Exhibition Review: Hollywood Costume at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Costume is character – Martin Scorsese

First thing: I cannot recommend this exhibition enough. As I recommended the book ‘Hollywood Costume’, so I recommend this exhibition – just be prepared to lose a few hours of your day. They’ll be worth it.

There are 131 costumes on display ranging from 1920 to 2012. There will obviously be some costumes that haven’t been included (which senior guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis herself acknowledged) but within these 131 costumes there will be at least one costume (at LEAST) for you to appreciate. And by appreciate, I mean love. There are iconic costumes that have lasted time and stand out for the audience and contemporary costumes that “fade” into the background –  as best contemporary costumes are thought to. A number of costumes on display have been widely commented on, be they Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) [costumes designed by Deborah Nadoolman] or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939) [Adrian]. But this exhibition is not merely a display of “pretty things” – it is an exhibition that aims to explain the role a costume designer plays in the production of a film.

To explore this the exhibition is split into three “acts” within three galleries. The first act looks into Deconstruction. The aim in this gallery was to show the first stages in creating a costume.

Designing the Character: before a costume is designed the script needs to be read and thoroughly understood. Without the script, there is no story, no character and no film. The first costumes on display are shown with a film still behind them and animated script pages relevant to that particular costume in front. Some of the screenplays make specific reference to the costume whereas others make no mention. Gone With the Wind (1939) [Walter Plunkett] specifies that Scarlett O’Hara ‘…catches a glimpse of the green portieres hanging at the windows…’ while Angel (1937) [Travis Banton] just mentions that everyone at the opera can’t take their eyes off Marlene Dietrich. [Side note: Charlie Chaplin’s costume for The Little Tramp from The Circus (1928) [Charlie Chaplin] is displayed behind animated autobiography pages explaining the origins of the costume. I particularly liked that the display crackled and had imperfections to give the impression that it had been projected from film rather than digital.]

Character and Composition: a costume has to work within the story and within the setting. This includes considering the genre, the environment and the period. One particular aspect I thought was great was the inclusion of interviews with the general public about what they were wearing. I think that this will help for people to understand the basis of contemporary costume design. Everything that you pick out to wear has a story. There is purpose behind it. A history. A life. It makes you real. And these are the kind of decisions that a costume designer needs to make for a character. The costumes used to illustrate this point are from two contemporary films, with two iconic characters if for different reasons. Jeffrey Lebowski/The Dude’s dressing gown from The Big Lebowski (1998) [Mary Zophres] is displayed alongside Jason Bourne from The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) [Shay Cunliffe]. [Side note: Bourne’s costume looks browner in the flesh than in the film. Clips of the film were shown next to the costume and you definitely get the feel that it is closer to navy blue in colour.]

Serving the Story: more examples of the way that costume is used to aid in telling the story.  The process that Jeffrey Kurland went through when designing Ocean’s Eleven (2001) was shown on a large board – an animated drawing board as it were. The script, mood boards, discussions with director and actors, fitting photos, test shots and the final film stills. This table was surrounded by the main costumes dealt with: Danny Ocean (George Clooney), Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt), Basher Tarr (Don Cheadle), Linus Caldwell (Matt Damon) and Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). There are also two costumes from a film that hurts my heart to watch – and a costume has an important part in that. You’ll understand when you see it.

Deconstructing Character: looking in more detail into how to create costumes for believable characters. The biggest section is dedicated to Indiana Jones. There is no doubt that he is a massively iconic character who can be recognised from merely his silhouette but the best part was the detail that has gone into the display. Every aspect of his costume is explained. Whether it is the research, the reason, detailing, bought or made, how it was broken down. This was one of my favourite displays for just that clear explanation projection.

A Royal Romance: a display of ten costumes for “royalty” from 1933 – 2007. The costumes displayed are arranged in chronological order from left to right. I realised this when I got to the middle. It doesn’t affect your enjoyment to view them in reverse chronological order but seeing them in the “correct” order means you can see the development of the dress silhouette more clearly. My favourite? I love Milena Canonero’s costumes for Marie Antoinette (2006). The film isn’t perfect but I could just look at those costumes all day long.

The second act was Dialogue. This act looked at relationships between directors and actors and situations that affect the film process and, in turn, the costume design process.

Creative Contexts – Collaborating with DIrectors: this section looked at four key relationships between directors and costume designers. These are collaborations that have lasted for numerous films – some even decades. Albert Hitchcock and Edith Head with The Birds (1964). Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell with Gangs of New York (2002). Mike Nichols and Ann Roth with Closer (2004). Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Each display included a costume and interviews with those (where possible). The display of this individual sections was very well thought out and I felt it summed up and represented the collaboration and “teamwork” between the pairs.

Changing Contexts: looked at the change in the film world from silent to sound, black-and-white to colour and moving to the world of CGI. This was particularly interesting as a way of showing how developments in technology affect all aspects of the film industry.

Collaborating with Actors: this section concentrated on Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro who were interviewed by Deborah Landis specifically for this exhibition (and the accompanying book). Having both worked in the industry for a number of years in very recognisable roles it was great to see them talking about the importance they place on costume.

Act three was Finale. This is the gallery that everyone expects to see from the outset: particularly memorable costumes. These include The Girl’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955) [Travilla], Cecilia Tallis’ dress from Atonement (2007) [Jacqueline Durran], Sugar Kane Kowalczyk’s cream dress from Some Like it Hot (1959) [Orry-Kelly], Batman’s Bat-suit from The Dark Knight Rises (2012) [Lindy Hemming], James Bond’s suit from Casino Royale (2006) [Lindy Hemming] and Tony Manero’s suit from Saturday Night Fever (1977) [Patrizia von Brandenstein]. It may appear that I’ve told you all of the costumes in the final room but, believe me, I haven’t. At the end of the gallery, for four weeks only, are the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. I’m quite lucky to have seen the ruby slippers at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington a few years ago so I’ve now seen them twice. They are still amazing to behold, if only for the history behind them.

There are a few “niggles” with the exhibition. Considering that Landis has written the book ‘Hollywood Sketchbook’ looking at one hundred years of costume illustration, none of the costume illustrators are credited alongside their illustrations. I know. I looked. Another lack of acknowledgement goes to the costume maker behind specially constructed costumes. I understand that a number of costumes will be a collaborative make and that makers have always tended to be in the background (look at the fashion world – even couture clothing). But when a costume is on display I feel that, where possible, all people involved be justly recognised. However, I understand that this exhibition was looking at costume designers in particular and that is one huge step forward in itself. I personally found the displays fascinating in their layout, inclusion of sketches, interviews, film clips and specially recorded music score wonderful but heard complaints and “moans” nearly instantly. Mostly these were due to being “unable to read displays”. I had no such problem – even with the low lighting which I understand to be necessary for the protection of the costumes and also to fit in with Landis’ aim for a movie experience. I would rather have lower light to see a costume from the ’20s or ’30s so that the costume can still go on display for years to come. It may not be possible to see as much of the costumes as one would have liked due to their positioning but this is mainly due to the fact that there are 131 costumes on display. Beyond showing each costume separately on its own and blocking the galleries it would never be possible for each costume to be seen fully.

The costume is part of their character – Tim Burton

This exhibition was always intended to explore and explain the role of the costume designer and I think that it does that incredibly well. Bravo Deborah Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling, Keith Lodwick and the whole team at the V&A for creating such a wonderful exhibition. I plan on making numerous return trips. The exhibition opens tomorrow (20th October) until the 27th January and you can book here. I believe that the exhibition is going on a tour after January so hopefully more people can continue to see it and understand the important role of a costume designer.

S x

[There are also a number of talks and events that are connected with the exhibition. I’m trying to go to as many as possible – look into tyhem!]

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7 thoughts on “Exhibition Review: Hollywood Costume at the Victoria and Albert Museum

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