Hollywood Costume
by Silke Gehrmann-Becker
Dec 5, 2012

We only just saw the agent with double-O status chasing his most recent adversary through the London tube, then fighting for his very survival on the Scottish country estate “Skyfall” – and now, in Bond’s uniform black tux, he’s aiming at the wrong guy entirely? Javier Barden alias Raoul Silva’s face is a picture of absolute boredom, indifference even, a look that could be directed at Dick Tracy and the Terminator, who seem to have barged their way between 007 and this sworn enemy of the British Empire.

A second glance at the setting and it all becomes clear: The makers of the current blockbuster exhibition “Hollywood Costume” in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum haven’t sent the digitalized face of Javier Bardem flickering on the LED screen into battle with 007 as in the 23rd James Bond adventure but in their choice of costume ascribed it to Anton Chigurh the contract killer from the Coen brothers’ film “No Country for Old Men”. Though somewhat confusing, this example reveals the complexity, with which this exhibition curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis really comes up trumps – a complexity it is forced to grapple with at the same time.

“Hollywood Costumes” exhibits more than 130 costumes worn by iconic film characters, spread across three galleries. With its own extensive collections featuring items from the areas of fashion, textiles and theatre & performance to name but a few, the Victoria and Albert Museum offers the perfect setting for the show which takes the visitor on a journey from the “Golden Age of Hollywood” right up to the present day. The exhibition is the work of a top-class curatorial team: US costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who created a monument to her work in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and Harrison Ford’s costume as Indiana Jones; Sir Christopher Frayling, guest curator and former principal of the Royal College of Art; and Keith Lodwick, assistant curator at the V&A. And they certainly didn’t rely on the iconic status of the costumes alone. The exhibition is dedicated to the key role played by costume design and to the profession behind it, not forgetting the ever-changing social and technological contexts, which determine both the costume designer’s work and the plot and narrative style of the film at hand.

Each of the three rooms, or “Acts”, that make up the exhibition presents a different thematic grouping – “deconstruction”, “dialogue” and “finale”. Entering the exhibition, the visitor is initially confronted by a colossal screen showing film clips, whereby short sequences featuring Kate Winslet, Audrey Hepburn, Sharon Stone, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Natalie Portman, Uma Thurman, John Travolta, Johnny Depp and Vivien Leigh already give the whole story away, accompanied by a resounding film score of course. Whether “Black Swan”, “Titanic”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Basic Instinct” or “Pirates of the Caribbean” – as soon as you see an actor in costume, only a few pieces of the puzzle are required to figure out the film’s title and plot and its not long before scenes from it begin to flicker before the mind’s eye. So you see, here textiles have the power to lucidly express the point of the film be it emotional, critical, suspenseful, romantic or even existential.

When shown an image of a curtain cord tied around a green velvet dress (brought to the silver screen by Walter Plunkett in 1939), it doesn’t take long before you find yourself picturing a debt-ridden Scarlett O’Hara under Mammy’s disapproving glances turns the drapes into an elaborate dress for her appearance as the Grande Dame in an attempt to provide a new start for her beloved estate “Tara” with money from generous sponsors. And you don’t need a wind machine to imagine Marilyn Monroe standing above the vent in “The Seven Year Itch” – trying to tame her splaying, pleated skirt. Landis describes costume designers as story tellers who bridge the gap between the writer and the performer. “Cinematic icons are born when the audience falls deeply in love with the people in the story. And that is what movies, and costume design, are all about,” says the exhibition’s curator. Whereby, according to Sir Frayling, the implicitness of the design should be counteracted as should the misunderstanding that it is nothing more than pure decoration.

The character the viewer finally sees on screen is of course the outcome of long discussions and brainstorming, mood boards and the amassing of many individual pieces. Act 1: Deconstruction looks at clothing and identity, at those figures that come from different periods of history or the future, and are required to present a reality or some futuristic scenario, both fictional. Accordingly, there is a line-up of opulent robes from the Elizabethan period, presented side by side with the bright lengths of fabric that swathed Bette Davis in 1955 and Kirsten Dunst’s “Marie Antoinette” costume from 2006. This room also displays the hat that Landis herself made for Harrison Ford, cut just right with a specially shaped brim so as not to hide too much of the archeologist’s face on his many adventures.

Act 2: Dialogue provides a nod to the intense teamwork that takes place between the director and the costume director, as evidenced by duos such as Hitchcock and Edith Head, Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, or Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell. Sitting at a table, a series of digital counterparts are engaged in dialog, talking about “The Birds”, “Sweeny Tod” and “Gangs of New York” and the challenges of creating an authentic portrayal. It must be said, this cross-media round table is somewhat disconcerting, especially since the sound levels of the respective interview recordings really get in the way of each other, making it difficult to concentrate on any one of the individual accounts.

However, the installation that brings together Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro does a better job. Both actors have been collecting their film costumes for many years now, of which the exhibition displays five costumes from each of the Oscar winning actors, including pieces from “Taxi Driver” and “Mamma Mia” as well as the actors’ reflections on their career and personal development to date based on the respective filmic characters. Then, diagonally opposite, the viewer encounters the concurrent demystification of the “Darth Vader” character from a fallen yet swish Jedi to a guy wearing a cheap compilation of junk (puny plastic buttons on the torso and a shabby cloak, not to mention the pot on his head!). But it is Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra robes that save the day in this section of the exhibition; the Oscar-winning costumes designed in 1963 by Irene Sharaff more than make up for the Star Wars blip mentioned above.

Act 3: Finale, a line-up of the most prominent costumes worn by Hollywood’s heroes and femme fatales, is unfortunately rather reminiscent of Madame Tussaud’s. Every costume, each a jewel in itself, has been given a digital LED-screen head, linking the respective actor to the “real” body. Here the abovementioned confusion as to why 007 isn’t pointing his revolver at Batman and not at his newest boiler-suit-clad adversary is finally placated. These figures are unable to react to the images and clips in the visitor’s head; their filmic roles are therefore uncoupled from the actor that plays them, as are Daniel Craig and Javier Bardem – here the costume remains nothing more than a guise worn by an A-list actor. The little black dress designed for Audrey Hepburn by Hubert de Givenchy, an icon of unfulfilled aspirations as she stares longingly into a window display with a coffee in one hand a pastry in the other, is featured in this segment as a symbol of the relationship between fashion and film. Despite or perhaps precisely owing to the tight arrangement of the costumes in this the third part of the exhibition, it is at this point that the process of reflection upon what they have seen, the distance the visitor has now gained from the figures in the films and the relation he creates between what happens on screen and what happens in real life really kicks in. The final exhibit, a copy of the red shoes worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz” (costume design by Adrian), represents a perfect consolidation of fiction and reality – they are after all the eye-catching feature that adorns the cover of the extensive and highly recommendable exhibition catalog, while at the same time marking the entrance to the wonderful world of the “Hollywood Costume” exhibition merchandise shop.

"Hollywood Costume", V&A Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until January 27, 2013

Accompanying catalog: 320 pages, hardback £35, paperback £25, V&A Publishing

Harrison Ford as “Indiana Jones” in the adventure film “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), photo © Lucasfilm/ Paramount/ The Kobal Collection
Tippi Hedren as “Melanie Daniels” in Alfred Hitchcock’s horror movie “The Birds” (1963), photo © Universal Pictures/ Photofest/ The Kobal Collection
Judy Garland as “Dorothy” in the musical movie “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), photo © MGM/ The Kobal Collection
Dorothy’s red shoes from “The Wizard of Oz”, now to be seen at the “Hollywood Costumes” exhibition, photo © VA Images
Cate Blanchett as Queen of Great Britain in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007), photo © Universal Pictures/ The Kobal Collection/ Greg Williams
Hollywood costumes from the movie “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”, exhibited at Victoria&Albert Museum in London, photo © VA Images
Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s drama “Taxi Driver” (1976), photo © Columbia/ The Kobal Collection
Kate Winslet’s costume in the movie “Titanic” (1997), photo © V&A Images