Monday, 12 November 2012

Hollywood Costume, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

7th November 2012

This is a wonderful exhibition and hits the right spot on audio, music and simulated movie making.  The exhibition covers what it says “on the tin” how it works and what makes it work.

I was part of a visually impaired group and we had early access to the exhibition.  We gathered in the Exhibition Road entrance and were welcomed by Barry Ginley and Suzana Skrbic with a team of volunteers.  The V&A has an excellent team of volunteers who will both guide, read labels and describe some items and engage in discourse. For this morning’s viewing, I was teamed up with Marcia Drury.  We also had the time of the assistant curator Keith Lodwick. 

The exhibition is divided into three sections and before we entered the show Keith explained the layout, what we could expect, how we could interact with some of the exhibits and how we would walk past an iconic showing of characters ending up with Judy Garland’s blue gingham outfit and ruby slippers. 
Photograph of Prof Whitestick next to poster for Hollywood Costumes
(This has Judy Garland in the blue gingham dress for The Wizard of Oz)
Novemeber 2012
The V&A has made so much accessible in pdf format on its webpage.  These are so accessible they opened and my screenreader read them out to me straight away.   The links to these pdf files are as follows:

More information on the exhibition can be found on:

I am afraid some jaws dropped when I said I had mixed drinks for Charlie Chaplin in 1972, had seen Marlene Dietrich at Edinburgh Airport in 1962 and that Glenda Jackson was my MP at Westminster.  

In the first room, there are a variety of iconic pieces and Keith spent some time discussing the detail of how the costume was designed in tandem with the script screenplay and director meetings.  Unlike a theatre costume, which is designed to be exhibited in 3-D, a Hollywood costume was designed from the outset to appear as a 2 dimensional image within film.  Keith also mentioned that at no time were performances of films silent.  In other words, silent movies always had music played in the background.  When talking movies came into production, costume designs had to be completely re-thought to take account of noises from the movement of the costume and likely interference from a microphone on the set. 

We discussed at length the dress of Scarlett O’Hara which had been made from old curtains.  Although we couldn’t see much of the dress – in my case only the silhouette – we enjoyed the discussion on about how the dress would have been made, the sewing techniques in the book and the fading of the dress itself, with the addition of parts of the curtains incorporated into the outfit.  I mentioned that the curtains theme may have been copied by The Sound of Music, where Julie Andrews kits the von Trapp clan in costumes made from curtains of the mansion.  (There is an interesting curtain transfer to a chintz dress in the EF Benson Miss Mapp, available on talking books.) 

Charlie Chaplin’s outfit was discussed - hence my remark above.  We then moved on to discuss the assembly of monarchs such as Queen Christina, played by Greta Garbo; various Queen Elisabeths, played by Bette Davis, Glenda Jackson and Judi Dench; Mary Queen of Scots was there as was Joe Fiennes’s costume from Shakespeare in Love. 

We also discussed Harrison Ford’s outfit in Indiana Jones and how the worn jacket and hat became part of the image of the character in the mind of the audience.  This is also a key part of the costume design in ensuring that the character is instantly recognisable wherever they appear in the film.  In the case of Harrison Ford, costumes had to be designed for both body doubles and stunt men with appropriate continuity of aging processes.  All these had to be factored into the planning of the costume with actors and directors as well as others involved in the production. 

We spent some time discussing the denim jeans used in Brokeback Mountain.  Rodeo competition cowboys wore Wranglers, while ranch hands wore Levis.  (I bought my first pair of Levis - costing £2 19s 11d in 1968 - and the fashion at the time was to ‘age’ them with the aid of bleach, including the use of either Vim or Ajax!)  Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proux is available on Talking Books; and Proux discusses life in Wyoming in great detail, including descriptions of the costumes of the time – though, of course, the transfer to film requires a visual content, rather than a descriptive one. 

At this point, we also discussed the contents of Meryl Streep’s handbag in her portrayal of Mrs Thatcher.  The contents of the handbags of Mrs Thatcher, the Queen and the late Princess Margaret were often ‘revealed’ in various satirical magazines.

For the next stage in the exhibition, we could wander around and ‘engage’ with a variety of stars by sitting in chairs within discussions.  There are many montages, audio clips and a commissioned set of interviews with Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro.  With Marcia’s help, I was able to negotiate the various exhibits and sit down in a script meeting. 

We then reassembled and had a walk through the final gallery with many of the heroines and villains on display with many costumes.  I haven’t been to the cinema since 2001, though have seen the odd DVD on a laptop.  I had seen quite a few of the films for which costumes were on show up to 2000, as I could remember many of the Hollywood classics which were broadcast on black and white television, then on colour and often on very long aeroplane journeys.  I had only seen The Last Emperor on a DVD in the 1990s and it was amazing to hear of the number of costumes which had been made for this production.  New techniques such as CGI have changed the material of the costume, though not necessarily the material culture. 

Among the memorable costumes on display include John Travolta’s white suit for Saturday Night Fever, Edith Head’s design for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark and Meryl Streep’s Cruella de Vil costume, the two outfits for the two Hepburns – Audrey and Kathreen; Superman and Spiderman.  There was a large installation for Star Wars characters as well.  (I can still say I’ve never seen Star Wars!)

The early entry had allowed us to avoid an initial bottleneck in the first Act and we were able to stay a little ahead.  Susan helped me in the shop to find some postcards.  I considered briefly buying a Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones) hat but settled for a postcard of Dick Tracey’s hat.  Postcards bought are as follows:

Hat from the costume for Dick Tracy
Dick Tracy, 2007
Costume designer: Milena Canonero
The collection of Motion Picture Costume Design

Costume for The Tramp
Costume designer: Charles Chaplin
Charles Chaplin TM

Replica of Ruby Slippers
Victoria and Albert Museum

Green “Curtain” Dress
Gone with the Wind, 1939
Costume designer: Walter Plunkett
Dacid O. Selznicj Collection
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre
The University of Texas, Austin

Lighting Levels: I asked about the lighting levels in the exhibition and Keith said that they were at 50 lux. Care is taken to ensure that the fabric of the costumes is not faded further.  Lighting levels and large displays allow some tricks on the eye. There is a little rollercoaster effect on walking through from time to time.  I found this particularly enjoyable with my peripheral vision.