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Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A – a review

I was trying to explain why I wanted to see this exhibition to someone who couldn’t see the attraction. The clothes, they reasoned, without the actors, are nothing. They were never meant to be seen up close on display.  Divest them of their purpose, on a set, lit by studio lights, aren’t they just bits of non-descript fabric?

I do think there is something to this argument and the curator of the exhibition herself, Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, was warned off doing it for this very reason. Having worked on a few film sets, I know that the costumes don’t always look like they do on screen. Things are pinned at the back. Things look rougher, the colours appear totally different. Conversely, there is often far more exquisite detail that the viewer may not even get to see.

But in this exhibition it soon becomes clear that it is not really about the clothes themselves so much as story telling which is what I’m really interested in. Deciding what a character should wear and why is one of the key elements that go up to make our willing suspension of disbelief. You can say something about the character’s psychological state, their social standing, their emotional condition. If you only notice the costumes in a film, something has gone wrong (which is probably why I came out raving about the costumes in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina recently.)

The exhibition is divided into three main rooms and it wasn’t clear to me at first how it was ordered but as it was so busy, I may have missed the explanation.Even with a timed entry ticketing system, it was very crowded inside with hordes of fashion students making sketches. Photography was strictly banned but you can see some images here.

It definitely wasn’t chronological – in the the first room they had everything from the suits of the whole cast of Ocean’s Eleven and Fight Club nestling in with Vivien Leigh’s dress from Gone With the Wind and Charlie Chaplin’s suit.

The second room was much more about the relationship between the costume designer and all the other departments, particularly the Director and the actors.  To avoid just showing endless clothes on dummies, they came up with lots of inventive ways of displaying the material. Digital moodboards showing movie shooting scripts with any descriptions of clothing highlighted, swatches of fabric that appeared and then dissolved, the sound of scissors going though swathes of fabric, then seeing the finished item in a clip.

They had lifesize screens of Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro placed opposite one another as if they were in conversation. When one talked about a certain costume or role, the other would nod as if listening. They were surrounded by their various costumes, which would were spot-lit in turn as they discussed them. I learnt all sorts of fascinating details such as how Streep’s cape in The French Lieutenant’s Woman was so itchy and rough it made her agitated which she used to fuel her character and how she filled the handbag she had in The Iron Lady with things she thought Thatcher would have had, even though no-one ever saw inside it.

I was strangely moved by the costumes from Brokeback Mountain – that soft flannel plaid shirt that came to signify so much- and there was an explanation underneath how the costume designer changed their clothes subtly in order to echo the trajectory of the story. I also particularly wanted to see Keira Knightley’s emerald green dress from Atonement which was as stunning up close as it appeared on screen.

In the final room you have to walk along a parade of mannequins as if on the red carpet (I would have liked to have doubled back and gone to look at some twice but was swept along). Where their heads should be is a small video screen with a still of the actor in that role. They will occasionally blink or move their head almost imperceptibly- quite unnerving when it’s Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

Each one was supposed to be iconic so you have John Travolta’s Saturday Night Fever white suit alongside Natalie Portman’s Black Swan tutu (so tiny) and Bruce Willis’s Die Hard blood stained vest (even though he surely got through dozens at various stages of bloodiness). There were only a handful of costumes that I’d argue were not really iconic and that were included just because they were able to get them – Kate Hudson’s dress from How to Lose a Man in 30 Days for instance.

They’d saved what they thought most people wanted to see until last. Judy Garland’s blue gingham dress and slippers from The Wizard of Oz and Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch white dress that blows up over the subway grate. It’s odd seeing them and thinking this is the actual dress – or seeing the faint marks thinking her actual feet went in there. But then you’re back in almost religious relic territory.

The exhibition is on now at the V&A London until 27 January 2013.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Alison – Thanks for sharing about this exhibit. It’s true there is a difference between seeing a costume and seeing the actor bring to life a character while wearing that outfit. But it must have really been fascinating nonetheless. Your comment about Judy Garland’s gingham dress and Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress reminded me that I saw both myself, ‘though it’s been years. There was an ‘on the road’ exhibition of some of the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibits, including those items, and I got to see them then. It was a very good experience for which thanks for the reminder.

    November 4, 2012

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