Hollywood Costume at the Victoria and Albert Museum

20 Oct

Earlier this week I was very lucky to be treated to a preview of the Victoria and Albert Museum‘s new autumn exhibition Hollywood Costume. Curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (author, Academy Award nominee costume designer and Professer in costume design) and Sir Christopher Frayling, Hollywood Costume represents and showcases some of the most iconic costumes of the past one hundred years of studio cinema and celebrates the work and effort of the designer that creates them.

Fear not if costume design as a subject and trade is something that you know very little about, for the exhibition is a sheer delight for any film fan and genre lover from across the board. Hosting a total of one hundred and thirty-one original costumes dating as early as 1912 (Charlie Chaplin’s often worn ‘Tramp’ suit used until the mid 1930s) and from as recently as this year (Christian Bale’s high-tech Batman suit from The Dark Knight Rises), Landis has managed to create a collection of costumes that displays Hollywood cinema’s most iconic images and characters, a collection that is impossible to not feel an emotive connection to upon viewing in its entirety. The most heartfelt congratulations and praise must be given to Landis who manages to perfectly encapsulate in one display the importance of the role of the designer is shaping the public subconscious of the visuals that Hollywood has shared with the public over the last one hundred plus years.

Costume Designers are, as Landis herself puts it in exhibition literature, ‘storytellers, historians, social commentators and anthropologists’, and the exhibition sets out to display this by using the three galleries it spans as three different acts showcasing the process that costume design goes through. The first act explores Deconstruction and shows how the design process begins. This is shown through character research, developement, context and an in-depth look at the complete components and their relevance that go into making the final outfit. Included in this act are costumes from The Addams Family, Oceans 11, Fight Club, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Big Lebowski, The Virgin Queen, Shakespeare In Love and Vertigo. The second act Dialogue looked at the collaborative relationship between director (beautifully executed through a display that see’s the costume designer one side of a table explaining their views and the director on the other side voicing their opinions), actor (two case studies involving method actors Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, their reverence for costume and its role within their illustrious careers) and technology in its evolutionary state from the era of silent film to current CGI enhanced blockbusters (a nice piece by actor Andy Serkis on the role of the actor and costume designer whilst using mo-cap technology). The interviews in this part of the exhibition are particularly special, having been commissioned and conducted by Landis especially for the show and the accompanying book, allowing questions to be asked specifically and answers to be delivered with the honest capacity that other exhibitions don’t give the time for. The third and final act, aptly named Finale, is a showcase of some of the most iconic costumes to have come out of the Hollywood studios. This last display is nothing short of breathtaking and includes some of the most well-known and identifiable costumes that have ever graced celluloid. Included in this last section are costumes as varied as Reese Witherspoon’s pink suit from Legally Blonde, Keira Knightly’s slinky green dress from Atonement, John Travolta’s white suit from Saturday Night Fever, Marilyn Monroe’s dresses from The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot, as well as costumes from films like Kill Bill, Funny Girl, Moulin Rogue, The Matrix, Hello Dolly, Batman Returns, Titanic, Return of the Jedi, Pirates of the Caribbean and Superman 4.

It is completely undeniable to state that costumes help to bring a character to life, and seeing some of these in the flesh (displayed on bespoke black mannequins to really accentuate the outfit itself and with projected faces of the actors who played the roles on screens instead of bland, generic mannequin heads) are bound to churn up emotion and nostalgia in the viewer. To use the word ‘iconic’ may seem a tad over the top but when costumes actually on show include the suits from The Blues Brothers (designed by Landis herself), Audrey Hepburn’s black dress from Breakfast At Tiffany’s, costumes from My Fair Lady, Indiana Jones’ fedora and whip, Darth Vader’s black get-up and Tippi Hedron’s green suit from The Birds, it’s not hard to see why Landis is getting such acclaim for putting the collection together. It really is an absolute treat to behold in all its wonder. To make it even more special, for the next four weeks only, a pair of original Ruby Slippers used in The Wizard of Oz will be on show next to Dorothy’s original gingham dress outfit (reunited for the first time since production on the film ended in 1939), on a special loan from the Smithsonian in Washington, DC (there are three original pairs in total, with one pair being in the hands of a private collector and the other recently bought by the Academy). And the news on the exhibitions opening night that the British Film Institute would be donating its own costume collection (a total of over seven hundred items) to the V&A‘s costume collection, it begs the question what other gems are now in the costume archive…

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