Celebrating Hollywood Costume

The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London has announced its major exhibition of 2012. Amidst cinema awards season, ‘Hollywood Costume’ has been launched to the press as one of the most significant celebrations of film costumes in history. When opening to the public on 20 October, the exhibition will display over 100 of the most iconic costumes designed for cinema characters that have become memorable over the last 100 years of film history.

For the first time in the history of costumes public displays, ‘Hollywood Costume’ will unite classics from the Golden Age of cinema including Dorothy’s blue and white gingham pinafore dress designed by Adrian for The Wizard of Oz (1939), Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress designed by Walter Plunkett for Gone With the Wind (1939) and the little black dress designed by Hubert De Givenchy for Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), with the latest Hollywood releases including Consolata Boyle’s costumes for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011). Also confirmed to be part of the exhibition is the iconic white 3-piece suit worn by John Travolta as Tony Manero on the disco dance floor in the classic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, which was discovered in London after an international search by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Hollywood Costume’ has been conceived to explore the central role of costume design – from the glamorous to the very subtle – as an essential tool of cinema storytelling. It is expected to illuminate the costume designer’s creative process from script to screen and reveal the collaborative dialogue that leads to the invention of authentic people in the story. The exhibition will also examine the changing social and technological context in which costume designers have worked over the last century.

The exhibition will be devised as a three-gallery journey from early Charlie Chaplin silent pictures to the motion capture costume design for Avatar (Deborah L. Scott, Mayes Rubio, 2010) and John Carter (Mayes Rubio, 2012). From Joan Crawford’s blue gingham waitress uniform in Mildred Pierce (Milo Anderson, 1945) to the bugle-beaded ruby gown she wore in The Bride Wore Red (Adrian, 1937), the costumes selected are united by their one purpose of serving the story. Using montages, film clips and projections, the clothes will be placed in their original context, alongside interviews with key Hollywood costume designers, directors and actors talking about the role costume plays in creating a character.

The exhibition was curated by Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling, and Keith Lodwick, and its development has involved sourcing, identifying and securing objects from all over the world over the course of five years. The collectors who have loaned to the exhibition range from major motion picture studios, costume houses, public museums and archives and private individuals. The exhibits will be displayed across three sections to tell the story of costume design.

‘Act One: Deconstruction’ will introduce the role of the costume designer in cinema. This section will explore the link between clothing and identity and look at how designers create the characters for modern, period or fantasy films. There will be clothes instantly recognisable as being ‘costumes’ such as the imperial robes designed by James Acheson for The Last Emperor (1987) alongside others like Brokeback Mountain (2005), where designer Marit Allen’s designs for Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) may seem invisible. The steps of the costume designer’s research process will be explored in case studies including Fight Club (Michael Kaplan, 1999), Addams Family Values (Theoni V. Aldrege, 1993), and Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Deborah Nadoolman, 1981). The process will be revealed using designs and sketches, photographs showing costume fittings, budget breakdowns, and script pages to show dialogue that discloses character defining clues. The first act will conclude with a dissection of designer Alexandra Byrne’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) surrounded by a royal court of characters that will include the celebrated The Virgin Queen (Charles LeMaire, Mary Wills, 1955) played by Bette Davis.

‘Act Two: Dialogue’ will examine the intimate creative collaboration among filmmakers, actors, and costume designers. Using archival film footage as well as specially-commissioned interviews, this part of the exhibition will explore 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 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 from Silkwood (1983) to Closer (2004).

Costume designers have worked within a rapidly changing social and technological landscape over the last century: from silent to sound, black and white to Technicolor and from the Golden Age studio system to multi-national corporations and art house ‘indies’. Censorship, remakes and genre will be deconstructed in a section devoted to historic and social context. Cleopatra (1934) designed by Travis Banton will stand alongside the 1963 interpretation by Irene Sharaff starring Elizabeth Taylor. Thoroughly researched by the designers, the look of each Cleopatra is ultimately defined by the fashions of its own era. Archetypal cinematic genres will be explored with sword and sandal epics such as Ben Hur (Elizabeth Haffenden, 1959), Westerns including True Grit (Mary Zophres, 2010), fantasy films like Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (John Mollo, 1977) and period drama like A Room with a View (John Bright, Jenny Beavan, 1985). ‘Dialogue’ will show how costume designers have embraced the innovations in technology and animation, such as Joanna Johnston’s design for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), or computer generated imaging (CGI) and motion-capture (mo-cap), exemplified by characters from Avatar (Deborah L. Scott, Mayes Rubio 2009).

The ‘Dialogue’ section will conclude with the ‘Art of Becoming;’ two case-studies on the award-winning Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. In specially commissioned interviews, both actors, celebrated for their transformative skills, will discuss the importance of costume in developing and playing a range of their characters. Five costumes from each of their most famous roles will be on view.

The final section, ‘Act Three: Finale’ will present the best known costumes in cinema history in a spectacle of Hollywood heroes and femme fatales. Some of the most glamorous sirens from Roxie Hart in Chicago (Colleen Atwood, 2002) to Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct (Ellen Mirojnick, 1992) will be seen alongside fantasy, science-fiction and superhero characters including Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Eiko Ishioka, 1992), Twilight: New Moon (Tish Monaghan, 2009) and the latest high-tech suit for Batman in The Dark Knight Rises (Lindy Hemming, 2012). With costume designer Judianna Makovsky’s Gryffindor uniform design for Harry Potter to Errol Flynn’s doublet in The Adventures of Don Juan (Marjorie Best, 1948) and the sheer white chiffon cocktail dress worn by Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like it Hot (Orry-Kelly, 1959) to designer Jacqueline Durran’s green silk charmeuse gown work by Keira Knightly as Cecilia Tallis in Atonement (2007), these examples will show the most memorable costumes, characters and stories that continue to inspire generations, fashion trends and enrich international popular culture.