Domestic Affairs: The Eighteenth Century meets Movie Costumes at the FIDM Museum




It’s no secret that I love the FIDM Museum. This is not just because I have worked there. I loved the museum long before I worked there simply because of the quality exhibitions they produce. Their annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition and the ever-changing Helen Larson historic collection displays are no exception.

With the V&A’s Hollywood Costume having overlapped with the opening of this year’s Art of Motion Picture Costuming, I had wondered what was in store for me when I headed down to Los Angeles this weekend. I was, of course, not disappointed. There may have been some competition for costumes this year, but Michael Black is a master at finding them — especially those by FIDM alumi — after all this time and the museum staff put together a truly wonderful exhibition.

Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent costume, which you see above and below, opened the exhibition and set the tone for drama and fantasy that rather pervaded this year’s exhibition as it pervaded many of the 2014 films.

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As the exhibition is entitled The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design, opening with the Maleficent costumes was a perfect way to emphasize the artistry that goes into costume design. The dramatic silhouette of Angelina Jolie’s costume is of course the first thing you notice, but there is a intricate interplay of textures and fabric that draw you in closer and must have been wonderful to see on screen. The train on the gown, coupled with the collar and the sleeves don’t compete for attention but all combine to create a perfect garment for, I confess, my favourite Disney villain EVER. And this was not a case of emphasizing one character at the expense of the others.


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Above you see the costumes for not only the fairies, but Prince Philip (in hunting garb) and Princess Aurora when in hiding as Briar Rose. The mediaeval origins of the costume designs are clearly present, but adapted to create a fairy tale world in which dragons and griffins and sleeping curses exist. Having been disappointed before by costumes that turned out to be printed fabrics, it was delightful to see embroidered details on even the fairies’ aprons and gowns, and detailed trimmings on Philip’s hood — minor characters who still received the designer’s full attention.



FIDM Museum’s skill at exhibition design was far more subtle even than the black on black details of Maleficent’s costume. It wasn’t until I’d been all the way through the exhibition that I realized how well the exhibits flowed from one film to the other, from one film genre to the other. Moving in a clockwise motion around the Maleficent display, you saw most of the other fantasy film costumes on display: Exodus, Dracula: Untold, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Night at the Museum. Oddly the biblical costumes for Exodus with their ancient Egyptian armor were the perfect segue into the fantastic interpretations of Turkish and Eastern European clothes found in Dracula.


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I loved the Egyptian gown above for its clear links to Fortuny. Even more interesting was the use of the alien villain, Ronan’s costume as a transition from the Eastern European aesthetic of Dracula into the pure SciFi of Guardians of the Galaxy — the similarity in lines between the Turkish armor from Dracula and Ronan’s armor would never have occurred to me had the two not been displayed. I found myself wondering what the Guardians of the Galaxy designer’s inspirations and research included, and what their design process was — exactly the purpose of the exhibition, to highlight the expertise and broad range of knowledge designers must have to draw upon when it comes to even designing for a “comic book” movie (albeit one I rather enjoyed).



It was the next transition that I realized later was absolutely brilliant — it was so subtle that it was only as I flipped through my photos choosing which one I would use for this review that I noticed it. Moving again in a clockwise motion, we went from Guardians of the Galaxy to Birdman, which has its contemporary costumes, but also Michael Keaton’s ‘Birdman’ persona and its extravagant, feathered suit lurking in the background. This was the perfect transition from the purely fantastic movies we had begun with to the more contemporary or historical costumes that dominated this next section of the exhibition.


This section was also the point at which I realized I really hadn’t seen many movies this year, because wonderful as the costumes were (Gone Girl, Get on Up, Step Up — the last costumed by a FIDM alumna) I hadn’t seen many of them.



The next genre shift wasn’t as smooth as the Birdman transition, but it made sense in my head from an historical costuming perspective. Between the fantastic dance costumes from Step Up and the rather incredible costumes by Colleen Atwood from Into The Woods (possibly my absolute favourite Sondheim musical, and it starred Meryl Streep, need I say more?), was a display of costumes from Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby. This made sense in my head because upon seeing the purple dress Carey Mulligan wore as Daisy it became obvious that it wasn’t ruffled, they had simply sewn on little satin “tassels” if you will to simulate ruffles. A way to save fabric no doubt, but in combination with the menswear’s trouser legs being much to narrow for the time period, with Into the Woods costumes beyond it seemed to emphasize the fact that this was a fantasy version of the 1920s — and Fitzgerald’s novel, for that matter — rather than trying for any historical accuracy. Again, a juxtaposition that revealed aspects of the Great Gatsby costuming that would have escaped me otherwise.



I will try not to spend too much time waxing rhapsodic about the small collection of Into the Woods costumes — perhaps it is Disney’s seemingly bottomless budgets, but their costumes always seem to actually be good quality rather than simply appearing good on screen — but I absolutely adored the fairy-tale mix of genres: The 1890s leg o’ mutton sleeves seemingly constructed out of feathers on Meryl Streep’s blue gown, and the adaptation of a seventeenth-century doublet into a rocker-cool leather jacket from Rapunzel’s prince were absolutely brilliant.

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The rest of the costumes seemed to rather mirror each other, Big Eyes (set in the 1950s and 1960s) next to the costumes from Jersey Boys, and directly across from them the costumes from Selma, those from The Theory of Everything down the way, with the wonderfully eccentric costumes from The Grand Budapest Hotel mixed in. This was a wonderful grouping because it showed the myriad ways in which a single era of clothing could be interpreted to fit a film’s aesthetic and tell a story.



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Also on display were the costumes from The Imitation Game — mixed into the 1960s smorgasbord you see above — and those from X-Men: Days of Future Past. The latter was what you saw as you moved from this main display space back into the opening room with the other fantasy and science fiction costumes — so again, an excellent transition out of historical interpretation into fantasy, especially since I understand that movie involves time travel back to the 1960s. The planning of this exhibition’s displays and layout is absolutely incredible.

This is born out by the fact that as you exit the Motion Picture Costume Design exhibition you see two sets of costumes from two British historical films: Belle and Mr Turner. The latter I have not yet seen (but very much want to), and the former I would not have seen if not for a wonderful podcast review over at Frock Flicks.


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Putting these two films together made absolute sense simply from the perspective of grouping the costumes together by genre; but when I tell you that these are the last sets of costumes you see before you round the corner to see the eighteenth-century historic clothing on display from the Helen Larson collection, it becomes apparent that this is also excellent exhibition design.

And this is where I get very, very excited. It’s not that I don’t love movie costumes, it’s just that I love historic garments that much more. In my own research I tend to focus on menswear which is something that does not often make it into exhibition displays — at High Style there wasn’t a single man’s item of clothing to be seen — so I was utterly delighted to see more menswear in this display than women’s clothing. This could just be because the men’s silhouettes were so much narrower for the time period and display space is at a premium in the Helen Larson collection gallery, but the FIDM Museum managed to create such a masterful display that it really captured the range of clothing worn by ladies and gentlemen of the eighteenth century.


There were two full court suits, four waistcoats, and four coats for men; there were four gowns for women including robes à la française, anglaise and a robe volante. My mother had come with me to share the driving and was absolutely fascinated by the latter, especially since the tombstone explained that it was the transitional style that would eventually lead to the other styles on display. Through four gowns FIDM managed to convey the evolution of women’s eighteenth-century court attire. The unfortunate nature of the display space, though, was that since the backs of all but one of the gowns was emphasized it was nearly impossible to see the fronts of the gowns on the other three. I imagine mirrors would have amplified the light which would not have been good for the silk, but it still would have been lovely to see as close to a 365º view of the gowns as possible.

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I, naturally, was in raptures about the menswear. Here, too, there was a range of decades in menswear so you could see the breadth of choice that men once had when getting dressed in the morning before the “Great Masculine Renunciation” of color in clothing. I loved the contrast of the velvet court suit  with the bright coral silk suit opposite it on the platform. These two suits and the range of coats and waistcoats showed the various ways that menswear in the eighteenth century could be decorative. There might be embroidery, the fabric — as with the velvet suit (my personal favorite) — might be decoration enough, or you might have not only an exquisite fabric but appliqués and tassels as with the coral court suit.


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And to put the finishing touches, if you will, on the period — there were a number of accessories on display including a fan, a work bag, and two pairs of very elaborate (of course!) shoes.


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These two exhibitions have confirmed my belief that a visit to the FIDM Museum is always worth the trip.

The 23rd Annual Art of Motion Picture Costuming exhibition closes this Saturday, April 25, so get there while you can! Opulent Art: 18th-Century Dress from the Helen Larson Historic Fashion Collection will be on display until July 4th.

Have you seen either of these exhibitions? What did you think? Do you have an exhibitions or events happening near you or at your institution that you would like to share with Worn Through’s readers? Feel free to leave a comment, or to email me the details!

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