Francesca Steele

Dressed to impress

Dressed to impress
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Hollywood Costume

Victoria and Albert Museum, until 27 January 2013

Does the costume make the man or the man the costume? Well, a little bit of both if the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A is to be believed. Five years in the making, this collection of more than 100 of the most iconic outfits in movie history, from Scarlett O’Hara’s green ‘curtain’ gown to Darth Vader’s suit, is a bold undertaking. The very nature of motion pictures means that there is something a little ghoulish about seeing static ensembles, with the clothes divorced from their character and digital images of famous faces floating above them.

But movie-goers have an insatiable appetite for anything that gets them closer to their idols and there is something thrilling about being in such close proximity to items we know so well. To be within touching distance of Marilyn Monroe’s The Seven Year Itch dress or the much-publicised ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (reunited with Dorothy’s gingham dress for the first time since the film’s production) is enough to give one goose bumps.

There is something for everyone: complex Elizabethan regalia, Harry Potter cloaks, Marlene Dietrich dresses, a Merchant Ivory fan. There is Helena Bonham Carter’s delicate Edwardian lace number from A Room with a View. If you prefer westerns or superheroes, John Wayne’s Levis and some DC Comic characters make an appearance, too, although those distracted by the glamorous icons at eye level in the ‘Finale’ room —  including Audrey Hepburn’s unfathomably tiny Breakfast at Tiffany’s Givenchy cocktail dress and a daunting line-up of James Bond, Dick Tracy, Han Solo and the Terminator all side-by-side — will miss the Spider-Man crawling across the ceiling.

More importantly, however, the curators have worked hard to show the collaborative process that goes into the garments’ conception and creation, adding a new dimension to those shirts and skirts that we know so well already. Their composition is deconstructed over the course of three rooms, low-lit like film sets, or ‘scenes’ as they are playfully labelled as part of an ongoing homage to celluloid (you can also buy popcorn and clapperboards in the shop).

We see Steven Spielberg’s original sketches of what he envisaged Indiana Jones wearing, almost identical to what designer Deborah Nadoolman later produced for Raiders of the Lost Ark. We learn that it was Charlie Chaplin himself who spontaneously decided to throw on some baggy clothes and a bowler hat in his dressing-room, casually launching an icon.

In ‘Scene 2’, also known as the Dialogue room, we are treated to filmed interviews, artfully arranged so that they appear to be face-to-face conversations between some of Hollywood’s most influential directors and their designers: Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, Hitchcock and his long-time associate Edith Head.

One can’t help but feel that such teamwork must be a rather painful process — Powell remembers anxiously reassuring ‘Marty’ that a trouser shape she had found for Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York was just a starting point — but there is fondness there, too. A special focus on Meryl Streep reveals the input that actors themselves can have. ‘I’m a pain to all of the costume designers I work with because I have very strong feelings about the subject,’ jokes Streep, whose numerous metamorphoses include Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child.

The impact of changing technology, from Technicolor to CGI, is addressed as well — the arrival of sound forced designers to worry more ‘about microphones rubbing against taffeta’, for example. But sometimes it is the simplest things that prove the hardest. Several designers, in the quotes and trivia that accompany each costume, observe that it is harder to create the contemporary wardrobes of modern thrillers than the fancy frocks of period dramas. ‘You have to work doubly hard to make them disappear,’ says designer Ellen Mirojnick.

This is an exhibition that has far more to do with movie-making and the audiences’ experience of the classics than with the clothes themselves. And just like the movies, the costumes elicit an emotional response above all else. Amid all the velvets and crinoline and meticulously sewn masterpieces, one of the biggest crowds when I was there gathered around an unassuming and dog-eared mocha bathrobe, bought, the designer said, from a local mall. The owner? This was, of course, the daywear of choice for The Dude, that patron of slackers, in the Coen Brothers’ classic The Big Lebowski.