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Hollywood on the Thames: The Victoria & Albert's Hollywood Costume Exhibit

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These are the stuff that dreams—or celluloid fantasies—are made of, to paraphrase Shakespeare:  John Travolta's white disco suit from Saturday Night Fever... Judy Garand's blue-and-white-checked gingham pinafore-dress from, of course, The Wizard of Oz... Audrey Hepburn's sensational little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany's...Vivien Leigh's green "drapery gown" from Gone with the Wind.

©V&A images

Clothes make the man, they say, and in cinema, clothes help sculpt the character.  “On every film, the clothes are half the battle in creating the character," notes Meryl Streep—a woman cable of transforming herself into personnae from every continent (or Mars, if need be); from every walk of life (high brown, low brow, no brow); from any age, at any age.  And as she readily acknowledges, clothes aid her transformation.  Just how wardrobe supports any actor in becoming a character will be patently clear if you visit the stunning, skillfully mounted exhibit, Hollywood Costume, currently at the V & A, and on view through January 27th. 

The Wizard of Oz, 1939. Credit: MGM/The Kobal Collection

This is the museum's major, late-fall exhibit and it gathers together over 130 of the most memorable, iconic costumes created for unforgettable cinematic characters from over a century of filmmaking.  The exhibit explores the central role of costume design – from the glamorous to the most subtle – as an essential tool of cinematic storytelling. It illuminates the costume designer’s creative process from script to screen and reveals the collaborative dialogue that leads to the invention of authentic people within the story. The exhibition also examines the changing social and technological context in which costume designers have worked over the last century, with the items on display spanning silent-film era to the present period, when costumes can even be computer-generated and "captured" for wearing.

©V&A images

The costumes on view are united by their single purpose—to serve the story, and tell it in another dimension. To this end, the exhibit's curators,  Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a Hollywood costume designer, and Sir Christopher Frayling, guest curator, use montages, film clips, and projections; most appropriately, ensembles are showcased, not in an isolated museum format, but in their original context, in front of a blow-up still of the actor/actress wearing the outfit in the film.  Additionally, to make the presentation even more authentic-looking, the explanatory panels are written as film script pages, and there are dialogue pages from the movie in which the garment appeared, as well, all helping to bring the textiles to life. 

The exhibition has involved sourcing, identifying, and securing objects from all across the world over the course of five years. The costume collectors who have loaned pieces for the exhibition range from major motion picture studios, wardrobe houses, public museums and archives, to private individuals/collectors. The exhibit is cleverly organized into three "acts," creatively staged with cinematic paraphernalia and equipment.  In Act One, the costumes are somewhat deconstructed, with an emphasis on the design process behind the scenes. So, for example, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones' rough-and-ready outfit is projected on a large screen behind the actual costume, and piece by piece, item by item, the curators divulge the costumers' secrets, thebehind-the-scenes tricks of the trade—for example, how the leather is aged, or the trousers dirtied, why a certain fabric is chosen, or how a particular stitch is executed so it replicates the period, and so on, all in the effort to render the ensemble as authentically as possible.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Credit: Lucasfilm/Paramount/The Kobal Collection

There are clothes instantly recognizable as being "costumes," such as the imperial robes designed by James Acheson for The Last Emperor (1987) alongside others that are supposed to be "real street clothes" (where the street is the mountains) like those from Brokeback Mountain (2005), in which designer Marit Allen’s creations for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) may seem invisible against the backdrop, as they are so perfectly suited to their milieu. The steps of the costume designer’s research process are explored in case studies that include Fight Club (Michael Kaplan, 1999), Addams Family Values (Theoni V. Aldrege, 1993), and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Deborah Nadoolman, 1981).

The development process is revealed using designs and sketches, photographs illustrating costume fittings, budget breakdowns, and script pages to show dialogue that discloses character-defining clues. Act One concludes with a dissection of designer Alexandra Byrne’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) surrounded by a royal court of characters.

Titanic (1997). Credit: 20th Century Fox/Paramount/The Kobal Collection

Act Two: Dialogue examines the intimate creative collaboration among great filmmakers, actors, and costume designers. Using archival film footage as well as the audio from specially-commissioned interviews, this section explores four key director/designer pairings: Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head who worked together on 11 films including The Birds (1963); Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood whose nine films together have spanned Edward Scissorhands (1990) to Alice in Wonderland (2010); Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell who have teamed up on films from Gangs of New York (2002) to the recent Hugo (2011); and Mike Nichols and Ann Roth who have worked together for almost 30 years on films ranging from Silkwood (1983) to Closer (2004). This section is mounted in such a way, that viewers can actually sit down to listen to the complete audio interview, while almost being a part of the action or process.  This section concludes with a striking presentation of countless garments worn by the transformative actors Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. In specially commissioned interviews, both actors discuss the importance of costume in developing and playing a range of their characters. Five costumes from each of their most famous roles are on view.

©V&A images

In the last section, Act Three: Finale the best-known costumes from cinematic history are presented—featuring Hollywood heroes, femme fatales, comic-book superstars, to high-tech creations. Some of the memorable silhouettes featured here include the celebrated white cocktail dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, the unforgettable green silk-charmeuse, slinky frock worn by Keira Knightley as Cecilia Tallis in Atonement (2007), and a parade of James Bond's tuxedoes.

Ticket Information: Advance booking is advised, as this is a popular exhibit, with a £14 fee.;  020 7907 7073.

Posted on December 31, 2012 - by

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About the Author: About the Author: Ruth J. Katz is a well-known shopping and service writer based in New York City. She has written about shopping for 25 years for New York magazine; covered the topic on-air at Fox-TV for several years as the Home Services expert; and had her own show on both the USA and Lifetime Cable networks. Katz wrote extensively for The New York Times as well, and contributed periodically to the New York Daily News. She is a passionate shopper, always looking for not merely a good buy, but the best buy, ferreting out a "steal" or discovering up-and-coming designers. She has written five books and is a former contributing editor to Hearst's Redbook, Classic Home, and Colonial Homes; she is currently a Contributing Editor of New York Home, Golf Connoisseur, The Modern Estate, and Promenade magazines. She is also the former Shopping Director for Davler Media's Manhattan Living.

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