Thursday 18 October 2012


'Costume is a huge part of getting into character,' film and TV actress, Jane Levy once observed. 'Your body soaks in what you're wearing, and you turn into someone else.'

Hollywood Costume, the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, opening this Saturday (20 October) and running until 27 January 2013, examines the processes by which over 130 movie costumes – from the silent era of Charlie Chaplin to the CGI age of Avatar – were designed, made, worn and, in many instances, became enduring icons of Hollywoodland.

The exhibition is the work of Senior Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose costume designs include The Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Trading Places and Michael Jackson's Thriller) and Guest Curator Professor Sir Christopher Frayling (former Rector of the Royal College of Art and Chairman of the Arts Council England) working with V&A Curator (and award-winning theatre designer) Keith Lodwick. 

The result of their combined labours is a gloriously spectacular celebration of the clothes of the stars across the best part of a century of cinema featuring treasurers that will excite every generation of film-goer: whether devotees of the sirens of the Hollywood's Golden Age, fans of action heroes from Hans Solo to James Bond, costume movie heroes from Ben Hur to Jack Sparrow or fantasy characters from Darth Vadar to Harry Potter to Cruella De Vil with her stunning black-and-white 'dog-tooth' outfits...

Of course, what separates costumes from any other second-hand clothes are our memories of seeing them living on the screen: Holly Golightly's Givenchy gown in Breakfast at Tiffany's when modelled by Audrey Hepburn or Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet dress from Gone With the Wind as worn by Vivien Leigh. Designed by Walter Plunkett to look as if they were made from a pair of curtains (indicating the heroine's determination to survive) they still managed to make Leigh look sensational...

To compensate for the absence of flesh and blood bodies, the superb design of this exhibition – the work of Casson Mann design practice – imbues the costumes with surrogate life through the highly creative use of sound and lighting and imaginative projections and animations. 

As Creative Director, Roger Mann, puts it: 'We have had to be that much more playful, that much more magical, that much more engaging with [the costumes] to help them come alive and to bring out the range of emotions felt when seeing a movie.' 

The creative wizardry supporting and surrounding these often legendary clothes is particularly well used in 'Act One' of the exhibition which deconstructs costume design: showing how Marit Allen's seemingly 'off-the-peg' cowboy outfits worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain were, in fact, anything but; and how the component parts of Indiana Jones costume developed out of a sketch by Steven Speilberg  from well-worn hat (aged with oil and fullers earth and a lot scrunging and sitting on) down to his boots and, of course, whip.

Similarly, there is an analysis of the items of costume designed by Alexandra Byrne for Cate Blanchett to wear in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, flanked by other Elizabethan costumes worn by Glenda Jackson, Flora Robson, Bette Davis and Quentin Crisp.

One of the chief achievements of this section of the exhibition is in demonstrating that 'costumes' need to look like they are 'clothes' which the character wears, rather than something that an actor changes into to walk onto a movie set; and, similarly, that 'clothes', however seemingly prosaic, are also 'costumes'  

Of the latter category, there can scarcely be a better example than Charlie Chaplin's raggedy clothes worn by Charlie Chaplin in his 'Little Tramp' persona. 

Whereas Travis Banton's gem-encrusted gown designed in 1937 for Angel is a fantastical creation that, nevertheless, succeeded in looking as if it were the precisely the kind of ensemble Dietrich would wear any day of the week...

'Act Two' of the exhibition is a series of ingeniously staged (and thoughtfully subtitled) dialogues between actors, directors and designers: Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood talk about Sweeney Todd across Mrs Lovett's pie-making table onto which are projected images and clips and, every now and again, a gory spattering of blood!

Nearby, Tippi Hedren discusses the pale green suit she wore in Hitchcock's The Birds with ghosts of designer, Edith Head, and Hitch himself while a stray feather appears to fall onto post cards of the film's locations and a passing gull drops a bird lime souvenir onto a map of Bodega Bay! 

Throughout the exhibition there are some fascinating contrasts: one of Meryl Streep's outlandish outfits from Mama Mia! standing shoulder to shoulder with her Margaret Thatcher suit from The Iron Lady. Elsewhere, Joan Crawford's dowdy, sexless, blue gingham waitress dress from Mildred Pearce is within sight of her sensationally seductive ruby gown, seen (ironically in black and white) in The Bride Wore Red.

Adrian's costume for Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red ( 1937) flanked by 
Walter Plunkett's burgandy ballgown for Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939)
and Travis Banton's costume design for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934)

Then there is Heddy Lemarr's peacock robe for Delilah in Cecil B DeMille's Samson and Delilah. When DeMille saw Edith Head's design for the costume he suggested using real peacock feathers. A few days later he arrived at the studio with a station-wagon laden with plumage: it transpired he owned a farm and raised peacocks and had spent the weekend picking up feathers...

'Act Three: Finale' is a cavalcade of costume classics: Dolly Levi's shimmering gown worn by Barbra Streisand in the 'Hello Dolly' number from the film of the same name; Sharon Stone's revealing leg-crossing dress in Basic Instinct; Keira Knightley's emerald silk evening frock from her performance in Atonement; Errol, Flynn's doublet from The Adventures of Don Juan; John Travolta's three-piece cream suit from Saturday Night Fever and Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy fedora and camelhair overcoat...

Powers that be: Harrison, Daniel, Arnie and Warren

Senior Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis with Carol Lombard
in her My Man Godfrey gown, Judy Garland in her Oz dress and 
mesdames Streisand and Knightley in, respectively, 
Hello Dolly and Atonement
A word of advice to fans of cinema superheroes: remember to look up every now and again or you might miss Superman, Batman, Catwoman and Spidey...

Providing a fabled flourish to the finale are a trio of exhibits redolent of the mystique and the magic of the movies: Marilyn's ivory cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch and Judy's gingham pinafore dress from The Wizard of Oz together with a pair of the original Ruby Slippers that carried her down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City and eventually back to Kansas.

Screenwriter Noel Langley was probably the person responsible for making L Frank Baum's 'silver shoes' into those now-legendary and utterly iconic Ruby Slippers and they, along with the rest of the Oz costumes, were designed by Hollywood designer-great, Adrian.

Despite their now-dull appearance, the 73-year-old shoes are still powerfully evocative as Deborah Nadoolman Landis observes: 'The Ruby Slippers transcend Hollywood costume  design and have the power to transport us to the limits of our imagination. These precious shoes exemplify the best of cinema storytelling because they evoke memory and emotion.'

The Ruby Slippers are on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History but are only here for a few weeks before heading back home (where else?) in time for (what else?) Thanksgiving. With or without Dorothy's footwear this is a superb and unmissable exhibition.

Accompanying the exhibition is fabulous 320 page book, Hollywood Costume – not so much a catalogue as an exploration of the subject through a series of fascinating essays, edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, and jam-packed with a cornucopia of striking imagery that will ensure that the volume will have a shelf-life for movie fans that far outlasts the life of the exhibition.

'The design of costumes for films is a distinctive form of deign which is often taken for granted or misunderstood. This V&A exhibition presents the ideal opportunity to set the record straight – and does so in the most spectacular way.'
- Sir Christopher Frayling

'This landmark exhibition provides a once in a life-time opportunity to explore the most beloved characters in Hollywood history and gain insight on the role of the costume designer and their vital contribution to cinema storytelling.'
  - Deborah Nadoolman Landis

The V&A is open daily 10:00-17:45 (and until 22:00 every Friday)
Tickets for Hollywood Costume are £14 (concessions available) 
Advance booking is advisable and can be done on-line here or by calling 02079077073

Check the V&A website for special events

Images: V&A, David Weeks and Brian Sibley


Beth Stilborn said...

How I wish I could experience this exhibit first-hand. Failing that, you have made it come alive! Thank you!

(P.S. Did you see my blog interview of Dame Julie and her daughter Emma?)

SharonM said...

I'm with Beth on that!

Alas, I'm unlikely to make it to London whilst it's on. But at least I know that you've enjoyed the exhibition for me!

Arts and Crafts said...

You have so lucky... :( I`m too far to enjoy this...

verykerryberry said...

I visited this and it truly blew me away. I have linked to your blog as you had such a great account of the exhibition and pictures that give a glimmer into the experience.

Liz said...

Wonderful review of the exhibit - thank you for sharing!

What film is the peacock gown from? I don't recognize it but it is amazing!

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks, Liz.

The peacock gown is Heddy Lemarr's robe for Delilah in Cecil B DeMille's Samson and Delilah. When DeMille saw Edith Head's design for the costume he suggested using real peacock feathers. A few days later he arrived at the studio with a station-wagon laden with plumage: it transpired he owned a farm and raised peacocks and had spent the weekend picking up feathers...

Fashion said...
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