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A Tale of Two Dresses: Loretta Harper on Design

The 1950’s: a taffeta lined, cinch-waisted dream of elegance. Times were simpler, fashion was cleaner, and everyone looked fantastic all the time. Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley flooded the airwaves and women’s deepest fantasies with their smooth voices, their slicked back hair, their subdued sex appeal as the rhythm of the snare drum thumped in the background. It’s easy to paint a perfect portrait of times gone by; to rely on our imperfect memories to recall a golden era where folks were good, streets were safe, and the greatest threat to young women was Elvis and his gyrating hips. It’s in these gold lined streets, perhaps in the back of a long black Cadillac parked down on Music Row, where we would’ve found clothing designer Loretta Harper had she been a contemporary of the era. We no doubt would’ve found her lost in dreams of her next creation, the fabric of her perfectly tailored Dior Fit and Flare dress spilling over the leather upholstery, hands folded neatly in her petite lap. Luckily for us, and for several of the entertainment industry’s current greats, Loretta Harper was not a creation of the fifties, but is alive and well and creating unique and beautiful fashion pieces out of her Nashville workshop as we live and breathe. Make no mistake- she is clad in that classic Dior dress today, black combat boots adorning her feet to signal that she’s a little bit lady, a little bit rock-and-roll.

Loretta Harper sews a gown backstage at the ACM Awards.

Born and raised in Hendersonville, Tennessee, Loretta Harper, a pint sized, redheaded spitfire  grew up the child of a successful visual artist. Betty Harper, Loretta’s mother, was the daughter of a military man and in the wake of moving often, found a constant in her art from a young age. Though the subject matter of her art varies on inspiration, Harper’s first love is faces. Banking on that love, Betty Harper has become officially known as The Elvis Artist. Harper’s career as an artist provided an array of colorful characters in young Loretta’s life, including none other than Elvis Presley. The elder Harper’s career also meant Loretta Harper grew up with a unique sense of success and discipline- two things that have served her well in her own artistic path. “Being around art everyday, especially with someone who was so good at it, was challenging because you expect a lot more from yourself as an 8 year old child than you might if your parent weren’t an artist. For instance, you want to draw too and you don’t understand why yours looks nothing like theirs. You have to really learn that you aren’t that person; you’re a totally different person and that person had a lot of practice. You compare yourself when you’re young, and you say things to yourself like “Ok, I want to draw Michael Jackson like Betty draws Elvis”. Well that’s just not going to happen because you haven’t put your time in yet and that means your skill isn’t developed. It’s a challenge if you want to be an artist in an artist’s household because you have the expectation of yourself that you should start out extremely skilled. I wouldn’t have it any other way, though, because my mother was so artistic in everything that she did that it molded everything that I am. Everything in our home was done in an artistic manner and that really molded who I am in every sense of my being.”

Loretta Harper walks the red carpet with a model wearing one of Harper’s custom designs.

While her mother’s art certainly inspired Harper to explore her own abilities, she began forging her own artistic path from a remarkably young age. “I was around ten years old and it would be time to go school shopping for clothes. I grew up in Hendersonville, which was a very preppy atmosphere – think of khakis and polo shirts – and I just didn’t fit in. I was a rock and roll girl before it was cool to be a rock and roll girl. Being ‘rock and roll’ back then meant you were the freaks and the outcasts. I struggled when it came time to go school shopping because nothing was my style or my character and nothing fit my body because I was a dancer. I don’t think I could make that connection then, but I wanted something different from everything that was out there, so that’s when I started going to thrift stores.” Harper honed her design skills throughout her primary school years, tearing damaged garments apart and preserving pieces she’d found by Dior and other classic designers, using herself as a dress form to create her unique pieces. “I was a dancer from the time I was eight until I was nineteen, so my body was really different. I’m really short- I’m only five feet tall, my leg muscles were large and my waist was small. I couldn’t walk into a store and just put anything on. I started thrifting and buying vintage when no one wanted vintage from the 50’s. The 50’s became my favorite time period and I started soaking everything up. That, coupled with Elvis being around in my life nearly every day really made an impression on me. Elvis was so sharp, so clean and tidy and pulled together every time you saw him. I started blending eras and fell in love with time periods past, and not living in the world of the 1980’s valley girl.” Harper had a natural eye for quality pieces, picking up designer dresses when you could find them a dime a dozen if you went to the right store. “I made my own rock and roll look and I learned to appreciate these pieces of clothing for the art they are.”

Bird Cages, a Go-Go Club, and Razzle Dazzle Costumes

Given Harper’s passion for creating her own clothing, one would think ‘costume designer’ would be a natural choice as a career path. Just like her one-of-a-kind pieces, however, Harper was set on designing a life so uniquely Loretta that it could never be duplicated. “I never really thought clothing design was what I was going to do. I was going to go off, away from Tennessee, and I was going to be an entertainer. As soon as I graduated high school I did go on to complete a year at O’More College of Design, just because I love the history of costumes so much. After a year, though, I went to work in the theatre. The Ace of Clubs [a now defunct famous night-club in Nashville]  is how I left Nashville. I was a go-go dancer. I was hired at seventeen years old and I made all of the costumes for the dancers as well as performing there. That was my first job right out of high school, and I was able to combine my two loves: costuming and dancing. Right as I was turning eighteen they were opening a club out in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They asked me to be the dance and band manager in Santa Fe and help them open the new location. I went to be a dance manager and build costumes in this very sixties, whiskey-a-go-go style club. The dancing was freestyle and I had a $100 weekly allowance to thrift vintage girdles and different things I could cut apart and make new again. There was a lot of freedom in my life, and I loved it.”

Harper danced and sewed and danced some more at Club Luna in Santa Fe for one year, until she was twenty years old. That winter, Harper returned home to Tennessee for the holidays where a car accident left her with seven damaged vertebrae in her spine. While Harper made a full recovery from the tragic accident with her family, her injuries ended her professional dance career. It was then that she transitioned fully behind the scenes and accepted a job with Razzle Dazzle Costumes in Oak Park, Illinois, often making costumes for the Chicago Ballet. At the ripe old age of twenty, Harper picked herself up and moved herself across the country for the second time in her life. From there, Harper finished her education in Fashion Design and embarked on a new phase in her career: movies, music videos, and designing for the stars.

Cold Packs, Reba McEntire, and the Kennedy Center Honors

Custom gown for Cam’s “Burning House” by Loretta Harper

Loretta Harper has been busy since her days at The Ace of Clubs and Razzle Dazzle costumes, working in costume houses across the country to perfect her craft. Now with her own studio in Nashville, Tennessee, Harper has costumed twenty-nine feature films, thirteen television productions, five tours, seventeen music videos, and countless commercial productions. Harper’s client list includes The Ryman Auditorium, Jack White, Kelly Clarkson, Jerrod Neimann, Steven Tyler, Reba McEntire, ZZ Top, and Clay Walker. Throughout each project her focus and sources of inspiration have never changed. When working with new clients, Harper remarked “I draw my inspiration from whoever the person is that I’m working with. I get asked in interviews time and time again “what are you thinking of when you’re shopping or designing for Reba?” I’m thinking of Reba and only Reba. I am designing just for Reba; we’re trying to do something so she stands out and she is the original setting the standards. We sit down, we talk about the event. Are we talking about the ACM’s? If we are and we’re hosting, that tells us we have more than one costume change and we have to look at the evening as a whole. Which gowns are going to complement each other? Which gown is going to come after the last?”

Harper gives the same impeccable attention to each garment she creates; she can take anyone’s dream and turn it into a living creation. One particularly impressive example of her eye for detail and her ability to take a client’s wishes and bring them to life is the gown she recently designed for Reba McEntire to wear when she received her Kennedy Center Honors. “Sitting down with each individual client is extremely important. That’s when I learn there are particular colors and silhouettes they like, and what makes them feel the best. I always have my sketch pad with me – clothing design is so much more than just picking up your phone and scrolling through photos. I never, ever say “oh let me just google something and show you”. If I’m sketching I can show them particulars, like a certain sleeve. If they don’t like it then I know there’s no reason for me to send them fifty photos of a bell sleeve. I believe in designing from the ground up. A good example of designing from the ground up is Reba’s Kennedy Center Honors gown. When she mentioned she was receiving one we sat down and we talked about it. We agreed that we wanted her wardrobe to honor her award and that the neckline of her gown should complement the medallion.”

Loretta Harper works beside makeup and hair stylist Brett Freedman on location with Reba McEntire.

Determined to honor the Kennedy Center, Harper and McEntire worked together to ensure her gown would revolve around her medal, not the other way around. “We thought about seeing people in the balcony and how the medal often has a piece of ribbon sticking up, or it’s caught in clothes. We knew from the start we needed a smooth neck line. We designed the gown with a silhouette to match the medal so that it would lie flat against Reba’s front. We wanted to honor the medallion and the people giving her the honor in return for their generosity. We wanted the medal to look as though it was a piece of her gown.” This is where I must pause to say I was blown away by Harper’s keen eye for detail and innovative ideas in costuming. Throughout our conversation she provided so many tips and tricks for making clothing work under stage lights, on movie sets, and in real life. While personality and confidence for her clients are always taken into careful consideration, Harper also designs for personal comfort and resilience for the event a garment is designated for.

“I always take the environment into consideration. It is my number one job to keep my client comfortable at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a singer on tour or an individual coming to me for a gala gown – if you’re not comfortable in your clothes, you’re not going to be yourself. If you’re talent trying to execute a song or recite your lines for a film, you can’t do it well if you’re not comfortable. In order for my clients to focus on their job, I’ve got to focus on comfort and I have to think it all out in advance. I won’t work with polyester because, though it travels it easily, I know my clients are going to be too hot under lights for hours. If I’ve got a singer who can’t breathe because she’s too hot, how is she going to go out and deliver a two-hour show? Giving someone heat stroke so they pass out on stage means I have not done my job. Sometimes, specifically to relieve this, I’ll build in small pockets to clothing so we can put cool packs to keep my client’s temperature regulated. My primary job is to keep my clients comfortable – not in a spoiled way- but in a realistic way so that the only thing on their mind is doing their job to the best of their ability.”

Artistic Expression, Ryman Auditorium, and life with Lula Naff

Custom designed shirt by Loretta Harper

When Harper has the opportunity she goes to great lengths to ensure period accuracy and superior beauty in the characters she costumes. One project Harper costumed, which is quite close to our hearts here at Lula 1892, is “The Soul of Nashville”, a short documentary piece for the Ryman Auditorium with BRC imagination arts. As part of the project, Harper was set to costume Lula C. Naff as the narrator of Ryman’s history. As our namesake, of course I had to ask Harper the process behind the film. Harper has her own storied history with the Ryman, so working on the documentary for the fully renovated concert hall was a special privilege for the designer. “I got the Ryman project just like I would any other commercial project. Someone got my name from someone else and they put it on the table and asked if I was available. Of course, working with the Ryman was something I wanted to do. When I was seventeen years old the Ryman Auditorium was going to be torn down. The Ryman was such a part of my own family history, I went around the town with petitions to save it. My parents were in the music industry. My mother drew Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, all of them. My Dad was a photographer for Conway Twitty, Johnny Cash; I grew up going to the Ryman while they worked. At the time the Ryman was really run down. Bums were living in the building and ripping up the benches for firewood. Even though I was a rock and roller, I knew what the Ryman meant to my town. It has the best acoustic sound in the world- but of course you’d only know that at the time if you were a resident or were a famous singer. I had to save the Ryman and I was willing to do anything to do that. And we did save it.”

“When the Ryman called me to tell the story of Lula in the Ryman, it was such a great honor. I got the script and went straight to my own vintage collection. I went right out to my vintage stock to the turn of the century and pulled from the 1890’s pieces I’d collected. I could move most of the costumes the same day they hired me, and they were shocked. The only thing I had to do was go out to Sheryl Crow’s house and pick out her clothes. Sheryl was a dream and it was a fantastic day,” Harper commented on the beginning of the project. “Costuming Lula was very specific for me. I had a look that I preferred for a woman in charge at the Ryman. She needed to be dressed down for running the building, but she still needed to be dressed as a host. The shows were always an evening event, so I wanted Lula dressed appropriately for the time. I wanted her dressed in a dark color for night – a gown that she would wear to stand at the front door and greet her guests – which Lula did. I fought that battle for a few days, but lost. Anyone who has seen the film knows that Lula is dressed completely down in day clothes, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. When you’re working in film, everything from the script to the costumes are a collaborative effort. I still had so much fun on that project and with her costumes. I even found vintage hose to put on Lula- she’s wearing authentic hose from the turn of the century, which is the kind of detail I like to put into everything I do. She needed to have the wrinkles around her ankles like they would’ve back then. For me, that kind of accuracy is important.”

Loretta Harper on location with Steven Tyler

Whether she is designing fringe-lined gowns for Reba McEntire, wardrobing historic figures for film, or designing the perfect pair of distressed leather pants for Steven Tyler or suit for Jack White out on tour, Loretta Harper executes every aspect of her job with great professionalism and impeccable attention to each individual client. Harper chalks it up to extensive hands on experience, reminding young people to put the time in and soak up every tip and trick they can before jumping into a key costuming position. “My first thought on the business is that nobody deserves to be taken advantage of, which can happen a lot in the entertainment industry. There is no reason for you to be taken advantage of, and there’s no reason to mistreat anyone else. My second thought is pay your dues. You’re not going to get a job and instantly be the key costumer after being a PA one time. If you haven’t learned how to deal with hands on situations, don’t think you’re ready to climb the ladder. For instance, I once had a very famous musician split his pants on stage. If I hadn’t been in a million positions of accidents as an assistant I wouldn’t have been prepared to deal with that. He continued to play his guitar, backed himself against the curtain, and I sewed him back into his pants as he played. If you don’t know to have a flashlight and a headlamp and a pre-threaded needle ready to go, you’re not ready to be on your own as a stylist, costumer, or designer.”

I think it’s safe to say sewing a man back into his pants with a headlamp and a prayer in the middle of a rock show is the most punk rock thing Harper could do as a designer. Equal parts talent, well-practiced skill, and dedication, Harper will go down as a designer to remember in the entertainment industry. To top it all off, she’s kind and open-minded. Perhaps it’s the nature of her business; the fact that she takes people’s deepest truths and greatest physical insecurities and tucks and pins and sews these things into one of a kind fashion pieces that flatter not only body types but spirits that makes her both so powerful and so approachable. I’m convinced Loretta Harper has never met a stranger; from the moment she says hello she is open, kind, and articulate. She uses her ability to put people at ease to her advantage; if she can help a client open up, she can help a client look like the best version of themselves. Born out of her own desire to express herself in an environment where she didn’t fit in, Harper has created a whole world out of helping other people look and feel good. That world does in fact consist of gold-lined streets, Cadillacs, beautiful gowns, and combat boots. And for Loretta Harper and her clients, that world makes perfect sense.

You can follow Loretta Harper on Facebook and Instagram to keep up to date with her latest projects, and visit her website to work with her or view her library of vintage pieces for sale from her personal collection.

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