Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Hollywood Costume at the V&A


“Costume is the most important element of my films.”

This is the assertion made by legendary director, Martin Scorsese, in an interview featured as part of the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition, Hollywood Costume.  Quite a bold pronouncement, even by Scorsese’s standards - and one I was initially tempted to take with a rather large pinch of proverbial salt.  Surely there are other parts of the film-making process which are equally, if not more, important than costume design?  Like casting perhaps, or script-writing, or maybe the all-encompassing process of directing?

However, a few hours spent wandering around the exhibition (or, rather, elbowing my way around – the gallery was packed to capacity) was enough to win me over to Scorsese’s view.  Featuring over 130 costumes from a century of film-making, and guest-curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis (whose design credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blues Brothers, Coming to America, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller music video), Hollywood Costume is an exercise in promoting the often-overlooked role of costume designers in the movie-making process – an exercise in which it wholly succeeds.
 
Deborah Nadoolman Landis
But why the need for an exhibition to underscore the talent of Hollywood costumiers in the first place?  Surely, they already receive ample recognition and credit for their achievements?  Well, perhaps this is the case these days – but it wasn’t always thus.  In those halcyon days of early Hollywood, the role of the costume designer was not so much under-appreciated as ignored completely.  Often disregarded as being ‘women’s work’, costume design was, more often than not, referred to dismissively as ‘wardrobe’.  Tellingly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only deigned to create an award category for costume design in 1948, despite handing out its first gold 'Oscar' statuettes in 21years earlier, in 1927 – and only then after extensive lobbying from people like the pioneering designer Edith Head.  This meant that, unbelievably, costume designers of such classic films as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind (both made in 1939) never received Oscar nominations in recognition of their efforts.

And while attitudes have improved markedly in the intervening decades, costume designers were still being paid up to 33% less than their counterparts in production design as recently as the early 2000s.  Again, this differential seems to run along gender lines – the poorer paid costumiers still tend to be women, while production design is a predominantly male-dominated area.  (Incidentally, Landis succeeded in redressing this inequity when she became President of the Costume Designers Guild in 2001.)

The secret of this exhibition’s success lies in its three-part structure: Act 1, or ‘Deconstruction’, takes us back to basics by examining the beginning of the designers’ creative process and the research necessary to bring a costume to life.  Act 2, or ‘Dialogue’, focuses on the collaboration between the designer, the director and the actors who will eventually inhabit the costumes.  This section features video interviews with the likes of Tim Burton, the aforementioned Scorsese, and those perennial chameleons Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep. 
 
And last, but certainly not least, comes Act 3 or the ‘Finale’.  This is the blockbusting part of this blockbuster exhibition featuring as it does a mind-blowing selection of some of the most celebrated costumes ever to have graced the silver screen. Uma Thurman’s yellow Kill Bill cat suit, Harry Potter’s cloak, Keanu Reeves’s full-length Matrix coat, Rose’s gigantic hat from her first scene in Titanic, Holly Golightly’s black dress and pearls, Dorothy’s simple blue pinafore from The Wizard of Oz – they all take their place in this awe-inspiring costume Hall of Fame.

Indeed, the sheer number of weird and wonderful costumes included in this exhibition leaves one in little doubt as to the integral role these outfits have played in the creation of an iconic movie character.  Would Marilyn’s infamous subway scene have succeeded if it wasn’t for her white billowing dress?  What about Dorothy’s jaunt down the Yellow Brick Road – would it have been quite so memorable without her ruby slippers?  And as for Charlie Chaplin’s tramp – that character has now become inextricably linked to his bowler hat and cane.

Hollywood Costume also brings into stark relief the quality of the workmanship that goes into film costumes.  While some of the exhibits have, inevitably, faded over time (Vivien Leigh’s green curtain dress comes to mind here – so much colour has drained from the fabric that curators have been forced to illuminate it with a green spotlight), others have remained in remarkably good conditions.  In particular, the wonderful sequinned fuchsia creation worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 film, Lady In The Dark, remains as vibrant today as it did 70 years ago – so much so, I initially mistook it as a piece worn by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge.

There was always a danger with an exhibition of this sort that the costumes, displayed without their famous erstwhile inhabitants, would look flat and lifeless – after all, Brad Pitt’s Fight Club costume would inevitably look better if Brad Pitt was still in it.  However, the curators have cleverly overcome this problem by displaying the actors’ faces on strategically-place television screens above the headless mannequins –instantly bestowing a semblance of life to the overall image.

But for all its triumphs, this exhibition is not without its faults. 

The lighting of the exhibits is surprisingly hit-and-miss.  In some cases, light has been used to great effect in order to enhance the costume (like Leigh’s green Gone With The Wind curtains), but there are too many instances where the illumination detracts from the effect.  In particular, Johnny Depp’s Demon Barber ensemble is so poorly lit, it is difficult to even recognise the costume, let alone appreciate any of the detail.  Similarly, the choice of black mannequins works well in some cases but not in others, namely when the costume itself was black.  Natalie Portman’s black tutu from Black Swan, for example, is indistinguishable from the black mannequin upon which it displayed (a problem accentuated by the darkness of the gallery).

And finally, why on God’s good earth did the curators decide to mount the superhero costumes in such elevated positions?  Yes, I know that Spiderman likes to scale high buildings, but was it really necessary to re-enact the scene? Ditto for Superman (flying near the ceiling), and Batman and Catwoman (both perched in improbably vertiginous positions).  Such staging eliminates any chance of examining the detail of these hugely influential costume designs.

Which is a great shame – because I doubt we will get such a chance to get up close and personal with these magnificent creations again.

High Points: Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp ensemble
Low Points: Inaccessible superheroes, dodgy lighting.

Hollywood Costume is sponsored by Harry Winston (for reasons which will become clear at the end). It runs from 20 Oct to 27 January at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Tickets £15.50 (Concessions and group discounts available). Booking fees apply.
 
 

2 comments:

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