Hollywood Costume: A review

Florence Staunton Howe, a third year BA (hons) Fashion and Dress History student, reports back on her visit to the V&A’s blockbusting exhibition for her dissertation research.

The V&A’s Hollywood Costume Exhibition. 20 October 2012 – 27 January 2013 (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

I went to visit the Hollywood Costume exhibition in December 2012 and was looking forward to it enormously as I’ve always wanted to be involved in costume for film as a career. It has been one of the most publicised and eagerly awaited exhibitions the V&A has ever had and because of this I was expecting good things. As anticipated, when we arrived, there was a massive queue and a forty five minute wait. The queue kept getting longer as we stood in line.

The first thing that struck me once inside was how crowded it was and how difficult to move around and see everything. The mannequins were set out in lines and there was a solid wall of people in front of them. You had to try and ignore this fact to enjoy the exhibition. The selection of Meryl Streep’s and Robert De Niro’s costumes side by side really stood out for me as they are both acting legends and the costumes spanned their careers. Other costumes I particularly enjoyed included Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean, designed by Penny Rose, due to the fact that I’m writing my dissertation on the dress history of the pirate and its changing representation throughout history and popular culture. A costume from Avatar was intriguing to see as the film was a mixture of live action and computer generated imagery; it was fascinating to know what was real and what was virtual. In terms of display, Batman and Spiderman costumes were hung dramatically from the walls, while Marilyn Monroe’s famous classic white dress from her 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, designed by William Travilla and worth almost three million pounds, was displayed in a glass case as the culmination of the show. All around the exhibition there were videos of costume designers and actors talking about the process of creating costumes for film. The heads of all the mannequins showed digital projections of the actors’ moving faces (which was an unnecessary addition and little more than a gimmick). Each mannequin was displayed behind a photo of the actor wearing the costume and then text explaining which film the costume was from, who wore it and who designed it. There was usually also further explanation from someone involved in the production.

The main message I gained from the exhibition was an appreciation of the costume designers themselves. The exhibition was curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick. Landis and Lodwick have backgrounds in set and costume design, while Frayling is an eminent art and design historian. Together, they were keen to communicate how central and under-appreciated costume designers are in the creation of a film’s meaning. The exhibition definitely made you realise what an important and difficult job they have, and the exhibition goes some way towards finally giving them the credit and recognition they deserve. Costume plays a huge part in the creation of characters in film. A good costume designer, in my opinion, is someone who creates costumes that create characters and atmospheres, but doesn’t detract from the story. Film costume can also create effects beyond the screen, such as influencing fashion. As film scholar Sarah Gilligan has written, on this point, “clothing creates a tactile platform in which the spatial distance between the text and the spectator can be bridged via adornment and touch and thus the processes of identity transformation and performativity can be played out in our everyday lives”.

I’m not completely convinced that costumes can communicate character when static in an exhibition, without their accompanying actors, sets and music, but this was surely always going to be the biggest challenge for the curators of Hollywood costume: to see whether the costumes alone could recreate screen magic. However this, if anything, made me appreciate even more how hard the job of a costume designer is. After all, they have to design costumes for characters and films that haven’t yet been fully realised. For my dissertation I particularly wanted to see the Jack Sparrow costume as I am studying the historical influences and after effects of this particular manifestation of the pirate figure. While the costume was interesting to see, it certainly wasn’t as impressive as when Johnny Depp wears it on the exotic sets of Pirates of the Caribbean. However I did like how the exhibition had the mannequin engaged in a sword fight with an Errol Flynn Don Juan costume. It worked to bring the costume to life and give it a sense of movement.

Although the exhibition’s argument could be said to be the promotion of the art of the costume designer, this wasn’t a particularly scholarly exhibition. Its main aim was to have a wide appeal to anyone who is interested in film and clothing, and to include the most famous costumes they could to draw in the crowds. If they didn’t have crowd-pleasers such as the Jack Sparrow, Darth Vadar and Dorothy costumes, the exhibition would surely not have been so appealing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this ambition. It was great to see how popular a museum exhibition could be, with enthusiastic crowds prepared to queue for up to an hour. It was, in any case, always intended to be a blockbuster event. The V&A described as a “ground-breaking exhibition including over 100 of the most iconic and unforgettable film characters from a century of Hollywood film-making”. It certainly was that. The overcrowding did slightly detract from the experience, however, and the exhibition could be said to be a victim of its own success. Nevertheless, it was clear why it was so popular, and I thoroughly enjoyed gaining further insight into the fascinating world of costume design.

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