drissi has worked for many renowned Costume Designers such as Edith Head, Theoni V. Aldredge, Theodora Van Runkle, Irene Sharaff, Joe I. Tomkins, Wayne A. Finkelman, Ret Turner, Bob Mackie and more. She worked with Hollywood Costume Designer Jean Louis on Marlene Dietrich’s “One Woman Show” and with Paco Macliss on many of the gowns worn by actress, singer, and dancer Debbie Reynolds, (including many pieces seen in the film “How the West Was Won”). In 1980, Drissi worked with renowned Costume Designer, Jean-Pierre Dorléac to create the hats and elaborate beading for the film “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer and Teresa Wright. Two years later she and Dorléac would collaborate on the fabulous creations for the television movie, “Mae West.”
Drissi’s work has been seen on popular television shows, on stage, and in films such as “Hello Dolly,” “New York, New York,” “Funny Girl,” “Cleopatra,” “How the West Was Won,” “Cabaret,” and “All that Jazz.” Drissi worked with Deborah Lynn Scott on many of the gowns that were featured in the 1997 film “Titanic,” including the red and black beaded dress (with pale blue accents) worn by Kate Winslet. She replicated the dress in all white using crystal beads for the vision scene at the end of the movie.
Embroidery and beading remains an invaluable art, and the very thread of history. As Drissi describes, “it is the people that do the art that are lost, not the art. The art is not lost.”
As a young boy, born and raised in Southern California, Bob Mackie submerged himself in Hollywood glamour, closely watching and studying films. He went to design school for a short period of time and then left to begin assisting many top designers, including Edith Head and Jean Louis. By the mid 1960s, Mackie had built a reputation and began designing costumes for many of the top television variety specials, featuring stars such as Fred Astaire, Mitzi Gaynor, Dinah Shore and Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Mackie’s use of beading and embellishment is legendary. After sketching out his designs and fitting the pattern, Mackie would then draw directly on the figure to ensure that the placement was exact. He worked with D. Getson Eastern Embroidery in downtown Los Angeles and trusted them with many of his more elaborate designs. “Getsons,” as he calls it, “contained hundreds of thousands of adornments, beads of all shapes, sizes and colors, jewels, sequins and motifs. It had to be exact and they almost always got it right,” says Mackie.
In 1967, after seeing Mitzi Gaynor’s costumes in her Las Vegas show, producer Joe Hamilton hired Mackie to design all of the costumes for the “Carol Burnett Show.” Mackie worked with Burnett throughout the show’s 11 year run, creating costumes for the show’s bold and flamboyant characters and sketches, including Burnett’s hilarious character “Nora Desmond” (her parody of Gloria Swanson’s character Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”). The costume not only featured elaborate crystal and pearl beading around the neck and chest, but also a feathered headdress and beaded appliqué.
After a guest appearance on the Burnett Show, Cher (who was only 20 years old at the time) was introduced to Mackie and immediately asked him to create her costumes for “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.” Between Cher’s bold presence and Mackie’s outrageous designs, which featured feathers, beading, wild adornments and theatricality, Cher and her costumes became incredibly popular, with people tuning in just to see what she would wear next. Their successful collaboration spanned decades with projects such as “The Sonny and Cher Show,” and her various television, concert, and public appearances, including her much talked about Academy Award outfits.
When asked about them, Mackie says with a laugh, “Let’s be honest, she wasn’t wearing it because she was afraid to be noticed.”
In 1975, Cher was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine wearing a beaded and feathered nude gown designed by Mackie. The cover, which was shot by famed photographer Richard Avedon, has become one of the most iconic images to ever appear on the cover of TIME.
In addition to designing for television, for which he received 9 Emmy Awards and 31 nominations for his work, Mackie’s career spans film and stage as well. He has received Oscar nominations for “Lady Sings the Blues” (Diana Ross), “Funny Lady” (Barbra Streisand) and “Pennies from Heaven” (Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters). He also is famous for designing stage costumes for performers such as Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Carol Channing, Elton John, Dinah Shore, Ann-Margret, Mitzi Gaynor and Lucille Ball.
“I always took into consideration weight, movement and durability when I put together costumes for performers and musicians. Can you imagine a beaded dress falling apart on stage? That’s why I went to the best and was very specific about what I wanted and how I wanted it done,” says Mackie.
When asked if he thought it would go out of style, Mackie says, “Everything has its moment. For me, it will always be wearable art.”