Are the best costumes celebrities in their own right, so iconic as to be instantly recognisable, and with no need of an actor to bring them to life? Or are they those like Matt Damon’s drab, grey and immediately forgettable clothes that he wears in The Bourne Ultimatum, clothes that enable him to blend in and become almost invisible so that he can escape from the bad guys, but which are so ordinary they require an actor to animate them?
Both types of costume are on display in the Hollywood Costume Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the three large rooms that house some of history’s most famous costumes, examples of the former are Scarlett O’Hara’s green ‘curtain’ dress from Gone With the Wind, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman outfit from Batman Returns and the yellow jumpsuit worn by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. The latter group is covered by Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club and Robert Pattinson’s Twilight vampire, Edward Cullen. The exhibition traces the history of film from the silent era through to James Cameron’s ground-breaking Avatar and uses a variety of media to tell the story.
The first room deconstructs some famous costumes, such as Indiana Jones and the Oceans’ Eleven gang, explaining how vital were the designers’ smallest decisions when it comes to creating, and filming, a costume. Particularly interesting were the two sets of cowboy wear from Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain: who knew there were different sets of rules for cowboy and rancher and that each was required to wear different jeans, shirts and hats?
The second room is full of audio and video information: there are interviews with actors, directors and designers such as Tippi Hedren, Martin Scorsese and Colleen Atwood playing on continuous loop; there are screens showing original drawings and the material that provided the inspiration for Mamma Mia! and Raging Bull; there are images of the actors’ heads on screens positioned above their costumes. We learn about the theory behind costume design: the clothes must work with the character in order to make him or her believable as a person with history, dreams and aspirations. We are given insight into the collaboration between director and costume designer (and many directors use the same designer for all their films). We are granted an interview with the luminous Meryl Streep in which she talks about how her costumes for Mamma Mia!, Out of Africa, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Iron Lady help her metamorphose into that character. Hearing that she wanted to know exactly what was in her handbag when she played Margaret Thatcher and how important that was to her was fascinating. A short video of Andy Serkis demonstrating the power of motion capture is worth the entry price alone.
The final room is intended as a sort of show-stopper, a parade of some of the most famous costumes from superheroes flying above us or hanging from walls to classic dresses from Titanic and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Most striking is how tiny some of the women must have been to fit into the dresses on display.
At it’s best, the exhibition makes you want to go home and watch the films again. It’s also provides a wealth of interesting facts, such as the fact that the scale of Elizabeth I’s (Cate Blanchett) skirt at the hem was used to define her personal space – it’s so large that no one else could get close to her. However, it would be better to be given a more balanced view, perhaps where costumes didn’t quite work, or examples of difficult relationships between designer and director, or occasions where ideas had to be scrapped and begun again. The exhibition is also poorly laid out, often making it difficult to see the costumes or read the information displayed on the cards.
What is arguably most fascinating, however, is the oxymoron inherent in these costumes: they are both so powerful that they can transport us back to the moment in which we saw them forever captured on celluloid, bringing a character permanently to life, and yet at the same time they are just a collection of materials and stitches, hanging lifeless on a peg.
Categories: Museums, Galleries & Exhibitions