When Al Ruegsegger began supplying sports costumes to film and TV companies in the mid-1970s, people warned him there wasn't enough work to support a specialty company. "At the time, all wardrobing in the business was general in nature," says the 53-year-old Ruegsegger. "But it was frustrating to me. I'd watch a sports movie or a film with a sports scene, and I wouldn't enjoy it, because they weren't doing the costumes right."
So in 1978 Ruegsegger, who had studied to be an aeronautical engineer, and his wife, Merry Ann, launched Sportsrobe, Hollywood's lone sports-only costuming company, which now has 31 employees and $4 million in annual revenue. Sportsrobe boasts an inventory of 200,000 pieces of clothing and 10,000 pairs of athletic shoes. Ruegsegger can supply anything from cricket whites and gymnastics leotards to referees' zebra stripes.
"One of the things that we've been able to do is change the way directors shoot certain scenes," says Ruegsegger. "Before, it wasn't always cost-effective, from a time or materials standpoint, to shoot films or commercials where you could see entire teams. When we were able to provide large numbers of uniforms—like for Forrest Gump, where we provided a full complement of early 1960s University of Alabama uniforms, including authentic costumes for the cheerleaders—then directors could come in and shoot full-scope."
He has been able to expand because of the increase in the number of sports-related films, TV shows and commercials. Sports-robe's office, in Culver City, Calif., has a private screening room with seats from the old Sicks Stadium in Seattle, where the Pilots used to play. The office also houses the company's 20,000-piece uniform collection. "Each piece of clothing has its own story," he says. "One uniform may go from a movie to a TV show to a commercial photo shoot, with just slight alterations."
Ruegsegger meets with directors and producers in a cramped conference room filled with reference and photo books that document the changing styles of sports uniforms. The tops of the cluttered bookshelves are lined with football helmets, ranging from a turn-of-the-century leather model to the molded, masked designs of today. "If they're making a movie about a specific era, we can show them what the uniforms are supposed to look like," says Ruegsegger. "The thing that's unique about period movies is that all the research is in black and white. For instance, the 1937 Brooklyn Dodgers wore green and white, but you can't tell that they wore green in a black-and-white photo."
For A League of Their Own, the film about World War II-era women's professional baseball, which starred Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O'Donnell, Ruegsegger talked with former players, watched some rare footage and had an original uniform sent to him. He then sat down with the film's director, Penny Marshall, to find a happy medium between historical accuracy and cinematic magic. "The costumes were pretty accurate," Ruegsegger says, "right down to the double-needle stitching on the dresses."
In movies with historical story lines, realism is paramount. You might notice that in Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams the players wear the same baseball uniforms. "I convinced the people making Eight Men Out to hold off shooting a week because I was waiting to get back the wardrobe from Field of Dreams," says Ruegsegger, whose seamstresses worked overtime to alter the clothes quickly. "Because it was a low-budget movie, they agreed."
Not everyone Ruegsegger works with is interested in absolute accuracy. In Soul of the Game, an HBO film about the integration of major league baseball told through the eyes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Jackie Robinson, actor Blair Underwood, as Robinson, wears number 42 on his Kansas City Monarchs uniform. In fact, Robinson never wore that number for the Monarchs; he wore it only as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ruegsegger says the filmmakers insisted that Underwood wear the wrong number: "They felt that they had to use the number the public associates with Jackie Robinson."
That's Hollywood. And that's a wrap.
David Davis, an editor at L.A. Weekly, confesses that he never notices costuming mistakes in films.