Character building – Hollywood costume at the V&A

By Josephine Grahl

Fashion and the movies have a mutually rewarding relationship. Historical movies, however authentically costumed, almost always have a little something of the period in which they are made – think of the poofy, quintessentially sixties hair in Doctor Zhivago, or the 1935 version of Anna Karenina, starring Greta Garbo as Anna, in which the female characters attend balls in sequinned strapless vamp dresses more suited to 1930s Hollywood than to late nineteenth century Petersburg. But it goes the other way too – Dr Zhivago sparked a brief craze for fur hats and long Russian coats, and Gone with the Wind inspired a short-lived fashion for romantic full-skirted evening dresses before the fabric restrictions of the Second World War put an end to such frivolous wastefulness.

Evidence for this symbiosis is sprinkled throughout the V&A’s new exhibition of Hollywood costume, five years in preparation, which assembles some of the most memorable and iconic costumes from the last century of Hollywood film. Witness the costume in which Claudette Colbert played Cleopatra in 1934, which to modern eyes looks like nothing so much as a particularly elegant 1930s evening gown. Next to it, one of Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits for her portrayal of the Egyptian queen is a reminder of the fashion for gilded embellishment and weighty jewellery which followed the success of the 1963 film. Since the exhibition is at the V&A, it’s an interesting exercise to visit the fashion galleries down the corridor and compare the authentic period clothing with the versions produced for film – how far do cinema versions stray from the authentic? How are the shapes and silhouettes exaggerated or minimised? When a costume is made to be filmed, what effect does that have on the detailing or on the colours used?

The exhibition is at its most interesting when it looks at the costumer’s art, offering the visitor the chance to compare costuming decisions made in different films and how these contribute to the dramatic effect. In the first gallery, which deconstructs the artistic effect of costume, the costumes from Dangerous Liaisons are shown next to those from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette: almost identical historical periods, but the heavy, imposing dress worn by Glenn Close contrasts interestingly with the more exaggerated silhouettes and pastelly cupcake aesthetic of the later film. Nearby, you can compare the dresses worn by Cate Blanchett, Bette Davis and Judi Dench in their respective portrayals of Elizabeth I, and admire the beautiful cobwebby lace of Vanessa Redgrave’s wedding dress from Camelot, a definitively sixties take on the mediaeval.

In the next gallery, video interviews with costume designers are a source of fascinating insight into the creative collaboration between a costume designer and a director – Edith Head talks about working with Alfred Hitchcock, Sandy Powell talks about Martin Scorsese. The exhibition technology is used effectively here, with interesting sections showing how colour and sound film influenced the way costumers worked, and a film showing how motion-capture technology is used today to digitally outfit CGI characters in films such as Avatar.

Overall, however, the exhibition relies too much on gimmicky digital displays. Due to the requirements of textile conservation, these must have seemed good way of getting round the need to keep the galleries dimly lit, but with screens displaying moving script quotations, video interviews with costume designers and actors, and – for many of the costumes – digital images of the actor’s head poised above the costume on display, there’s an overload of flickering, flashing information. Do we really need an altered series of film stills to show us how The Bourne Ultimatum would have looked if Matt Damon had swapped his anonymous-to-the-point-of-invisible grey jacket and trousers for a fluorescent pink number? Combined with the noise from the various video interviews and the loop of famous movie themes played at a headache-inducing volume, it’s a less than relaxing experience.

The final gallery of the exhibition is a line-up of some of the most memorable film costumes ever, from Holly Golightly to Batman. There’s an undeniable fascination in seeing the authentic costumes worn by stars across a century of Hollywood film… even though, of course, in many cases that means one of the authentic items “as worn by…” As the exhibition captions point out, twenty pairs of black Ray-Ban sunglasses were bought for the Blues Brothers; the Dude’s dressing gown is one of four identical ones worn by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. The more physically taxing a role is, the more changes are required, as action scenes mean that  clothes are ripped, soaked, covered with mud or stained with blood – there’s even a story that of the original sets of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, at least one pair was eaten by the dog playing Toto.

But for truly iconic costumes the frisson is undeniable. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp costume, picked out by Chaplin himself, a fascinating example of the way that costume both defines and determines character. Chaplin wrote in his autobiography: “The moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born”. In a filmed interview with Robert de Niro which stands alongside a selection of his costumes, he echoes that thought: “Sometimes when you put something on it just feels right and it helps you get a sense of who you are as a character. Maybe it’s something you associate with that you can’t even remember, that subconsciously connects to trip something off in your mind to make you feel more like that character.”

The green velvet ‘curtain’ dress from Gone with the Wind shows not only the way that Technicolor film intensified the colour saturation (the actual dress seems much duller in real life than on film), but also the impossible, doll-like smallness of Vivien Leigh’s waist. The exhibition culminates with Dorothy’s gingham dress and ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, exhibited outside the US for the first time ever,and the famous pleated white dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in the grating scene from The Seven Year Itch.  It is thrilling: Marilyn actually wore that – and here it is, on the stand, just a couple of bits of fabric looking like something you might pick up in a vintage store. It’s a moving reminder of the way that the greatest films are more than the sum of their parts.

Hollywood Costume is at the Victoria and Albert Museum until the 27th January 2013.

 (Judy Garland fans should hurry, though – the authentic ruby slippers as worn in the Wizard of Oz will be on display only until the 18th November, at which point they will be replaced by replicas.)

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4 thoughts on “Character building – Hollywood costume at the V&A

  1. I walked straight past the Bourne, which could have been a Blue Harbour display. The history of movies means that male characters have mostly been the most important (obviously less so in the 30s and 40s), but making their clothes memorable or decorative is as likely to detract from the actors’ impact. No jewels, no embroidery, no peacock feathers (which I’m betting were more forcibly pulled from Cecil B’s peacocks’ arses than he claimed) – even colour would mark one out as a fancy boy.

    And most of the other blokes were as uninteresting to me (Oceans, pff) – but I might have liked to look at the construction of the superheroes (embroidery! colour! fancy boys!), which were unhelpfully stuck to the wall. Could anyone’s neck crane as far as Catwoman?

    The single truly shocking male costume was the most pared down and mundane: Die Hard. When I left the exhibition I told everyone I knew that he was wearing cords. Not just cords, *elephant* cords. No one believes me. They saw him go into the bathroom, he was wearing a suit. THEY ARE THE ACTUAL TROUSERS! I’ve been shouting. No one will listen.

  2. “it goes the other way too – Dr Zhivago sparked a brief craze for fur hats and long Russian coats”

    (Sorry, two comment crazy.) And I liked that they said the ruffs went missing from the set of BD’s Elizabeth because they were so flattering. I scoffed at the time, then when I got to the gift shop and they had the black chiffon draw-string pleated collars, I was all, you know, that could *work*!

  3. Yeah, on the Bourne thing, I really wondered what the point of displaying the clothes was. Even Bond’s dinner jacket: it could be anyone’s.

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