I’m finally back at home and settled in after a fabulous and unforgettable visit to Europe. I am so grateful to have been able to make this trip. I feel so lucky to have been able to be a part of the Hollywood Costume celebration at the Victoria and Albert museum; I don’t even know where to begin. London, V & A, Deborah Landis, David C. Copley – a million thank yous would never be enough. This exhibit at the V & A marks a new chapter in costume design. We are officially on the map, if you ever missed us before.
I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. This exhibit, the book, and what it all means to us as costume designers cannot be underestimated. The V & A is the world’s finest museum in terms of fashion and textile arts, and to stage an exhibit there is the ultimate opportunity for us to showcase our art form to a global audience. I had been on pins and needles in the days leading up to this trip – what should I wear? What should I bring? What else should I see while in London? I wonder who will be there? How will people like it? – all of these excited thoughts were swirling in my brains like a hurricane brewing. It was like I’d eaten a bag of coffee grounds. I was so excited; I could not come down.
I arrived at noon on Wednesday and went straight to the hair salon. My dress for the evening was KB-made and vintage-inspired, and if you know me, you know that my hair can sometimes be an issue. Naturally curly, it goes nuts in the humidity. I don’t have a UK-ready curling iron, and thought it best to leave it to professionals. I sent pictures to the hair salon a week in advance of hairstyles that would go with my sweet little vintage hat. Let’s just say that the hair thing was interesting. I ended up looking like young Queen Elizabeth instead of Greer Garson, but I didn’t let that dampen my enthusiasm.
I was able to make it to the V & A reception on time with my friend Valerie. It was fantastic. The lobby of the V & A had been transformed into a bar – what a scream to order drinks from the information desk! So many amazing people were in attendance: Ellen Mirojnick, Anthony Powell, Mark Bridges, Ruth Meyers, Sandy Powell, Chris Laverty (from Clothesonfilm.com), and of course Deborah Nadoolman Landis herself. I even ran into my assistant from Seeking a Friend at the reception! Leighton Bowers, sneaky little monkey, had flown over to attend this function as well. It was unreal. Every time you turned around, someone was filling your champagne glass. Turn the other way, and you were offered a plate of canapés. The night went on like this, and time just evaporated. We made our way to see the exhibit, only to find that it has been closed. We’d been too busy yapping away at the party, and we’d missed the main event.
Luckily for us, we were offered entry into the exhibit the next day by the V & A’s lovely Anjali Bulley. Anjali is responsible for the amazing BOOK that accompanies the exhibit. We’d been in touch for, well I guess more than a year (wow!) putting the text together (I wrote a chapter for the book – look for it on page 72). She was kind enough to let us in to the exhibit for a private viewing, as the exhibit didn’t open until the following Saturday. Thanks, Anjali!!
And here’s where everything changed. I had the opportunity to see my profession, my art form, through someone else’s eyes. *Note – no picture taking is allowed at the exhibit. I’ve had to borrow photos from other sources!
The exhibit is staged in three acts, like a screenplay. There are three different halls, one for each act. The first act is “Deconstruction”. You enter the hall and there is a huge – HUGE – screen rolling clips from some of the films whose costumes are featured in the exhibit. There is a great quote about what we do from legendary designer Adrian, and some introductory material that will be very helpful to costume newbies. Here’s what we do. Here’s what it’s for. Here’s why it’s essential. Here’s how it works. Boom. Right up front.
One of the first costumes you’ll see is the “curtain dress” from Gone With the Wind. Then there’s a gown from Dreamgirls, then Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp”, and so on. This is well done, as it lures the viewer in and gives our work some instantly recognizable iconic value. The costumes are presented with interesting visual aids – projections and script pages – it’s absolutely brilliant and I have never seen anything like it. It takes a while to digest, and just as you finish gazing on this, there comes (my favorite part), the deconstruction/reconstruction segment.
In this section, there is a multi-media video presentation in which several people are asked to describe what they are wearing and what motivated their sartorial choices for that day. This is CRUCIAL to understanding the work of the costume designer. We must DE-construct in order to RE-construct, to build a character. I could sit there ALL DAY watching that video. I am so glad that they included this in the exhibit – it is at the very core of what we do. The way that the concept is presented is great, too; we all make decisions about what we wear every day, how we present ourselves to the world, and in so doing, what we are subliminally saying about ourselves. I think viewers of the exhibit will understand costume choice as a matter of motivation – necessity, intention, laziness, desire to impress – whatever moves the wearer. These decisions are what amount to costume choices when we get in there to create the look of a movie, to RE-construct.
Along those lines, we get to see what it would be like if uber-spy Jason Bourne (typically wearing grey, neutral, unobtrusive costumes) suddenly decided to wear pink. He wouldn’t be able to hide so easily, now would he? THAT is a costume choice. THAT is a sartorial decision that affects how the world sees him and how he is able to maneuver in the world.
Same thing for Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” from The Big Lebowski. We understand his costume through the context in which HE exists. Standing in a bathrobe with t-shirt and shorts on, he gets a carton of milk from the store. That’s the movie. But what if he was placed on the moon in that costume? Or in a meeting with the President? He would look a bit underdressed. The Dude’s example tells us about the context of his costume in the environment of the picture. It’s really well-done.
You might start to get the picture about now. This is not so much an exhibit of costumes as it is an education about the art form.
Act 1 continues with an in-depth look at Indiana Jones (including a hand-drawn sketch by Steven Spielberg), and a sort of retrospective on some of the more “costumey” looks that people more readily associate with film costuming: old historical stuff like Elizabethan England and Marie Antoinette. While it would be a mistake to have this genre missing from the exhibit, these types of costumes often get a lopsided amount of attention during awards season, in the press, and so on. Movie costumes are obviously NOT just frilly old dresses. The exhibit needed to include them, for sure, because they are magnificent and important, but it was a risk to put them into a section that intended to DEFY what the viewers thought of as “movie costumes”. However, the exhibit does a good job of saying, “OK, here’s Marie Antoinette’s style from this 1930s movie, then from a 1970s movie, then from a 2000s movie – look at the difference.” It gives the viewer some perspective, and that is a good thing.
Act 2 is called “Dialogue”, and this section was magnificently handled. There are four sections as you walk in that feature discussions between costume designer and director about how the collaboration works. First is Edith Head and Hitchcock, talking about The Birds. Tippi Hedren also makes an appearance, linking the archival footage of Head and Hitch. Images are projected all around the talking heads – there is always something to look at as you listen to the interviews – it’s fascinating. Second table is Sandy Powell and Martin Scorsese talking Gangs of New York. Third table is Ann Roth and Mike Nichols talking about Closer (I love Ann Roth so much, and was so excited to see her included as part of this interview group – she is a riot). Fourth table is Colleen Atwood and Tim Burton. Mercifully, some stools have been provided, so that you can rest your feet while hearing the full interviews. I think each interview is around 4 – 5 minutes long, something like that. It’s worth sticking around to hear all of these interviews. Even for those of us who do this every day, it’s interesting – we can all learn from each other’s process.
Additionally in the Act 2 gallery, you will find a tremendous selection of costumes, old and new, describing different concepts – black and white films (where not all of the costumes were made in black and white fabrics), CGI costumes, science fiction, costumes from ancient times – it’s really interesting to see such a vast cross-section of these concepts represented. You have the original 1936 Flash Gordon costume worn by Ming the Merciless next to an enormous, 15-foot-tall CGI costume from John Carter from Mars. The future looks very different, depending on whom you ask!
Wrapping up the Act 2 room is a very comprehensive interview and display with Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro. Many of the costumes that they’ve worn over the years are on exhibit, and these actors talk about the decisions that went in to each one – the collaboration with the costume designer, the meaning of the garments, the process of crafting the character. I thought that it was really interesting to see costumes from The French Lieutenant’s Woman next to Out of Africa, Lemony Snickets, Iron Lady and Mamma Mia. It was a very diverse selection of costumes, worn by one very talented and versatile actress, illustrating the notion that costume IS character.
Moving to the next room, Act 3 – “Finale”. This is a real eye-popper for the sheer number of costumes on display. Satine from Moulin Rouge! sits in a swing suspended from the ceiling. Costumes from Funny Girl, Titanic, My Fair Lady, Bugsy, Atonement, and Hello Dolly hang out like it’s the world’s coolest cocktail party, ever. The volume of famous costumes in this room is breathtaking, and there is something for everyone. Superheroes: check. Action stars: check. Iconic, valuable, super rare: check. Contemporary: check. It’s head-spinning stuff if you love movies. And be sure to look all around the room – above, below, on top of, etc., as some costumes are cleverly perched!
To see this exhibit was, for me, an incredibly moving experience. To see our art form treated with such dignity and intelligence was humbling and inspiring. I left the exhibit awestruck and empowered, feeling mighty proud to be a costume designer.
Thinking about all of the work that must have gone in to making this exhibit – Deborah Landis often says it’s been five years’ worth, but I suspect it’s been much more – what struck me was the diversity in costumes and designers represented. This is an exhibition of Hollywood costumes – not Bollywood or international cinema – and as such, what you see here is a big, grand cross-section of what we do and how we do it. The designers represented in the exhibit range from the beginnings of cinema to the golden age, to present day, and include such design luminaries as Adrian, Walter Plunkett, Cecil Beaton, Travilla, Milena Canonero, Marilyn Vance, Mary Zophres, Sharen Davis, Deborah Scott, Kym Barrett, Jacqueline Durran, James Acheson and so many more. This is like the Cooperstown of costumes. It’s incredible.
I suspect that, some time in the future, I will be head-first into a box of shoes at a costume house, and some young, fresh-faced costume upstarts will tap me on the shoulder and ask me to tell them about what seeing this exhibit was like, what it was like to be there in person for this august occasion in our field. My eyes will mist over, and I will say, “It was an honor.”
The exhibit has been sold out since it opened. I think that you can’t even really get a ticket at this point until the 5th of November – check the website to reserve your spot. It’s immensely popular, and I am so happy about that! I kind of feel bad for the “Ballgowns” exhibit, also at the V & A. The “Hollywood Costumes” exhibit will be a hard act to follow, forevermore. The bar has been raised.
Many thanks to Deborah Nadoolman Landis for her enduring commitment to the promotion and preservation of our art form, and to Natasha Rubin for her assistance, research and support. It’s an incredible chef d’oeuvre that you’ve pulled off here. Kudos and many, many thanks.
PS: Chris has a wonderful take on the exhibit (with much better pictures than mine) at clothesonfilm.com – check it out!!
PPS: the bookstore is fantastic!! Tons of cool books, Hollywood-themed items, masks, Oscar statuettes, postcards, etc. – I wanted to take it all home with me!!!
PPPS: Some of you have been asking if it’s worth the trip. I say YES! And there is much more to do if you have the time. London Film Museum is nice, with one blogger’s account here, the Cecil Beaton photography exhibit (I saw it and it was really lovely – his 2 Oscars are on display!), a visit to Angels Costume house (Frocktalk article to come; stand by), a visit to Shepherd’s Bush for fabric and other things, and of course what trip would be complete without some live band karaoke – sign up online and sing with the band; they are fabulous. Just bring an extra suitcase so you can take all of your awesome new costume reference books home with you. They are heavy!!!