When I worked for the FIDM Museum last autumn, it honestly felt like I was getting up to go hang out with my friends rather than “real work” (though it was a lot of that, too). So I was rather pleased to be invited to the opening for their latest exhibitions, the 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, and BLISS, displaying 19th-Century wedding dresses and other objects from the Helen Larson collection. The opening was covered by several Los Angeles publications, such as The Hollywood Reporter, and was — as you can see in the image above — a very popular event. With the Academy Awards approaching, the V&A Hollywood exhibition moving on from Virginia this month, and Jill’s wonderful post about the Cosprop costume exhibition in Texas, it is not really surprising that the FIDM Museum’s exhibition has attracted such attention. What is so amazing about the exhibition is the way in which they manage to gather all of these costumes together, and still wow their audiences year after year.
I saw my first Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition at FIDM in 2011, where my own research into Kashmir shawls made the Jane Eyre display particularly interesting for me, as I was able to see how they imitated the imitations for the film. I was also attending on a Saturday in the midst of a CSA event, so it was not nearly so crowded as this attendance. I also now know, from having worked with the museum staff and the exhibition curator and Museum Coordinator, Michael Black, how much work goes into this show. Studios and production teams don’t always keep track of where their costumes go after the film wraps, so the finding and displaying of all of the costumes is nothing short of a miracle that Mike manages to reproduce every year. This year was particularly difficult, especially with some costumes which were borrowed from overseas being held by customs until just a couple days before the opening on 8 February.Pacific Rim
What struck me most about this year’s show was the sheer variety of costume design on display — a variety not always seen in the Academy Award nominations, I might point out. Starting with science fiction and fantasy costumes in the first gallery and first part of the second gallery, the exhibition showed select costumes from Ender’s Game, Pacific Rim, Oblivion, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, and Oz, The Great and Powerful, among others. Contrary to expectations with The Hunger Games, it was not the gloriously ridiculous outfits worn by citizens of the Capital that were on display, but those garments that had to have fabric specially designed and created for the pieces, such as Jena Malone’s ‘tree’ costume for her role as Johanna Mason. This was a theme that Michael Black emphasized throughout the exhibition — but which really stood out among the sci-fi and fantasy costumes — a “focus on unique fabrics that are often made from scratch to specifically fulfill the look needed for each character”.American Hustle The Butler The Great Gatsby
The remaining costumes ranged from historic — Renaissance for Romeo & Juliet, 19th-century for The Invisible Woman, Anna Karenina, and 12 Years a Slave, to early 20th-century for The Great Gatsby, The Grandmaster, and 42 — to orientalist fantasy for 47 Ronin. The latter was an interesting fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean traditional dress with the sort of costumes I used to see when I read manga as a teenager. There was also the work of at least three FIDM graduates, a wonderful way for current students to see the work of various alumni. There are also six displays by designers nominated for the 2014 Academy Award for costume design.
When I attended that first Motion Picture Costume exhibition three years ago, I was actually disappointed by the costumes. Many that had looked absolutely luscious on screen were, in person, a bit dull. For example, the above mentioned imitation of a Kashmir shawl was obviously stamped cotton (not a surprise, considering budget restrictions, but there are historic imitations that used stamping and looked more accurate than this modern one did). Or the costumes from Madonna’s W.E.: the black suit with white appliqué trim for Andrea Riseborough as Wallis Simpson had none of the appeal or glamour it did on screen (I would like the two hours of my life I spent watching that particular film back, but that’s another story). This year, I was absolutely astounded by the detail.Oz, The Great and Powerful The Great Gatsby (Daisy) 47 Ronin The Grandmaster
And it was not just the beautiful embroidery, beading and appliqué that was so impressive. It was the attention to detail: the simple elegance of a dress worn by Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby emphasized her character and her place as Daisy’s foil (I asked assistant registrar, Ilana Winter, if I could have that dress, she said no). Then there was a man’s tie on one of the costumes from Saving Mr. Banks which captured the era in a single accessory that is hard to explain. Even more so, was the wearing and tearing done to the costumes of 42 that made them look like they really had been worn in a baseball game. Or the delicate contrast that you had to look for to see between Michael Fassbender’s and the several slave costumes from 12 Years a Slave. Such common, if not pretty, details exemplify the sort of research and attention that is necessary to not only help the actors inhabit the character, but for the audience to inhabit the story.12 Years a Slave 42 Saving Mr. Banks The Great Gatsby (Jordan)
This attention to detail was a perfect segue into the other exhibition that opened that night, BLISS: 19th-Century Wedding Gowns from the Helen Larson Collection. Showing ten or twelve gowns, the show manages to illustrate the breadth of wedding gowns and wedding paraphernalia for the era. From the Belle Epoque with its opulence, to my favourite eras, early 19th-century empire gowns and Romantic era bell-sleeves, seemingly every fashion and detail of the century could be found in this small collection of dresses, gloves, shoes, bonnets, and fans.
The tiny gallery was absolutely crowded full of visitors — as full as the main gallery — every one of them speaking in admiration of the gowns, and more than a few aghast at how tiny the corseted waists were. The inclusion of individual bonnets, gloves, shoes, and in one case a letter accepting a proposal along with gloves and an engagement ring, gave a complete picture of the material culture of upper class weddings of the time period. It is also an excellent fundraising tool: each text panel showed the amount needed to be raised by the museum to purchase this particular piece for the collection, so that visitors could pledge what they could for their favourite garments and be involved in the acquisition.
It was also a wonderful way for independent scholars and students of dress history to see a collection that has not yet been digitized. The gown below — complete with hair arrow — fits perfectly with one of my current research focuses: the use and copying of Indian fabrics as evidence of the influence of Indian aesthetics on those of Britain. The gown looks to be made of an imitation saree fabric, with its simple print and detailed border (at the hem). I sense a research trip may be in order!
I could go on and on showing pictures and discussing the excellent curation and beautiful display. I was truly excited about getting to see my friends at FIDM, and seeing the exhibition, but I was completely unprepared for this year’s exhibition and the way little details still keep sneaking up on me. The array of costumes, well-displayed, and the exquisite nature of all the pieces from BLISS was in keeping with FIDM’s standards, but still incredible to see in person. As Michael Black says in his introduction to the film costumes exhibition, the displays really do cause visitors to “think about the fact that costume designers are often on the cutting-edge of researching new fabrics and techniques of creating and manipulating them to present the costumes you see on the screen”. Juxtaposed with the historic techniques, and couture craftsmanship seen in the wedding gowns in BLISS, I feel the two exhibition compliment each other.
The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition will be on display until 26 April, and BLISS will be up until 5 July.
Please share your comments below. And remember, if you are in North America and have any exhibitions or events happening in your area that you would like featured, just email me the details!