Van Smith

[ Age 61 ] Costume maker created a signature "trash" style for movies directed by John Waters.

December 07, 2006|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,sun reporter

Van Smith, a movie costumer who created "trash aesthetics" for friend John Waters' films and devised the hair and makeup for the late drag-queen icon Divine, died of a heart attack Tuesday at his family's home in Marianna, Fla. The former Baltimore resident was 61.

"He thought up Divine's look, that signature fish-tail red gown, and he was a huge part of what my films look like," Mr. Waters said yesterday from Los Angeles. "Van understood the sense of humor about fashion. He did deconstruction in clothing before anyone else was on to it. He helped invent trash aesthetics."

Born Walter Avant Smith Jr. in Marianna, the son of a judge, he drew and painted as a teenager and came to Baltimore as a student in the 1960s. He earned an undergraduate fashion arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1968. He also worked in ceramics and often used bright ceramic shards in making lamps and vases.

"He was a traditional artist at first," said his sister, Cynthia "Al" Van Voris of Tampa, Fla. "And then he began branching out."

In the early 1970s, while Mr. Smith was living in the Marlborough Apartments on Eutaw Place, he met Mr. Waters. They soon began a collaboration that resulted in the 1972 underground movie, Pink Flamingos, with Mr. Smith devising a look for its star, Divine - Harris Glenn Milstead of Towson.

Mr. Smith went on to costume Female Trouble and Desperate Living, which with Pink Flamingos became known as the "Trash Trilogy." The two were close collaborators for more than three decades, with Mr. Smith creating the costumes for nearly all of Mr. Waters' motion pictures.

"He totally understands the look of `inner rot' that I demand and could come up the perfect look for each character without my ever having to say a word," Mr. Waters wrote in his 1981 book, Shock Value. "He mentally plans how to bring out their worst features."

Mr. Smith dressed conventionally - and fancied a camel-colored scarf around his neck.

"Personally, he was a traditional dresser - jeans for work - and he looked glorious in a tux," his sister said.

But for the Waters films, Mr. Smith emphasized the unconventional.

"I like to start with a freshly scrubbed face," Mr. Smith said, as quoted in Shock Value. "First I apply pimples made out of eyelash glue, and if they have any natural glow, I throw dirt on their face as a good base. Then I draw on blackheads, pencil on any age lines, shadow severe bags under their eyes, and crack their entire complexion by letting egg white dry on their skin."

Mr. Smith said that before his actors would appear in a close-up shot, he advised them "to eat a bag of potato chips so they'll have plaque." He searched trash bins outside Baltimore's Salvation Army second-hand stores for some of the costumes he used in the early Waters movies.

"Divine's look was totally Van's creation," Mr. Waters said yesterday, recalling that "he used portions of the film budget to buy an endless supply" of disposable razors to shave Divine's body.

He said that Mr. Smith "knew every thrift shop in Baltimore" as a source of costumes and that he swore by cheap cosmetics. Mr. Smith favored Maybelline Black Velvet eyeliner.

Mr. Waters said that his collaborator experimented with all sorts of fake breasts - including socks, rags, foam rubber and a bra filled with lentils. "Van thought the lentils were the best because they moved with Divine."

Mr. Smith also spent time in New York City, doing fashion illustration for Women's Wear Daily and sketching women's dressmaking patterns for Butterick publications.

About 20 years ago, he opened an antiques shop of classics of 20th-century design in the 1800 block of Maryland Ave. He lived above the store for many years.

"He had fun working with people on his movies, but that work never went to his head," said Richard Horne, a founder of the American Dime Museum and a friend. "He was a humble sort of guy."

Friends recalled that his shop was always colorfully painted and well-appointed.

"His shop was a work of art in itself," Mr. Horne said. "Besides knowing antiques and having a great eye for wonderful objects that other people might overlook, he was a talented artist. He created such nice, neat things out of nothing."

Friends said he had a dog named Nigel and often rescued abandoned cats. They said he was not mechanically inclined and never understood how to keep his yellow van operating.

Services will be held at 2 p.m. tomorrow at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Marianna, where he was a communicant. Plans for a memorial service in Baltimore were incomplete.

In addition to his sister, survivors include his mother, Eloise Smith, and a brother, William Edward Smith, both of Marianna; and two nieces and a nephew.

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