Hollywood Costume Exhibition Opens at the V&A in London | Clothes on Film

In development since 2007 and nurtured for at least 20 years by curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis since her days as president of the Costume Designers’ Guild (CDG), the exhibition ‘Hollywood Costume’ finally opens at the V&A museum. This is the costume exhibition to end all costume exhibitions; everything from Judy Garland’s gingham pinafore and ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, to Keira Knightley’s burgundy silk gown from Anna Karenina, to Robert De Niro’s ‘King Kong Company’ jacket, check shirt, jeans and even boots from Taxi Driver. Hollywood Costume is a rush; an awe-inspiring journey through the meaning and history of contemporary, period and mo-cap costume design utilising projections, interviews, lectures from A-list actors, installations and even a specially commissioned score.

So what to expect when you finally beat the queues and stroll in the front doors? We shall not give too much away because surprise is part of the enjoyment, but as a brief taster the first object on display is actually a full size cinema screen. Landis is devoted to the screenplay above all else. As she maintains, “(costume) is about narrative and the creation of real people”. Behind the screen is the first set of costumes including Charlie Chaplin’s original hat, patchwork leather shoes and cane from The Tramp, James Acheson’s stunning oriental robes for The Last Emperor and later Bette Davis’ Queen Elizabeth dress from The Virgin Queen. Perspex VDUs on plinths are used to zoom in and highlight parts of the screenplay that identify costume, allowing visitors to compare and contrast with what actually appeared in the final film. It is worth noting here that hardly any of the costumes are in glass cases, but don’t think that means you can touch.

Clothes on Film was lucky enough to attend to a private viewing of Hollywood Costume alongside many of the designers featured in the exhibition. It was a terrific thrill to meet the likes of Mark Bridges, Joanna Johnston, Ellen Mirojnick and Sandy Powell in person, all of whom were extremely kind, engaging and generous with their time.

Gallery one or ‘Act 1: Deconstruction’ is intended to explain the role of costume design via some of cinema’s most recognisable outfits. These are not all necessarily the type of costumes to make a Vogue retrospective, but instead are bread and butter design; garments that serve character and have meaning in (and perhaps only in) context, such as Marit Allen’s leather and denim from Brokeback Mountain, or an Ocean’s Eleven collective that projects the evolution of Jeffrey Kurland’s creations on a desk in front of the gang in full costume – even Ruben’s velvet smoking jacket is there.

At this point in the exhibition you may drift away contemplating just what a wonderful place you are in and how you will cry like a baby when it’s gone. It is not just the costumes (though how anyone could not be excited by The Dude’s towelling bathrobe?), more than that it’s an atmosphere. The original music score really helps. After all what sense would it make to have the John Williams Indiana Jones theme playing, then the Dust Brothers booming out a few steps away from the Fight Club exhibit? And talking of Indy, there is a sketch on display that director Steven Spielberg drew for Landis when she began work as designer on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hardly more than a child’s stick figure but it is part of cinematic history. Forget costume for a minute; this is an exhibition for film fanatics.

On then to ‘Act 2: Dialogue’ which is essentially a showcase of great director/costume designer partnerships. So, it’s Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head, Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, Mike Nicolas and Ann Roth, Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood. Scorsese and Powell even recorded separate ‘talking head’ videos where it appears as though they are having a conversation across from one another, i.e. ‘dialogue’. Some of these costumes are arranged more for an art gallery than a museum. Just wait until you see the pale green dress and matching jacket worn by Tippi Hedren in The Birds; we could have gazed at that display for hours but unfortunately other people wanted to see it. Further gasps come courtesy of Darth Vader’s very tall suit worn by David Prowse and Hedy Lemarr’s peacock cape from Samson and Delilah.

What becomes apparent with period costumes is the level of detail that went into their construction. Although nearly all garments on display are genuine, Sandy Powell hand-distressed a pair of reconstructed boots worn by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love because they needed to be drilled as part of the exhibit.

Beyond these collaborations is a breakdown of genre costume, such as the western or biblical epic. A video tells how costume designers have tackled genre throughout the decades. One thing that has definitely changed is the quest for authenticity, although whether this is because audiences are more discerning or filmmakers are demanding it is unclear. Hailee Steinfeld’s hat, jacket and trousers from True Grit features and it is obvious, even beneath the slightly dim lights of the gallery, what a painstaking amount of research costume designer Mary Zophres undertook. Incidentally this was mainly from historical text and diaries (circa 1880) rather than photographs as these were often staged in ‘Sunday Best’. A quick word about the lighting of Hollywood Costume: it can be just a touch dark on occasions, fading in and out at timed intervals; the justification being that any more intense and the lights could damage the costumes. LED may have been a better idea; brighter and no heat transferral.

For visitors interested in the more regal, flamboyant and, dare we suggest, feminine side of costume design, the exhibition will certainly not disappoint. Although not driven by the sort of costumes that win Academy Awards year after year, Hollywood Costume salutes their role in the craft’s enduring popularity with several crowd-pleasing finds. These are a joy to peruse in relative close-up (mannequins are placed at least 1 metre from the public walkway). Adrian’s moss green ‘curtain dress’ from Gone with the Wind for example is a masterpiece of ingenious cutting and draping in so much velvet. Ginger Rogers’ red sequinned and mink dress from Lady in the Dark, which amazingly was found by Landis inside a wooden crate at the BFI in Bradford, is a revelation. The gown was designed by Edith Head, reportedly at a cost of $35,000 and weighing 15 pounds, yet all the money is right there to see. It is a fan favourite but anyone with a passing interest in bygone Hollywood glamour will be wowed by extravagance of the design.

The true vintage costumes are perhaps most exciting because some have never been seen in colour. Although, this equally can also apply to newer films shot in black and white. Robert De Niro’s flamboyant leopard-skin boxing robe from Raging Bull is so ostentatious it’s almost a shame Martin Scorsese did not shoot in colour as it speaks volumes about Jake La Motta’s excessive personality. Of course this is the point; not all costumes are intended to be seen in their natural state. Note the predominantly black dress on show from The Artist; ironically one of the few times Mark Bridges has used black for a garment and it happens to be in a black and white film.

Each costume is displayed with a perspex screen positioned above the neck area of the mannequin playing a head shot clip of the actor in question. It is a novel idea and because the looped VT is only animated by a few frames, slightly creepy at first (especially The Addams Family set), yet effective in bringing character to life.

Before heading delirious with excitement to ‘Act 3: Finale’ we should just mention the installation closing out Act 2. Amazingly Deborah Landis managed to persuade De Niro and Meryl Streep to record individual videos discussing their best known costumes while a script-to-screen development is displayed on the coffee table in front of them (complete with character sketches). We will not divulge what they say but due to how ‘method’ both of these actors are, we can promise it is worth listening to.

Finale is without question a costume riot and likely to cause the biggest bottleneck of visitors, first gawping at the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Givenchy black dress (on loan from Museum del Traje in Madrid) and then Jacqueline Durran’s green charmeuse gown worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement. The latter costume had to be arranged across the floor so the mannequin is in a sitting position – the dress is just too delicate to hang unsupported. In Landis’ own words the concept for Finale was simply “a mêlée”. So we see Christopher Reeve’s Superman costume flying high above, Uma Thurman’s yellow tracksuit from Kill Bill (look closely at the soles of her shoes…), Harry Potter’s cape, Marilyn Monroe’s flesh tone beaded and sequinned dress from Some Like it Hot, the blue and white Oz pinafore (with new white shirt), and many more.

The rather busy Finale room is split into ‘vamps/vixens’ and ‘bar fight’, with all the models cleverly arranged to interact in some way, e.g. fighting, toasting drinks, lighting cigarettes – a concept that largely originated with Diana Vreeland during her time as curator at The Met museum in New York. Our own favourite costume in this section is Sharon Stone’s sleeveless winter white wool crepe dress from Basic Instinct, as designed by Ellen Mirojnick. It is no accident that this devilish femme fatale is next to Marlene Dietrich in Morocco; two very dangerous ladies plotting together.

Over 100 costumes are on display from 100 years of film-making history. Considered priceless, a pair of red sequinned slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz are only part of the exhibition until 18th November before being returned to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. DC. They will be replaced by a replica pair.

After strolling around the room enough times to get dizzy, you can exit Finale to the surprisingly fun Hollywood Costume gift shop. Plenty of novelty items like A-lister masks and cryptic costume print t-shirts are worth spending your cash on, but most tempting of all has to be the Hollywood Costume book edited by Deborah Landis and featuring contributions from designers, scholars, archivists and even one chapter by the editor of Clothes on Film entitled ‘Afterlife: Ensuring the Enduring Interest of a Web Audience’; a great Christmas present for all the family and large enough to literally double as a coffee table.

For all the hoopla surrounding the garments themselves, what Hollywood Costume really boils down to is the joy of imagination. Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis and fellow curators Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick have created an event that actually feels like being part of a movie; not even seeing the costumes physically in front of your eyes for the first time, more that you are actually hanging out with the characters themselves. And, really, how often will you get to see Rocky Balboa in a fist fight with John McClane? Satin shorts vs. bloodied vest. If that’s not something to tell the grandkids about one day we don’t know what is.

Hollywood Costume at the V&A museum in London runs until 27th January 2013. Tickets can be booked through the V&A website.

© 2012 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.