After I visited the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A on Friday I was also able to attend a curator talk with Deborah Nadoolman Landis. (I probably hurried around the exhibition a little to allow for something to eat before the talk – but I always knew that this would never be a one visit exhibition.)
As the talk was about the exhibition I felt that it would be best to see the exhibition first so that there would be a greater understanding of what Landis was talking about. It was the right decision!
Landis started off by talking about why the Hollywood Costume exhibition is at the V&A rather than at a film museum – which some people may think is more suitable a place for such an exhibition.
Costume designers are first and foremost designers.
This gets overlooked a lot – especially where contemporary costume design is concerned. I thought that this was a great way to start to just confirm the design side of costume. It isn’t shopping. They are creating a character along with the actor and the director.
Every design tells a story.
Landis went on to talk about the lack of evolution of costume design – in that it always starts with a person in a screenplay. The screenplay is where the character initially lives.
There was also mention of the fact that not every costume that one would like to see is included (one particular I will refer to later on). Personally I was hoping for some costumes from Singin’ in the Rain, Inception, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gosford Park, Back to the Future but that’s because I have a particular fondness for those costumes. I remain impressed at the wide range of costumes that are on display – but everyone always wants more!
Then Landis spoke about her understanding of working on a film: Under-graduate – understanding the costume design, graduate – working with actors and directors, graduation – wrap-party. (These are the extent of my notes but Landis mentioned this in an off-hand manner but I still found enough humour in it to write them down!)
Planet South Kensington to Planet Hollywood.
Landis wanted the Hollywood Costume exhibition to be a cinematic experience (one reason for the specially commissioned score composed by Julian Scott) and to evoke the feeling of a movie – or a ride.
The body of a blonde, the head of a brunette.
The exhibition starts with the story and then leads into costume and identity. [Big period costumes are not such a draw for Landis as they are for the general British public!]
The interviews throughout were carried out for the exhibition by Landis (and Tim Burton was interviewed by Keith Lodwick – assistant curator) excluding those of Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock. For obvious reasons.
The finale section of the exhibition was referred to as “The Greatest Hits” of costume design. The exhibition is intended to be for everyone.
Some Like it Hot dress and stole: through this exhibition it was discovered that the stole is made of swansdown.
The ruby slippers – believed to be the dancing pair.
One of the first questions related to the use of screens and projections for the actors’ faces. Landis told of how fellow costume designer James Acheson (The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons, Spider-man) told her not to do the exhibition because it would be:
dead frocks on dummies.
Costumes are intended for an actor, on a screen, in a certain scene. They are not made for exhibitions in the same way that fashion is. It was important to give the costumes back their life and they came upon using film footage on screens. It might be just a slight move of the chin but that movement gives motion. And Landis also mentioned how the screens themselves felt cinematic.
Landis spoke of her admiration for Irene Sharaff, having grown up with Broadway musicals and the great Hollywood musicals, and Cecil Beaton after seeing My Fair Lady at Radio City Music Hall.
There was a story (that I will never do jsutice writing down here) about one key costume that they were unable to get for the exhibition – the Ascot dress from My Fair Lady (1964). The story started with talk of Debbie Reynolds and her famous costume and prop collection that has sadly been sold. The Ascot dress was one of those sold (fetching £3.6 million). A story that involved Meryl Streep (who Landis met once for the interview) and an unnamed collector eventually led to the iconic subway dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (1955) [Travilla]. That dress sold for £4.3 million. So although the Ascot dress isn’t on display, they do have the subway dress.
This were some of the thoughts, rambling, and discussions that went on at the curator talk and I hope this post makes sense and is interesting! Just don’t forget to visit the exhibition if you can!
(Quotations peppered throughout are from Deborah Nadoolman Landis at the talk unless stated otherwise.)