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A Designer’s Dream: Hollywood Costume Exhibit at V&A Mueum

Via Christian Esquevin
The Hollywood Costume exhibition in London at the V&A Museum, open through Jan 27, 2013, organized and co-curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a noted Hollywood costume designer herself and the Founder and Chair of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA, is filled with designs for classic hollywood costumes and costume lovers.

 Photo Daniel Deme/WENN

Michael Munnelly, St. Brendan’s College student from Ireland made the pilgrimage to London and the V&A just to visit the exhibition. When he saw the Bride Wore Red gown above, he said, “…it was one of the highlights of the exhibit and it almost glowed in all its glory! The oohs and ahhs could be heard all around.” Indeed it does glow, and amazingly, it was designed by Adrian for a black and white film. This gown even had its own line of dialogue. When Joan Crawford’s character chooses to wear the gown at a wedding, her maid says, “Not this red dress, not here. You may as well wear a sign.” And in this film in particular, all the costumes worn by Joan Crawford play a crucial role in developing character and plot. The gown is on loan from the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
But as bravely as Dr. Landis  wants us to understand  that the purpose of  film costume is to advance character development and plot, there is no denying that the Glamour andGlitter still resonate, and these twin sirens of Hollywood costume in large part create the appeal of the show.

Photo V&A Museum

The exhibition is organized into three sections that help foster that understanding. Act One: Deconstruction, emphasizes the role of the costume designer, Act Two: Dialogue, focuses on the relationship between actors, filmmakers and designers, andAct Three: Finale highlights some of the most  iconic costumes of film history.

Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis is shown below at left, along with the V&A’s Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick at right, shown working on installing the exhibition. Sir Christopher Frayling also served as a guest curator. 

Photo V&A Museum

From the beginning phase of planning for the exhibition,  Dr. Landis did not want to put “…dead frocks on dummies.” as she was quoted as saying in the New York Times. Rather she wanted to make this exhibition  more educational, and to  place the costumes in their proper context.  Thus, video screens showing head-shots of the actors wearing the costumes are part of the displays, as shown above, and a page of the screenplay where the costumes are most pertinent is displayed along side them. These techniques help to better understand the purpose of costume in film.
Not glamorous but just as important to their characters are the simple costumes of the protagonists of Brokeback Mountain, yet the thrill is still in knowing that Garbo or Marilyn Monroe wore the costumes here on display, and it is that aura that emanates from the costumes. And it should be remembered that the gowns of golden age Hollywood were designed to radiate glamour. It was that very glamour that subsequently influenced world fashion. Many of the gowns on exhibit at the V&A possess that quality.

Photo Daniel DemeWENN

It is indeed a museum’s job to educate us as to the meaning of the objects it collects and/or displays. Yet it is the power of these objects as relics that most fascinate us, especially when they combine beauty and glamour, and convey to us the knowledge that they lay closest to the skin of the super stars that wore them. So it is this multifaceted aspect of film costume that fascinates: art: fashion; symbol; relic; and yes, vehicle for character development.

That film costumes have found a place in museum collections and in museum exhibitions is heartening. Long used, mis-used and all-too-often discarded by the studios, their survival today took an act of faith by dedicated collectors and a handful of curators with foresight.

That they are displayed in museums of international status such as the V&A, and  previously the MET, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, means that the costumes should finally get the attention they deserve in terms of scholarship, preservation, and even documentation of provenance and authenticity. Fashion schools such as FIT and FIDM also have had notable exhibitions as well as colleges such as Ohio State University. I bring up authenticity because  even at the the MET exhibition, certain reproductions were displayed when the originals were not to be found. And even now, more than one copy of a costume can be floating around, and not just multiple copies made for the original film production, such as the Dorothy Wizard of Oz pinafore, but rather of reproductions made years later for fashion shows, exhibits, and even for someone who wants to have their own version to display. 

Assigning proper film credit for all costume designs during the early and classic period may be a hopeless cause. The wonderful dance dress shown above, designed for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, 1944, is notable for its mink over-skirt lined in violet and gold colored sequins, worn over a leotard with matching paisley pattern. It originally had a matching mink bolero jacket. Edith Head and Raoul Pene Du Bois were credited for the film’s costume design, yet Barbara Karinska, who was also part of the design team for the film but received no film credit, claims to have designed the sequin skirt so it could work as a dance costume. This costume was part of the BFI collection recently donated to the V&A. It is an amazing creation.

Photo Daniel Deme/ WENN

The amazing Travis Banton-designed gown for Marlene Dietrich in Angel, 1937,is a marvel of Hollywood studio craftsmanship.  It was made from chiffon and embroidered with thousands of hand-sewn silver and gold  sequins and Austrian crystal beads. The stole is trimmed in Russian sable. 

Photo Daniel Deme/WENN

Travis Banton also designed this stunning costume for Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra,1934in green  silk satin. It was one of several wonderful costumes for this Cecil B. De Mille epic.
The emerald green satin gown designed by Jacqueline Durran and worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement, 2007, created a fashion stir when the film came out. It is backless with spaghetti straps, and features a wide self-belt that hangs loose at the side. Keira looked fabulous in the classic gown, and the erotic scene in which she wears it likely helped create its notoriety.

Photo Daniel Deme/WENN

The iconic pinafore dress designed by Adrian and worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy inThe Wizard of Oz, 1939, is shown above at the exhibit. The dress in the film is blue and white gingham, with its characteristic wide straps buttoned at the high waist. The blouse here is a replacement - it’s whiteness would have been a problem for the Technicolor film at the time so the original blouse had to be an ecru color. While fading of fabric is all to common, it is more likely that this dress was the monochromatic version used for filming the black and white scenes in the film, replaced by the brighter blue and white version used in the color sequence. Since this was the only costume worn by Judy Garland in the film, several versions of the dress were created in order to allow for quick costume changes while filming, this in case of damage. Back in the USA, another Dorothy pinafore from the Wizard of Oz went up for auction at Julien’s Auctions on November 10thIt sold for $400,000 excluding the commission.
And making a big splash at the exhibition were the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz. This pair was loaned by the Smithsonian Museum for one month only, before they return to the U.S. There are five pairs of the Ruby Slippers known to exist. Unfortunately, one pair on loan to the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota were stolen in 2005, and they have never been found. The shoes are covered in red sequins, the bows covered in red rhinestones and bugle beads.

Photo Daniel Deme/WENN

The Elizabethan period has always been a popular period for historical films with lavish costumes. The regal costume above was designed by Sandy Powell for Judi Dench who played Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love, 1998. The beautiful red costume in the background was designed by Walter Plunkett for Katharine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland, 1936.

Photo Daniel Deme/WENN

Another regal gown is shown at right above, designed by Adrian for Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, 1933The velvet costume is embroidered with crystals and cut-metal adornments. Shown at left is Vanessa Redgrave’s costume from Camelot.
Marilyn Monroe is also represented by this silver sequined and beaded costume for her role as Sugar Kane  Kowalczyk in the famous Some Like it Hot  directed by Billy Wilder. Unseen from this view, the dress has a translucent heart shape cutout at the rear posterior.
More contemporary is this snappy outfit designed by Sophie Carbonell for Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, 2001. The purse had a significant part to play, as shown in the photo.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis’ own iconic costume design for Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Arkis shown above. Costume sketch, film poster, and screenplay reproductions are shown along side.

Photo V&A

The exhibition has made clear the purpose of costume and costume design, and its role in film. Paradoxically, the acquisition and display of film costume in museums begs the question, what is the purpose of a costume after the the film has been released? The objects here on view  no longer serve the purpose of film-making, although they may have served a role at one point in film publicity. But afterwards the costume has become an object, an object of desire, an object of study, or a very valuable and collectible relic, and perhaps also a symbol of nostalgia. Or is it an object of beauty to admire? Even a fetish object? And while costume designers today downplay the connection of film costume to fashion influence, this was once an important marketing tool under the old studio system, and even today they can still serve as fashion inspiration. 

My Photo  Christian Esquevin likes to write about, research, and collect the artifacts of golden age Hollywood costume design and the designers and studios that produced them. He has specialized in the Hollywood costume designers of the classic period - from the 1920s through the early 1960s, collecting the costume design sketches of designers Walter Plunkett, Irene (Gibbons), Orry-Kelly, Edith Head, Mary Wills, Helen Rose, Travilla, Jean Louis, Rene Hubert, Edward Stevenson, Donfeld, Renie (Conley), and others. Costume design takes its first tangible step with the these sketches, and they were then passed around from director to star and to cutter-fitters and seamstresses that made the costumes. Having grown up in Los Angeles, he is interested in the creation of costume and the motion picture arts in the old studio system and how the creation of costume has influenced fashion.

You can visit Christian’s blog, Here

To read more about the exhibition and ticket information,visit the exhibition’s website - Here