Hollywood Costume at the V&A

The Birds 1963 (Universal Pictures/Photofest/The Kobal Collection)The Birds 1963 (Universal Pictures/Photofest/The Kobal Collection)

‘Costume is character’ – Martin Scorcese

Costumes are an integral part of storytelling and costume designers are responsible for bringing characters to life, translating them from script to screen. The best and most effective designs are often the simplest – and authentically realised characters are regularly adopted into popular consciousness, appropriated as modern myths. As Deborah Nadoolman Landis observes, ‘an icon is born when a character can be instantly recogized in a silhouette’.

These cultural celluloid icons – from Holly Golightly to Sugar Kane, Tony Manero and Indiana Jones – are the subject of Hollywood Fashion, a glossy new exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Bringing together costumes from a variety of film genres spanning almost 100 years, the exhibition embraces and examines the process of costume design in Hollywood, in a surprisingly evocative tribute to ‘the movies’. Charlie Chaplin’s tattered Tramp costume sits next to Vivien Leigh’s green velvet ‘curtain’ dress, designed by Walter Plunkett for Gone With the Wind – early relics of movie history.

Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harvey Winston  (V&A images)

Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harvey Winston  (V&A images)Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harvey Winston  (V&A images)

Revelatory titbits punctuate the exhibition – who knew that Indy’s hat (made by Herbert Johnson) had its brim narrowed so the camera could film his face with greater ease? That Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz slippers were originally designed to be silver? Or that Borat’s ill-fitting grey suit was found in a run-down souvenieur shop on London’s Oxford Street? These stories bring the costumes to life and make the process of costume design real and understandable, whilst contextualising the practice within film history. The development of sound and colour had a major impact on everything from silhouette to fabric choice. As Adrian (the costume supremeo responsible for the slinky beaded dress worn by Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red) observes, the design has to ‘satisfy the discerning eye of the camera, an instrument much more calculating than the human eye….’

Clothes and costumes are designed to be worn and be seen in action and the curators of Hollywood Costume neatly sidestep the inertia of faceless mannequins with suspended photographs or slow-moving screen images of actors, placed where the head should be. The movie theme also lends itself to mounted script stands, piped musical overtures and shuttered spotlights – creating an intimate on-set experience.

The exhibition places considerable emphasis on the collaborative nature of filmmaking. ‘Dialogue’, the second exhibition room, analyses key director/designer relationships including Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood and Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head. The director, famous for his character specifics, had a successful and productive working relationship with Head, from the elegant suits of Tippi Hedren (The Birds) to the contrasting wardrobes of Kim Novak (Vertigo). In the accompanying exhibition book (edited by curator Nadoolman Landis), Head reveals, ‘unless there is a reason for color, we keep the colours muted…he uses color like an artist’.

Costume chameleons Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro are also examined in considerable depth in ‘collaborating with actors’. Discovering, transforming and disappearing into characters is all part of the job, and as Streep (who herself has a degree in costume design) explains, ‘everything is eloquent, everything is character, everything is story.’

The fittingly-titled ‘Finale’ is filled with costume after costume – a history of film from Kate Winslet’s pinstripe hobble skirt from Titanic, Uma Thurman’s banana yellow Kill Bill tracksuit, Blade Runner’s ‘40s and film noir inspired suits and Keira Knightley’s green silk from Atonement. In fact it’s impossible to recall an iconic film costume that’s not represented here. The exhibition closes with those ruby red slippers (red to better highlight the genius of Technicolor) and that billowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch – perhaps not the most creative pieces on display but certainly the best loved.

For contemporary museums and galleries, fashion and style exhibitions are a huge crowd-pleaser – one that blends fashion, film and Hollywood celebrity is a commercial cert. The success of Hollywood Costume lies in its blend of aspirational pop culture and costume realism, which combine to create believable, enduring and influential icons for movie audiences – and makes a case for the oft-overlooked role costume designers play in filmmaking.

Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, London until January 27 2013.

The Wizard of Oz 1939 (MGM/The Kobal Collection)The Wizard of Oz 1939 (MGM/The Kobal Collection)

Saturday Night Fever 1977 (2012 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved)Saturday Night Fever 1977 (2012 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved)

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