Victoria & Albert Museum – ‘Hollywood Costume’

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*** SPOILER ALERT!***

So despite the posters proudly displaying Judy Garland in the iconic gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz you don’t actually get to see the famous red slippers. Well, not the real ones at least because the originals featured only at the start of this exhibition, then being returned to America where they had other plans. The one’s you see at this impressively thorough cat-walk of perhaps the greatest costumes used in American movies over the past 100 or so years are direct copies made from the originals. The impressive signage that abounds at this V&A curation explains it all clearly…but it’s right at the very end of a long walk so, depending on how much you have enjoyed all of the previous pieces or how tired one is by then, you’ll either feel slightly short changed or downright miffed.

But no matter when the dazzling array of clothing and the in depth research that accompanies them is so impressive.

The curators have not only sourced the correct quotes from the designers/actors/directors involved in their creation but also reveal how the clothing was physically put together, the sometimes arduous and finger-busting weeks put into breathing such vivid life into fabric, feather and sequin and how this final product created it’s own particular corner of Hollywood mise en scene (this is when the whole design of a film contributes to a sense of time and place in the film and also a characters mood and/or thoughts).

There are particularly florid, but helpful, contributions from scions of this art such as Gilbert Adrian (MGM’s in house designer during the studios Golden Age) and Edith Head (working closely with Ingrid Bergman and on films for Alfred Hitchcock), people who not only defined the actresses they clothed, but also defined eras (Travis Banton’s suggestion that Marlene Dietrich wear top hat and tails in Morocco caused a sensation that helped boost Dietrich’s fledgling American career and encouraged many other women to wear trousers).

Smartly, the curators have arranged the costumes into three distinct sections, each representing one of the three parts of the creative process. Deconstruction (the research phase), Dialogue (exploring the collaboration between designers and film-makers) and Finale (this, a roll call of the most famous outfits used in Hollywood films, feel like entering a decapitated but very familiar night club, where the heads of the most famous stars in cinema are replaced with TV screen projections).

There is obvious cross-over between some of the costumes in any of these sections and, obviously, one can see how the dialogue section might actually come first in some cases (particularly with Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Steven Spielberg had a vision in his head already about how Indiana Jones should look – designer Deborah Nadoolman, one of the curators, went on to fine tune the look that made Harrison Ford a star). There are also some detractions – Michelle Pfeiffer’s catwoman outfit from Batman Returns is almost missed by having her crouched and half-hidden atop a wall.

But these are minor worries when, for a movie geek such as I, there is such an awesome range of real pieces to feast your eyes on. Greta Garbo’s velvet dress in Queen Christina (1933 and, my, wasn’t she small in real life?), Hedy Lamarr’s lamarvellous, ridiculous attire from De Mille’s equally ridiculous Samson and Delilah (1949) to blasts from the past Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody (1929) and the largely forgotten silent vamp Louise Glaum in the titillatingly titled Sex (1920).

Aside from these extravagant dresses, one thing that really does hit home is how you never quite realise how the more ordinary clothing in a film (Robert Pattinson’s plain suits in the Twlight films to Brad Pitt’s red jacket in Fight Club) helps create a sense of a character’s self just as effectively, but in a more subtle, nuanced way than any Ostrich feather fascinator or intricately sequined Tudor era frock can.

More information about the exhibition can be found here.

An article by Deborah Nadoolman about the exhibition can be found here.

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