Janine Rudkins sees some of Hollywood’s most iconic outfits first hand, and discovers how pivotal a role film costumes really play in defining the character on screen, at the V&A.
Too many costumes are seen as something minor, necessary but unimportant or even superficial in films, but this could not be further from the truth as the newly opened Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A demonstrates. The curators of the exhibition want us to understand that costume design is not actually about the clothes at all – but about the creation of authentic individuals every single time.
“Don’t write about fashion and film – there isn’t any”
The exhibition is split into three ‘acts’, all of which show the great extent to which costumes take their cues from the visions of the director, writers and actors. Every element of a character’s outfit contributes to the creation of a persona. A film is asking the audience to believe the character is real, so they have to believe that their clothing is real – that there was life before the film began and these clothes were part of it, because “clothing take(s) our life journey with us.” And that is one of the aspects that make this exhibition truly interesting. It is not just about looking at some amazing outfits (although certainly that comes into it), it is about understanding the thought process that goes into creating them.
Hollywood Costumes gives you better insight into some of the characters in the films and how the director viewed them. Accessories and small details prove vital in building up a picture of a person – a watch or a ring can become tantamount in creating a believable character. These outfits will not be picked from the most fashionable stores and designers. They can come from all sorts of places. Indeed they may have even been found in an off-beat charity shop – as was the case with Borat’s suit.
The curators wanted to demonstrate that costume designers are “essentially designing the centre of every frame – in the centre of every single frame are the people we care about and the people tell the story” (Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Senior Curator). The exhibition’s aim is to illuminate the nature of film costume design as a very particular type of design with its own intricacies which are quite alien to regular fashion design.
The aim to ensure that the “design values … were up to the subject” in the exhibition is something which involved a multi-media approach. Avoiding some of the somewhat hackneyed costume or fashion exhibition styles (which have static displays of mannequins in costume behind glass cabinets) Hollywood Costume instead shows more depth to the curation of the exhibits by the dynamic use of digital media and moving images everywhere.
Next to the mannequins stand either screens showing images of the heads of the actors who wore the outfits, or in some cases a somewhat ethereal image of the actor wearing the costume behind the exhibit. This was the case with Scarlet O’Hara’s stunning green dress which the character was meant to have made from some old curtains. Rather than looking at an inanimate and lifeless dummy you were really looking at, and understanding, the connection between the costume, the character and the film – especially with the additional screen in front with relevant segments of the script being highlighted to further remind you of these links.
The arrangement of the costumes was also cleverly done, not simply lined up, but in actions more relevant to their characters, once again demonstrating the undeniable links between costume and character creation. With Superman flying above you, Satine from Moulin Rouge elegantly draped over a swing, Spiderman climbing down the walls, Melanie Daniels in The Birds falling back in fear surrounded by digital screens filled with birds, or the various Elizabeths and other queens set up in a royal court – you get the surreal but enjoyable feeling of stumbling from film set to film set.
The third and final gallery of the exhibition (or Act 3: The Finale) is jaw-dropping gorgeous and cinematic. In the curator’s notes it’s “just meant to blow your mind” – something it most certainly does with iconic costumes from Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz to Batman, to Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot to Bruce Willis in Die Hard with his well-worn vest. It almost feels like this final gallery is the culmination of all the lessons from the previous two, showing how they are all put together to create something truly memorable and successful.
The dynamic nature of the Hollywood Costume exhibition is heightened throughout; as you go through each of the galleries the lighting gets dimmer and the music gets louder, drawing you further into the theme and effectively makes you feel like you had been in a cinema watching a film rather than wandering around one of Britain’s landmark museums.
“What more could you want?”
The Hollywood Costume exhibition preview brought with it the exciting announcement that, in honour of this exhibition, the British Film Institute has donated the entire collection of its film costumes (come 700 items) to the V&A.
Frederic de Narp, from the lead sponsor Harry Winston, said the exhibition was about “people, drama, romance, speculation, precious stones, excitement – what more could you want?” Wandering around the gallery for a good three hours (and for what felt like half that) I could not have put it better myself.
Hollywood costume is curated by Hollywood costume designer and senior guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, guest curator Sir Christopher Frayling and V&A assistant curare Keith Lodwick. The exhibition is designed by Casson Mann, and the lead sponsor is Harry Winston.
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