There are certain exhibitions that you simply have to resign yourself to never seeing, whether because of time, travel, or other constraints. When the American leg of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume was announced, I had resigned myself to not seeing it since there were no venues on the list in California. And then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced they would be inaugurating the opening of their own museum — in collaboration with LACMA — with a Los Angeles showing of the exhibition. I knew I would be going, and I was excited to see such a well-reviewed international exhibition. I had no expectations other than that I would be seeing amazing film costumes on display, and I suppose I thought this would be simply a more grandiose version of FIDM’s annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition. What I didn’t expect to see was possibly the best dress exhibition I’d attended since Fashioning Fashion.
The exhibition is up in nearly pitch blackness, so it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. This is as much to protect some of the older garments — pieces worn by Charlie Chaplin and Carole Lombard — as it is to set the tone for the entire exhibition and make the costumes stand out. The displays are small at first: the initial platform had perhaps five different films featured, clearly separated from each other not only by physical barriers but by the differences between the costumes — from Mary Poppins to Beyoncé as a Dream Girl, to Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, to the wedding attire from The Last Emperor (seen above). These displays featured not only the posed mannequins wearing the costumes, but often moving images behind them of the actors wearing the garments in the films. Segments of the screenplays are displayed digitally to highlight how costumes fit into the production from the initial writing right up to the point that the audience sits down to watch the film.
And that rather sums up the entire exhibition: it was essentially a crash course in the importance of costuming in film, and the process of designing the costumes to enhance either the story, or a particular scene, or to establish a character — and often all three.
From the revelations of costume descriptions in scripts, the exhibition moved on to the importance of establishing a character in a particular scene. This was the initial example of how the exhibition integrated advanced technology into the exhibition without distracting from the central message, but instead enhancing it. Using a rather plain, uninteresting, grey ensemble worn by Matt Damon in the guise of Jason Bourne, and showing the scenes from the film in which it was worn, the exhibition demonstrated how costume designers and directors work together to create ambiance on screen — making characters appear and disappear using costume. They did this through showing a scene in which Bourne is supposed to be blending in with the crowd and then superimposing various obvious costumes onto the character using photoshop — demonstrating in a way a text panel never could how even an “uninteresting” costume is vital to the entire film.
From this point, the exhibition moved on to showing how costume creates a character. Through not only the costumes, but copies of the designer’s sketches in the creation process they showed the creation of the various characters from the Ocean’s 11 remake. Following the projections onto a virtual draft table in front of the costumes you could see the time, thought, and even collaboration between the designer and the director and the actors, that went into each garment on the mannequins. It was fascinating to watch the other visitors’ eyes follow the notes from the sketches on the “table” back up to the costumes to see how the garments were used to establish each character. This in turn set the stage for the intense analysis of Indiana Jones that came next. As the exhibition was curated by (and the catalogue written by) Dr. Deborah Nadoolman-Landis who created the original costume for Indiana Jones, this was both natural and absolutely fascinating. Dr. Nadoolman-Landis explained not only how she came up with Indy’s color palette — as an archaeologist he works with dirt and underground so his palette, even while teaching, is brown — but the methods and techniques she used to age his hat and his jacket (she borrowed Harrison Ford’s pocket knife for the latter). All of which explained how costume was vital to the creation of a pop culture icon.
Now that the creative process, and costume’s importance had been thoroughly established it was time to explore how different designers could interpret the same basic concept. Rather brilliantly, they did this through the numerous embodiments of Queen Elizabeth I — from Bette Davis to Judi Dench. It was also demonstrated through interpretations of the eighteenth century on screen, from an exact copy of a gown in a painting by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun for a 1940s biopic about Marie Antoinette, to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, to Glenn Close’s costume from Dangerous Liaisons. Each costume had a placard that told you not only who wore it and who designed it, but often had a quote from the designer about their inspiration which gave amazing insight into where each new interpretation of these two eras — Elizabethan and Baroque — came from.
The second room was another interesting combination of technology and physical costumes. The exhibition set up “conversations” between the director and the costume designer — or actress and costume designer in the case of The Birds — through interviewing both for several films (or playing archival footage in the case of Edith Head). They did this for four films: The Birds (modern day interview with Tippi Hedren and archival interview with Edith Head), Closer, Django Unchained, and Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (I may have felt like swooning at the chance to hear Colleen Atwood talk costuming no matter what the film). I didn’t spend as much time in this room, but it was still a fascinating insight into the process of creating a look for a character or an entire film and into the designer’s creative process.
The third room explored other aspects of costume design such as “remakes” of popular films — Ben-Hur, True Grit, Superman, and Cleopatra being the most memorable displays. This connected to the previous exploration of different interpretations as well as gave the exhibition the opportunity to showcase costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood alongside modern costumes. This they did masterfully by placing Hailee Steinfeld’s costume from 2010’s True Grit next to John Wayne’s costume from the 1969 original, and by placing Claudette Colbert’s Cleopatra costume next to Elizabeth Taylor’s. Having revealed in a previous post that Singin’ in the Rain was my favourite film when I was about four years old, words cannot describe how excited I was to see an original Singin’ in the Rain costume next to similar garments from The Artist and Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby.
The star of this third room — and of so many films — was the display dedicated to Meryl Streep. Featuring costumes from films at the beginning of her career to some of her most recent roles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Out of Africa next to The Iron Lady), this platform showed just how costume can change and alter the appearance of a single actress. It was the final “lesson” of the exhibition, but one that was amazingly done — with costumes from obscure films Ms Streep has been in placed next to roles for which she has been nominated for and even won major awards.
With all the ways costume is vital to film and the ways it transforms not just scenes but actors and characters firmly established, the final room was simply a smorgasbord of costuming history. Liza Doolittle next to Rose from Titanic, Pretty Woman next to a Carole Lombard gold lamé evening gown, Barbara Streisand costumes from the 1960s next to the American Hustle costumes, The Matrix next to Kill Bill — by grouping costumes according to genre (SciFi, historical, pseudo-historical, military) it showed how each theme can be interpreted based on the demands of not just the film but of the intended audience. The exhibition culminated, of course, with Dorothy’s ruby slippers — both the originals that are now fading behind plexiglass and some sparkling recreations.
One thing I was remarkably struck by was the difference in the quality of some modern costumes compared with those of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the photo of the Cleopatra costumes above, there is a costume worn by Delilah in Samson and Delilah that has actual peacock feathers individually sewn into the cape and train; for one showgirl costume the skirt is actually made of mink; this is compared with Rose’s Titanic costume which is clearly printed pinstripe in person, not woven, and the fabric itself is not of the best weave available. It would have been very interesting to find out if this is due to a difference in expectations, budget, or if digital technology makes things appear differently on screen.
I knew it was not just a good but an excellent exhibition when I realized I had lost track of time while viewing it. The only time I felt compelled to look at my watch was as I exited the building. The exhibition was also masterfully laid out. You always knew where you should go next, and the exhibition’s overarching educational point was made succinctly through visuals as much as tombstones and wall text. It did so without preaching or boring its audience with too much wall text, but also didn’t lose their audience through too little wall text, a very fine, difficult line for museums to walk. The Victoria & Albert and Academy walked this line well. Admittedly, since the exhibition takes place in an empty building being renovated by the Academy they had something of an advantage: they could create exactly the space they wanted instead of being constrained by an already existing exhibition space. I will be intrigued to see, as the renovations continue, what the Academy does with the Wilshire May Co. building and how it manages both permanent and special exhibition display spaces when the museum opens.
Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised — astounded, even — by an exhibition I had almost given up having the opportunity to see. It simply establishes further the brilliance of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and whets my appetite for the future Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences museum. I’m now very keen to see what they have in store for us.
Have you seen Hollywood Costume, either in Los Angeles or at another venue? What did you think? How did it differ from my experience in L.A.? What were your favourite pieces or aspects of the exhibition? Please share your thoughts in the comments. Or if you have an event or exhibition you want Worn Through readers to know about, feel free to contact me so I can put it in my next column!
Hollywood Costume will be open next door to LACMA until March 2.
All images courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.