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?