Who would not be thrilled to see Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch white billowy dress in reality? Or Captain Jack Sparrow’s pirate clothes as he gets into a duel with Errol Flynn? Darth Vader’s robes or The Terminator’s boots and jacket? The list of costumes that delights and amuses at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume exhibition is long and illustrious. Superheroes like Superman, Batman and Cat Woman fly overhead or climb the walls, while Satine from Moulin Rouge swings above and the bad guy from No Country for Old Men gets ready his air tank. Even Borat makes a besuited appearance amongst the many Hollywood stars.
The exhibition itself aims to do more than just present a range of famous costumes. It also demonstrates the vital role played by costume designers in creating the characterisation and mood of a film. The costume designer’s role is explored through case studies of Addams Family Values and Fight Club, amongst others. There are displays of talking heads describing both designing and wearing costumes. Tables with very Harry Potter-esque moving images on them help reveal the details of what costume design is all about. (PS: young Harry Potter’s school uniform is there too). Notices that help explain the costumes are presented in type-written style on supposed script sheets, helping to create the behind-the-scenes atmosphere.
The show also acknowledges the fashions and fads of the times in which the costumes were created by having several sets of comparative costumes. Cleopatras and Elizabeth Is stand side by side revealing as much about the 20th century as about their own historical periods. Other comparative sections group together costumes worn by specific performers, such as Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro.
There are the magnificent and sumptuous historical, nightclub and fantasy costumes – a pair of spangly hot pants from a 1930s musical look so new! – but there are also what are termed “invisible” costumes where characters in films such as in the Bourne Identity or Brokeback Mountain need to merge into crowds or simply look workaday.
If possible, try to visit this exhibition very early or late inthe day because, with due reason, it is very popular and quite crowded. John Travolta’s white disco suit and Judy Garland’s gingham dress are drawing the crowds. But what I like about the V&A is that they always contextualise and explain what goes on with their exhibits making the show quite an experience in its own right. This one is designed by Casson Mann and will be of interest if you are thinking of a career in exhibition design as well as costume design.
And by the way, seeing the costumes in real life made me think how many of them looked really uncomfortable and itchy!
Top: Johhny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow
Centre: Judy Garland as Dorothy
Bottom: Finsihing touches to costume
All images from the Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston Artist at the V&A 2012 courtesy of the V&A Press Office. All images copyright of the V&A.