Hollywood Costume At The V&A: Empire Reviews The Exhibition
Posted on Thursday October 18, 2012, 10:43 by Helen O'Hara in Empire States
The Victoria and Albert Museum's latest big exhibition, Hollywood Costume, is something I've been excited about ever since I first heard it mentioned. There was a mini-press launch back in March and Senior Guest Curator - and costume designer of some note - Deborah Landis talked us through some of the collection, and I very nearly cheered aloud. They have Dorothy's dress! Indy's hat! And - most thrilling of all - Marilyn Monroe's dress from Some Like It Hot, the one where you can basically see everything while she sings I'm Through With Love. So it was in high spirits that myself and two Empire colleagues headed off yesterday morning to the full exhibition launch for a look at what's in store.
There's lots of good news about it. The collection fills three galleries, and is nicely presented with quotes for each outfit from either star, director, producer or costume designer to explain the thinking behind the look (mostly. A few quotes are more generic and a looser fit). Landis went into more depth on some of this in her March introduction, discussing the sometimes manic lengths to which costume designers will go in search of perfection (Adrian, the exacting designer on The Wizard Of Oz, got hold of an old, decrepit sewing machine as might have been used on a Kansas farm at the turn of the century, and used that to sew Dorothy's iconic dress - dropped stitches and all). You might have to buy the exhibition book to get all those snippets, but there's still good meat here in the displays themselves - particularly around Indiana Jones' look.
The selection spans Hollywood history, from the Little Tramp to this year's Anna Karenina, and even takes in motion capture (Andy Serkis' suit from Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes) and CG characters (Tars Tarka from John Carter). There's loads to geek out about - The Blues Brothers! Fight Club! - and enough quirk to find personal favourites (I was a little bit starstruck by The Addams Family collection, and Keira Knightley's green dress from Atonement, while one of my companions went a bit quiet at seeing Audrey Hepburn's Breakfast At Tiffany's ensemble). Deborah Landis (nee Nadoolman, and as such the costume designer on Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Blues Brothers) and her team - Sir Christopher Frayling and the V&A's Keith Lodwick chief among them - have assembled a representative and fascinating cross-section of Hollywood's costume past, bringing in all the big designers (Orry-Kelly, Adrian, Edith Head, Milena Canonero, right up to modern greats like Colleen Atwood and Lindy Hemming) and a huge array of stars and films.
Over three galleries, the lay-out mixes up chronology and (mostly) genre in a division into three-"acts". First is "Deconstruction", explaining what costume designers do and what makes a costume work. There's a rather good illustration here in Matt Damon's intensely boring Bourne Ultimatum outfit, next to a lengthy clip which occasionally inserts a different costume element on his person to demonstrate that the forgettable duds are essential to his character's ability to disappear in plain sight. Audio-visual and, especially, projected elements are all over the exhibition, and it's worth watching some of them to see what you learn. Worth looking out for here: you'll want to take time to admire the Elizabethan / 18th century French costume-drama costumes at the back, a collection which probably includes the most elaborate efforts on display in the whole affair.
The second act is "Dialogue", where several costumes are picked out for focus and the director and costume designer of the relevant film talk about them. Since these interviews are projected onto the back of black chairs in a dark room, some facing away from the obvious route of circulation for visitors, it's easy to miss the fact that Martin Scorsese or Tim Burton is about to speak, so do keep an eye out, but it's quite a nifty idea to discuss the collaborative nature of design in this way. Most of the interviews are fresh, too, although obviously the discussion of Tippi Hedren's Birds outfit is made of archive material. Star spots in this room: apart from the obvious Darth Vader or Taxi Driver efforts, I was rather taken with Joan Crawford's beaded number from The Bride Wore Red, and the stunning 1934 Cleopatra dress in mint green.
Then, finally, Finale presents some of the most popular or best-known costumes in cinema history, from Satine from Moulin Rouge to The Dark Knight (this one taken from Rises) to Neo in The Matrix to the Bride in Kill Bill. Make sure not to miss the Batman Returns Catwoman in here, as she's almost hidden - keep looking up, basically. Lesser-known, to modern eyes, were the drop-dead gorgeous silver dress worn by Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey and the extravagant red-sequin and mink number that Ginger Rogers wore in Lady In The Dark.
There's no arguing with the collection of costumes on display here, but I do want to raise a few criticisms of the exhibition design. The rooms are very, very dark - presumably to allow for the large amounts of projection and/or avoid damage to the older costumes - and it's almost impossible to see the detail of some exhibits. Lights cycle up and down, so sometimes you can wait around for a minute and see the costume better, but others are simply gloomy, most notably the Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch dress. This low light may be inevitable, but it's less than ideal.
What's more, in the the Finale room in particular, it's literally impossible to get a good look at some costumes - Jack and Rose's Titanic ensembles are thrust way to the back; there's no easy way to see Neo face-on - and part of the joy of an exhibition like this should be getting your nose as close as possible (even if that necessitated them all being protected by perspex tubes) so that you can get a good look at the texture. At least it should have been possible to have them in single file rather than so deeply grouped as they are here, while still roped off from damage by the public. Past costume exhibits at the V&A and elsewhere (off the top of my head, the Guggenheim's Armani retrospective; the V&A's evening gowns effort earlier this year and a Valentino exhibit at the Ara Pacis Rome) managed to do rather better with the lighting, and with the exception of the Valentino exhibit offered clothing in single file.
Sometimes the way a costume was displayed on the mannequin was frustrating too: my hope of getting a good look at the Some Like It Hot dress was frustrated by the inclusion of the white fur stole that Marilyn, fair enough, does wear in the scene, but which here was wrapped entirely around her chest hiding the see-through sections entirely. It felt almost like censorship, because I can't imagine I'm the only one wondering whether you really could see everything (am I?).
The mannequins sometimes seemed oddly sized: Katharine Hepburn's Mary Queen Of Scotland looked shorter than Bette Davis' Virgin Queen, when the former had a good four inches on the latter; Russell Crowe's Gladiator armour was rather hanging off the model, and Keira Knightley's Anna Karenina dress also seemed loose on the mannequin (begging the question of how tiny these mannequins must be). Now this may be inevitable given the limitations of figurines for this many outfits, or may just be my eyes playing tricks (in the low light, grumble grumble) but if getting a real sense of the figures who once wore these outfits was an aim, I felt that this rather frustrated it.
These are quibbles rather than major problems with the exhibition: it felt sweeping and grand and is, I think, a must for film-lovers and fashion-lovers. The sheer breadth of the selection means that everyone should have a favourite on display here, and whether you want a look at the Black Swan tutu or Rocky's shorts, you will find them here. Rocky, by the way, is facing off against Die Hard's John McClane, complete with stained vest. And if that doesn't convince you that costume exhibits can be for guys as well as girls, nothing will.