Another Friday night, another exhibition after work. This time I went to see the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. I’d booked my ticket in advance, which was just as well as my chosen date was sold out well before the day itself.
Hollywood Costume brings together iconic, special and unusual costumes from the history of cinema, exploring the important role costume plays in storytelling. The exhibition was divided into three sections. The first explored the role of costume in film, using examples to demonstrate the importance of what the actors wear. I found this really interesting, giving a context to the exhibition rather than just displaying lots of pretty costumes. Among those costumes exhibited was the iconic outfit of Indiana Jones, with a detailed exploration of each item. The ‘curtain dress’ worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was also on show. Outfits from The Adams Family were also displayed, and there was a whole section on costume drama, highlights of which were dresses worn by a number of actresses, including Judi Dench, playing Elizabeth I.
In this section I learned that it is actually more difficult to clothe actors in modern films, as audiences are much more familiar with modern styles of dress. The idea is that you don’t really notice the clothes, yet each item is chosen with thought and care. Though I’m not a particular fan of the film Ocean’s Eleven, I enjoyed the display of mannequins around a table each dressed in a different character’s outfit. The display showed how each outfit reflected the individual’s personality. On a similar note, the outfits worn by Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain appeared fairly similar on the surface, but contained subtle differences which reflected the history of each character.
The exhibition showed how Matt Damon’s outfit as the spy Matthew Bourne was designed to blend into the background. I was less impressed with the displays relating to Fight Club, a film I haven’t seen, as the plot was basically given away. I don’t really think this was necessary: they could at least have given a spoiler warning!
Something I liked about this section was the clips of ordinary people talking about their clothes and accessories. This was interesting and made the point that even the simplest outfits have a history of their own, and this needs to be reflected in film, with characters needing a believable existence outside the movie.
The second section also divided the costumes up into themes. The first part examined collaborations between directors and designers. Edith Head, possibly the most famous costume designer of all time, designed for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films including The Birds; one of Tippi Hedren’s outfits – a green skirt suit – is displayed here. The designer on Sweeney Todd worked closely with director Tim Burton, and the suit worn by Johnny Depp as the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is displayed.
Another section compared outfits worn by the same character in different films, such as two costumes for Cleopatra worn by Elizabeth Taylor and another actress whose name I can’t remember. The difference between clothes designed for black and white films and for colour was also explored: in black and white films colour didn’t show so it was necessary to make outfits stand out in other ways. This part also looked at clothes designed for animated characters such as Jessica Rabbit and Shrek, and displayed a motion capture suit such as the one worn by Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the forthcoming Hobbit films. The original Darth Vader costume was here too, looking particularly imposing as it loomed over the spectators.
This part ended with a look at some particular actors and their relationship with their character’s clothes. Acclaimed actress Meryl Streep has portrayed a number of different characters, such as the title character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, and her outfits have helped her to get into and stay in character. The Victorian-style grey cloak and smart blue suit are very different! Robert De Niro is another actor who has portrayed wildly varying characters, and a number of his costumes are here, such as his outfit from Taxi Driver, which he reportedly wore before filming to get into character.
The final part of the exhibition dispensed with theories and themes and simply displayed iconic costumes from the history of cinema. There was a veritable wealth of costumes, many of which I recognised instantly. Among my favourites were the corseted, feathered outfit in which Nicole Kidman makes her entrance in Moulin Rouge, Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the outfits in which we are introduced to Jack and Rose’s characters in Titanic, and two dresses worn by Keira Knightley: the flowing green dress she wore in Atonement and the stunning nineteenth-century style deep red gown she had on in Anna Karenina. Superheroes were not forgotten: Batman and Spiderman were both represented, not to mention schoolboy wizard Harry Potter, and anti-heroes were present too: I was delighted to see Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Right at the end of the exhibition there were two iconic dresses: one the white frock famously worn by Marilyn Monroe, the other the gingham pinafore worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. The pinafore – which naturally enough looks rather faded now – is distinctly recognisable and is displayed with a pair of reproduction ruby slippers made to the original pattern, sparkling as brightly as the originals would have done when they were first made.
This brings me to the final exhibit: the highlight of the whole thing as far as I am concerned. In a glass case, on loan from the Museum of American History in the USA for the first time, until the 19th of November only, are the original ruby slippers. One of the pairs at least: five pairs have survived of the several made, though one of them was stolen in 2005. They have faded over the years, but the sequins are still in place and the shoes are still in one piece. They look to be about size 5 or 6. Possibly the most iconic piece of cinema merchandise in history, they came about because red was thought to offer the strongest contrast against the yellow of the brick road. In L Frank Baum’s original story, the shoes were silver. I admit I got quite emotional when I saw these slippers – The Wizard of Oz is my favourite film of all time and I felt so privileged to be able to see first-hand this piece of history.
This is a fantastic exhibition that contains a veritable wealth of costumes and artefacts. It has been thoughtfully put together and I feel as though I learned something about the nature of costume in cinema. I strongly recommend this exhibition, and would urge everyone to see it in the next couple of weeks before the ruby slippers are sent back to America!