William Ware Theiss: A Stitch in Time
The career of William Ware Theiss — he used his middle name to differentiate himself from a New York clothes designer named William Theiss — as a wardrobe man and costume designer in the motion-picture and television industries spanned over thirty years. In various capacities, he assisted in the design of costumes and/or fully designed costumes for over 17 feature motion pictures.
Bill Theiss is best remembered as the designer of every costume worn in the 79 episodes that comprise the first Star Trek series. From Captain Kirk’s tunic, to Edith Keeler’s dowdy dress, to the now infamous daring attire of almost all other female guest stars, Bill dressed them all.
Although the standard command division uniform tunics looked gold on most color TV sets, the costumes were actually lime green. The greenish hue of the command tunics can be seen more clearly in the third season, when the fabric used for the tunics was changed from satin velour to a double knit fabric that reflected the set lighting differently.
The dress uniforms, made of a silk material, were always clearly green by comparison and some darker green jumpsuits and wraparound tunics that were more clearly seen seemed to confirm that all the “gold to green” variations were part of the same color scheme. The so-called “beige” uniforms, which originated with “The Cage”, were ironically a much more yellow color but likewise appeared beige or pinkish under the lights.
With one exception, all women in these uniforms wore the skirt variant. One uniform seen on extras in Star Trek’s first season was a woman’s gold command uniform with pants. It was created for a scene in “Charlie X” where a pretty crewwoman was transformed into an old hag, who might not have looked appropriate in a skirt uniform.
Very little is publicly known about Bill Theiss, who died in 1992. He was a solitary man with a passion for privacy. The one characteristic often remarked upon by those who worked with him was that his work ethic consisted of one almost fanatical and inhuman premise: “Stop when all work is done — and not before.” This did not endear him to many of his former wardrobe men and women, as might be imagined, although it did earn him the respect of his colleagues.
With worry over lack of time and money as his constant companion, Theiss had patience for no one: not Roddenberry, nor any of the other producers. He had even less patience for anyone who stopped in to praise, criticize, comment, say hello or say goodbye. The process could not be interrupted. Theiss was rude at times in a supreme effort to avoid delaying the shooting company over wardrobe problems. “Better rude than late,” was his motto. Although, unhappily, it was not operative. Actors, extras and wardrobe assistants alike remember his frenzied pinning and sweding even as the cameras began to roll.
As his colleague of four years — two of them on Star Trek — Andrea Weaver puts it,
Bill Theiss was a creative designer. His designs for Star Trek were original rather than distilled from other sources or redefinitions of previous works. This is what I appreciated about Bill Theiss. I thought that he was a truly unique and rare costume creator. Other may have agreed but were more influenced by Bill’s personal eccentricities and rudeness.
Andrea also recalls the sewing of actors into costumes not only because the clothes would not hold together any other way, but also because often they were not really “costumes” as such. Rather, they were scraps and ribbons and wires and squares and scarves and drapes and remnants. One of the staff members of the Smithsonian Institution remembers, in preparation for the 1992 Star Trek exhibit, walking through the Paramount storeroom with Theiss, scouring the hangers and boxes for “costumes.” She was astonished to find mostly scraps of cloth, each group neatly hanging together on one hanger, but nothing that resembled a garment!
When put together, these scraps became the legendary Theiss collection — the visually distinct portrait of Star Trek that remains to this day.
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