Museum Life: Film costume in the gallery and the archive

With Brenna’s recent post on Deborah Landis’s costume analysis on Turner Classic Movies, FIDM’s 22nd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition opening February 11, and the Academy Awards broadcasting March 2, discussion and presentation of excellence in costume design for film and television is in the air.

Exhibitions solely devoted to costume and fashion don’t pass through Central Texas very often, so I was happy last month to have the chance to view an exhibition of costumes that has been making the rounds in North America over the past few years, CUT! Costume and the Cinema, at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The exhibition showcases the artistry and inventory of London-based costume house Cosprop, which specializes in period and fantasy film.  Their creations have figured prominently in Oscar wins for costume design during the last four decades, beginning with the 1985 Merchant Ivory film, A Room With a View.

Something I really value in viewing exhibitions, traveling or otherwise, is not only the enjoyment of seeing garments in person and how they are contextualized, but also how the process of absorbing the presentation and narrative allows for reflection on one’s own work and practice and the collections in one’s care.

The gallery space was a visual feast that wisely resisted becoming too overwhelming.  With a particular emphasis placed on educating the audience in the examination of embroidery, lace, beading, underpinnings, period construction and the recognition of the considerable expertise involved, more than the 43 costumes on view would have been too much to take in.  The text panels also encouraged visitors to consider these elements not only within the context of the film narrative and the psychology and motivations of the character, but also within the social codes of fashion of the given period.

This exhibition, though an advertisement for Cosprop in particular, helped to shine a light on behind-the-scenes craftspeople, sometimes mentioning practitioners by name, beyond the star and the designer. While many visitors seemed to focus on this, some people breezed by text labels or looked only for which actor wore the costume.  The text panels introducing each section and labels placed by each costume appeared small and subtle next to the showstopping costumes, but did attempt to communicate that the costumes were not there as just eye candy or celebrity souvenirs–they challenged the audience to really look at the details.

Female costumes were presented on what appeared to be the most petite size dress form from Stockman, a company used by museums and couture clients alike. This presentation worked with costumes worn by very svelte and/or petite actresses, such as Nicole Kidman, Keria Knightley or Natalie Portman (all former or current spokespeople for couture houses). In the case of a costume worn by Maggie Smith in Gosford Park (2001), the juxtaposition of a film clip of Maggie Smith with the costume as displayed on the couture-sized mannequin highlighted the distinct difference between the costume worn by Smith in the film and the costume as presented in the gallery. With these standardized bodies, the actor and their unique embodiment of the character is sometimes denied.


Costume worn by Maggie Smith in Gosford Park (2001)
Costume Design by Jenny Beavan
Cut! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

That said, creating a particular person’s body and a certain character’s personality through a standard dress form or mannequin is difficult, time-consuming, and not always possible given various budget, staff, or time constraints.  For an idea of just how challenging it is, read this article on preparing costumes, contemporary and historical, from all genres and eras for the exhibition, Hollywood Costume.

Costumes were generously spaced throughout the gallery on low platforms, or spaced closer together without platforms if from the same film, as in a series of costumes from The Duchess (2008).


Gallery of costumes from The Duchess (2008)
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena


Costumes worn by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes in The Duchess (2008)
Costume design by Michael O’Connor
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

Visitors could step forward to examine details, inches away from the costume with no barriers.  Museum guards were attentive and present in each room, but I was surprised at how close I could approach the costume. And yet these garments comprise a portion of the archive of a privately owned, working costume company, not a public museum collection of period garments (although perhaps these costumes have been permanently pulled from use and circulation?). All of the costumes in CUT! are not actual 18th, 19th, or 20th century garments, but contemporary period costumes created in the late 20th and 21st centuries with fabric and stitches made more resilient than historical garments by their relatively young age. I do not mean to imply that Cosprop is not concerned about their stock, or the McNay about collections in their care, but rather that pieces from a museum collection generally could not be displayed with this kind of first-person intimacy.  Additionally, the kind of scrutiny that CUT! encouraged could not be done without the ability to see the costumes close-up.

As the desire for ever more dynamic and interactive displays inevitably increases, digital components, both online and in the gallery, will likely continue to be utilized in helping to create an intimate experience of the garment. I missed out on the McNay’s app, “The Dressing Room”, while in the gallery.  This is a version of virtual interaction that playfully approaches the forbidden action of wear and embodiment for costume collections intended for preservation. Hollywood Costume had a similar app, “Hollywood Photobooth”, at its originating venue at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Overall the exhibition did a pretty good job of educating the audience about the creative process of costuming, although I felt that examples illustrating the differences in the creative process could have been grouped together more coherently in a single gallery space. One text panel explained that a costume, when the budget allows, can be built from scratch, with construction, embroidering, beading, or other embellishment created by Cosprop’s staff.  Or, an entire costume can be created around a period fragment, such as the intricately beaded panel at the front of a costume from The Portrait of a Lady (1996).


Costume worn by Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady (1996)
Costume design by Janet Patterson
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

Sometimes a completed, previously used costume is selected from stock by the designer, such as an ensemble from The Prestige (2006). I wondered if audiences realized these differences between each costume, as the various examples of each design decision (complete construction, partial construction, or stock rental) were spaced apart throughout the galleries, and descriptive labels for each costume were relatively small and usually placed on the wall beside or behind the costume.


Costume worn by Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige (2006)
Costume Design by Joan Bergin
CUT! Costume and the Cinema at McNay Art Museum
Photo by Jill Morena

When confronted with such stunning costumes, fantastical to 21st-century eyes and beyond the realm of current everyday wear, it is perhaps easier to convince the public that the choice of a ready-made costume is a creative act. It may be more difficult when the audience is faced with something that looks like a shirt or sweater they may have passed by yesterday at the mall or the thrift shop, folded on a shelf or hanging on a rack.

The Academy favors design for lush historical or fantasy films, like the costumes displayed in the CUT! exhibition. This emphasis is not surprising, and is, of course, deserving.  And yet the complexity and attention to detail that is so celebrated in period costume can be just as evident in costume for films set in the present day.  A costume does not have to be a showstopper of historical accuracy to contain evidence of the thought process and careful assemblage of a character’s ensemble.  In contrast to the Academy’s monolithic category, the Costume Designer’s Guild recognizes achievement in separate categories: contemporary, period, and fantasy film.

When I prepared a costume worn by Robert De Niro from Silver Linings Playbook (2012) for viewing in the lobby in advance of last year’s Oscar ceremony, one participant asked, “Is this even a costume?” The pervasive assumption of costume design as largely historical or out-of-the-ordinary makes an seemingly ordinary outfit look like an interloper in the world of costume design.

DeNiro Silver Linings Costume

Costume worn by Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Robert De Niro Costumes and Props
Harry Ransom Center
Photo by Pete Smith

And yet the costume above is more complex than you think.  Designer Mark Bridges has talked about where he imagined Robert De Niro’s character, Pat Sr., would shop for his clothes, and then went and shopped at those stores and malls.  He created a wardrobe chronicling Pat Sr.’s love for his favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles, by mixing vintage pieces like this 1960s/1970s cardigan with newer pieces from neighborhood shops. He and his wardrobe team also sourced older logo patches of the Eagles and sewed them on different garments, as seen on the well-worn cardigan, indicating a much-loved sweater that has been in his closet for years.

Of course the extraordinary costume is a compelling object, and such garments make for dramatic presentations in the gallery. But I often wonder if any other museum or archives (besides studio archives), collect ready-to-wear contemporary costume. Are we losing or under-representing a history of costume design through a focus, reinforced by the Oscars and exhibitions like CUT!, that centers mainly on the historical and the extraordinary?

I would love to hear from others who have contemporary, non-period or fantasy costume in their collections, or also recent ready-to-wear fashion (not high-end designer), and any thoughts on whether you think this is or is not a neglected collection area.

I’ll leave you with a few blogs to visit that focus on all aspects of costume, such as Clothes on Film and Frocktalk, and a tumblr, Costumer of Awesome, that hilariously reveals not only the creative process but also the workaday travails of wardrobe, and the frustrations of how the work he or she does can be misunderstood or underappreciated.

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1 Comment

  • ian drummond February 11, 2014 08.37 am

    Hello Jill,
    thanks for this post. I’m always looking to see if movie costume exhibits are coming to Toronto or a city in the region.
    My rental house isn’t as venerable as Cosprop. My collection is mostly 20th century and in a good year travels around the world to various projects. I try to see as many of the projects as I can and from time to time pull pieces from the stock and set them aside if they have been seen on marque talent. I do this in part to keep them out of rotation so they don’t end up on other stars but also to build a little nest egg of pieces that now have some provenance. It not extensive right now bout could be in another 20 years.
    I think the public appreciates the chance to see the costumes up close, in moving pictures we rarely have the extravagance of the camera lingering lovingly on any costume.
    The Downton Abbey Exhibit is coming to Toronto this spring and the anticipation is growing. One of these days producers are going to tweak onto the fact that there is
    money to be made in traveling costume and prop exhibits ala Game of Thrones and LOTR.


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