Creating The David Lynch Look -- Costumer Patricia Norris Strives For Authenticity

LOS ANGELES - Talk about a walk-in closet - this one covers 2,000 square feet and holds more than 1,000 pairs of women's shoes, century-old evening gowns, armadillo purses and more, all cataloged on a computer.

A dozen vintage beaded dresses rest horizontally in glass cases, like Lenin in state, to keep gravity from pulling the beads off the delicate chiffon. Shelves full of lady's hats wait for heads, arranged according to era; black bonnets - funeral wear, perhaps? - dominate the 1850-'80s rack. A hangerful of stone-marten fur pieces, circa 1930, stare into space.

Nearby sits a cloth commodity more valuable still.

``Underwear,'' says Patricia Norris, pawing through a rack of 19th-century petticoats and bloomers so quaint it's hard to imagine them ever having been unmentionable.

``Tons of underwear,'' says Norris, surveying the frilly things, and five more like racks. ``It's a good thing to collect. It's hard to find when you need it.''

Norris is a costume and production designer, responsible for dressing several of the more stunningly beautiful movies of the past 10 years - ``Days of Heaven,'' ``The Elephant Man,'' ``Victor/Victoria.'' Her work with director David Lynch on ``Elephant Man'' led to collaborations on other Lynch projects: ``Blue Velvet,'' ``Wild at Heart,'' and last season's two-hour ``Twin Peaks'' pilot, for which Norris won an Emmy for best costume design for a series.

This ``closet'' is actually Norris' workplace, a costume shop near Universal Studios called Private Collection. Norris - who divides her time between L.A. and Lopez Island - started it in March 1988, after amassing a huge supply of old clothes that outgrew her own closet space.

``It was getting silly,'' says Norris, sitting on a wicker love seat in her shop's fitting area. ``I had to go into business or stop doing it. Or you wind up one of those little old ladies with a big ball of string.''

Norris got her start in the movie business in 1965 as a stock girl sorting and hanging clothes in the costume department at MGM. She had studied archaeology and paleontology at Stanford, but digging up dinosaur bones wasn't going to help a single mother feed and clothe five children. Her grandparents have ties to Seattle and Alaska, then relocated to California in the '20s or '30s. Her father started

Paramount's B-pictures unit, which quickly and inexpensively churned out movies with such titles as ``Wagon Wheels,'' the lesser half of double features.

After working her way up to costumer and designer, Norris began acquiring clothes as security, for those times when she was working on a movie and ran out of period garb for its extras.

Her business helps other people's movies out of trouble now - this morning Norris' assistant Jody Zacha is hustling through the aisles with a laundry basket full of shoes, filling of a rush order for a Disney movie set in the 1930s called ``Rocketeer.'' They need hats, bags, jewelry, too. Zacha makes photocopies of pearl necklaces and taps identification numbers into a computer to track who has what.

Along with supplying clothes and gewgaws for about 10 different films at present, Norris is handling costume and production design for a new movie by Ed Zwick, co-creator of ``thirtysomething'' and director of ``Glory.'' She recently returned from scouting locations with Zwick in the Yukon, still limping from her tumble down a loose shale slope.

Norris has more offers than time. She decides which projects to accept after reading the scripts with an eye toward new challenges and unusual characters.

``I tend to look at things from an art standpoint. More than who's in it - what you can do visually with it.''

When she read ``The Elephant Man'' script, the hair on the back of her neck bristled. She took this as a good sign.

During more than a month of research in London she viewed photographs and a post-mortem cast of John Merrick, bits of his clothes and the garden he walked in. Relatives of the doctor who treated Merrick brought her more photographs. Along the way to re-creating the setting, Norris learned that turn-of-the-century English doctors wore frock coats in black to hide the blood.

``Elephant Man'' marked the beginning of long and comfortable association with David Lynch.

``We don't have to talk a lot,'' says Norris. ``We sorta have the same definition of ugly.''

Norris doesn't do television. She jumped on board ``Twin Peaks'' for the pilot because Lynch asked her, but turned down his offer to keep working on the series.

``It would've been chasing too many rabbits,'' says Norris without regret, ``you never catch one.''

To help create ``Twin Peaks'' woodsy timelessness, Norris dipped into her cache and scoured pawn shops and junk stores, coming away with booty that included early '60s TV sets, curtains with a fox-hunter print and a stuffed bear.

Norris credits a visit with Lynch to the old Weyerhaeuser Snoqualmie Falls Sawmill, torn down last October, as the inspiration for ``Twin Peaks'' ' warm and vegetative palette.

``The writing on the mill had such gorgeous colors - these wonderful greens and burnt oranges, all washed out over time,'' Norris remembers. ``We decided we'd use those same colors for the show.''

In the pilot, Norris said, she had to costume 68 speaking actors. The trick became how to make each person distinctive but believable, strong but unobtrusive?

On bad boy Bobby Briggs, for example, Norris scavenged a thrift-store leather jacket and fashioned a red and white varsity letter, ``T,'' to sew on the back. Perfect - what you get when you cross a hood with a quarterback. Agent Cooper's black suit, on the other hand, was sewn from scratch; Norris realized she couldn't find anything suitably boring off the rack.

``We didn't want it to look like a Hollywood TV show, where everyone overdresses,'' says Norris. ``The idea is to bring a certain reality so you're not even aware of the clothes.''

``Twin Peaks'' has bought a new, back-to-school wardrobe. Each time a new character appears, or a old one puts on a new pair of pants or a skirt, it has not passed under Norris' eye. Also, the show now films on soundstages in Van Nuys, not on location around Seattle, among the Douglas firs and the diffused, spooky light.

Norris has moved on to creating new characters, and to finishing this guided tour of Private Collection. She pauses over a rack of cream-colored riding jackets.

``We had an East Coast fashion designer come in about two months ago and rent mostly '40s jackets and coats,'' Norris says. ``Now they're happily copying them, stitch for stich.''

From her closet to yours, soon.