Hollywood costumes play starring role in exhibition

London exhibition brings the art of the Hollywood costume designer to life, writes Francesca Fearon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 November, 2012, 5:49pm

For exhibition designer Roger Mann and his team at Casson Mann, the biggest challenge behind their stunning new show "Hollywood Costumes", at London's Victoria & Albert Museum, was to make the clothes look as animated as they do on the big screen.

So they (naturally) looked to the movie world for inspiration and came up with the idea of using "living portrait" videos - like those that line the walls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies - clipped onto a tripod above each costume in the exhibition.

"It proved rather difficult, but we wanted to create the sense of costumes being inhabited by actors, and coming alive," says Mann, the creative director.

It worked. The combination of digital media and iconic film costumes bring to life one of the V&A's most ambitious shows, to date.

It took five years for the curator, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, to track down and cajole collectors, film studios and actors to lend their costumes for the exhibition. It helped that she is the wife of film director John Landis and herself a respected costume designer for such noted films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Blues Brothers as well as Michael Jackson's Thriller video.

There are 130 costumes on show including iconic items such as Audrey Hepburn's little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany's, Charlie Chaplin's shabby suit, Johnny Depp's outfit from Pirates of the Caribbean and Vivien Leigh's green "curtain" dress designed by Walter Plunkett for Gone with the Wind.

Many of these costumes have never been seen outside Hollywood, or even the studios in which they were filmed - and some, Landis says, she found in friends' garages, like the yellow tracksuit Uma Thurman wore in Kill Bill. She clearly has an address book to die for.

When researching, Landis says, "I took a poll of which characters people would want to meet in a room and then set out to find their costumes. Costumes design plays a pivotal role in bringing these characters to life." It's a view endorsed by costume designer Ann Roth, who says of working with Meryl Streep in the fitting room: "We wait for the third person to arrive."

In her brief to Casson Mann, Landis was very clear this was not to be a show about clothes. "It is about characters and the process the costumer designer goes through when they receive the script," says Mann. "Deborah was championing the role of the costume designer, the poorest-paid person on the film set, and their skill in bringing to life these imaginary people."

The show opens with a cinema screen of famous film scenes. Behind the screen is a setting of a film lot sound stage where the exhibition deconstructs the role of the costume designer, and examines the ways in which a costume can influence a film.

Projection tables reveal the many layers in creating a film wardrobe, from annotated scripts and storyboards, to the sketches, fabrics, and construction of the outfits. Around them are the finished costumes with the "living portraits" of the actors and a screen above projecting film extracts.

Captions are written like scripts on script stands and design details are highlighted to guide the viewer.

For instance, Landis illustrates the many cultural references in the outfit she created for Indiana Jones - part African explorer, part second world war ace. She came up with the flying jacket and bullwhip.

One of Mann's favourite sections is the Ocean's Eleven ensemble around a projection table doubling as the costume designer's worktable. "It is as if they are sitting in their den planning their heist. It was a lot of fun getting the mix of media and clothes to come together really well."

V&A exhibitions are not given to weird visual effects, so who would have imagined that they would agree to a whole video devoted to a hand running around even if it was part of The Addams Family.

In the second gallery, the dialogue between director and costume designer is highlighted with a series of four video discussions. You feel as though you are eavesdropping on a backstage conversation between Martin Scorsese (on one screen) and Sandy Powell (on another opposite) discussing Leonardo DiCaprio's outfit in Gangs of New York, or Tippi Hedren and archive footage of Edith Head discussing Alfred Hitchcock's choice of the green woollen suit for Hedren in The Birds.

Projection tables illustrate the costumes they are discussing: these tables are not new in terms of exhibition layout, according to Mann, but ones with solid 3-D objects on them are, and so make the conversations look magically realistic.

The third room is the finale, a group of famous, superbly crafted costumes choreographed into scenes. It begins with outfits worn by Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Keira Knightley, and is followed by action heroes and villains.

"It starts with vamps and vixens and then descends into a bit of brawl at the other end of the gallery with Kill Bill and the Terminator," says Mann.

Innovation in cinematic technology is cleverly highlighted throughout, such as displays explaining how Technicolor, animation and CGI work. Videos show the use of motion capture to create Avatar. Costumes had to be created early in the process as drapery and jewellery influence the way that the actor moves in the animation.

The relationship of film and sound is impossible to break. The exhibition couldn't have a lot of silent film or a confusing cacophony of soundtracks playing at once, so the designers commissioned Julian Scott to create a series of soundscapes in each of the galleries that combine recognisable melodies from the films on display, to glue the whole exhibition together. There is so much to see and absorb in this rich and cleverly displayed exhibition that you are made to feel as though you are part of the set, rather than part of the audience.


Hollywood Costumes, V&A, London SW7, until Jan 27, 2013