The Queens from the Hollywood Costume Exhibit. Credit: Richard Harbaugh/©A.M.P.A.S.

Costumes from Dick Tracy, Bonnie and Clyde, Skyfall, Star Wars: Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, and Kill Bill. (L to R). Credit: Richard Harbaugh/©A.M.P.A.S.

Hollywood Costume (from the Fall 2014 issue of The Costume Designer magazine)

By Anna Wyckoff

It is the fête of the millennium. A party so bewilderingly fabulous that Darth Vader is across the room from Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch and Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra. Within earshot, Sandy Powell chats with Martin Scorsese, and Dietrich is spitting distance from Garbo’s Queen Christina. As Rocky Balboa picks a fistfight with Bruce Willis from Die Hard, you try to remember—who invited me?

Hollywood Costume is that occasion. The invitation you shouldn’t refuse, a once in a lifetime event.

The experience starts with theatrics. As you enter, you are plunged into darkness, past the spotlit title, Edith Head’s haul of Oscars, through a flashing marquis sign, which looks like a stray set piece from a Gene Kelly dance extravaganza. An immense movie screen occupies the first room. There are no seats, so you brush past images so large and beautiful that the effect is to pass through, like Alice, to the other side. The soundtrack surges and you are through the looking glass.

The affair is orchestrated by curator and Costume Designer Dr. Deborah Nadoolmen Landis in collaboration with Sir Christopher Frayling. Landis is your host and her prevailing sense of fun is as palpable as her sense of purpose.

Examine Your Assumptions

Your appetizer is a challenge to the prevailing train of thought. It torpedoes the notion that there is a difference between a character and a man or woman on the street. At the Victoria & Albert Museum edition of this blockbuster exhibit, a series of fascinating videos documented people entering the gallery describing what they are wearing, and why. They establish a new axiom, the concept that a character is a real person. Extending that notion, each individual in a film or television show has a backstory, psychology, and nuanced history, just like every human that has ever lived. The Costume Designer’s challenge is to make real clothes for real people, in real—although at times fantastical—situations.

On the opposite wall, an eclectic lineup underscores the premise. Ranging from Marlene’s Travis Banton-designed sheath of shimmering seduction for Angel, cabochon encrusted and mink edged, to the Little Tramp Charlie Chaplin culled into existence—the pert bowler, worn shrunken shouldered jacket, vast pants, and bamboo cane, among others.

In your mind you hear quiet suggestions from your host, who has assumed the role of invisible spirit guide in the notes scattered throughout. On deconstructing character she muses, “Actors often discover their characters in the fitting room. This is not so much a change of clothes as a change of skin. Costumes are so much more than clothes – they are the means to channel new people. The actor’s gait, posture, gestures, and their entire physicality are informed by what they wear.”

A Movable Feast

As you wander into the next gallery, the first course is laid out on several tables and in scattered vignettes. In describing the creation of Oceans 11, a craps table vacillates between Jeffery Kurland’s script notes, sketches, fabric swatches, and photographs, all delightfully dealt like playing cards with the actual garments looking on. In an Indiana Jones display, behind the figure unfurling his giant lasso, the details are pinpointed on a large screen—the boot, the pant, the jacket, and of course, the hat. Each of these elements have been carefully chosen within an established genre for function, but laced with a knowing edge of sexiness and machismo.

The end of the first course and a reward for your attention is a collective gasp of period pageantry and decadence: a handful of Elizabeths from Mary Willis’ design for Bette Davis to Sandy Powell’s for Quentin Crisp and Judi Dench, as well as Alexandra Bryne for Cate Blanchett—in the requisite, exquisite brocades and ruffs—pearled and glittering in the faint light. The films play in the background as a reminder of the different perspectives, while reinforcing the grandeur. The mannequins and wigs are matte black, so they exist sotto voce and the garments command center stage. In the next corner, Ulla-Britt Söderlund and Milena Canonero’s sumptuous Oscar-winning 18th century pannier for Barry Lyndon stands two steps and thirty years apart from one of Canonero’s delectable Oscar-winning confection for Marie Antoinette.

Despite the splendor, there are the gentle reminders of the premise—the person and personality beneath the clothes. Guinevere’s wedding dress from Camelot, designed by John Truscott for Vanessa Redgrave, is a wonder of rawness and beauty. The flaxen crochet, picked out in lurex, lined in dappled muslin is chased by the tiny seashells on the bodice and a field of pumpkin seeds dangling like pailettes on the train. In a glance the gown tells you everything: she is a queen but is also only human. That humanity and vulnerability is ultimately her and a kingdom’s undoing, and she wears this on her vast, gothic sleeves.

The second course entitled Creative Collaborations is served on long banquet tables with the guests of honor projected on chairs. You eavesdrop on some of costume history’s greatest dialogues. As you wander, words leap out, details shift to the forefront; ideas come to roost, then recede. Edith Head and Hitchcock. The eau-de-nil suit on a collapsing figure that summons Tippi Hedren, birds land on a projected jungle gym behind her and shadows of birds flit over a table that is a constantly shifting landscape of visual accompaniment and revelation. Martin Scorsese chats with Sandy Powell and divulges, “Costume is the character.” Ann Roth speaks with Mike Nichols, Sharen Davis chats with Quentin Tarantino, and Colleen Atwood with Tim Burton. There is nothing stationary, the figures respond to each other and constantly shift and nod in agreement. The design process unfurls on the tables below. The effect is transporting, intimate, and ultimately as empowering for the viewer as it is enlightening.

Shall We Dance?

And just as your appetite is sated, and another bite of even such delicious fare seems unlikely, it is time for the final act, Creative Context, which we can call the dance.

At some point early on, when a lesser mortal would have been discouraged, Costume Designer James Acheson warned Landis that her exhibit ran the risk of being “dead frocks on dummies.” The last act defies this potential in a neat feat of technology, cleverness, and will. As the dining room falls away, you find yourself in a vast ballroom crowded with figures from your imagination and memory.

The mannequins have screens as heads, which through rear projection, have the face of the actor from the film, not static—but supple and moving. Photos don’t do this exhibit justice because photography reveals the edges of the frame. In person, the frame falls away into the darkness, and you are alone for a moment with Marilyn, blinking, dipping her graceful head—breathing, looking just past you, as you expect she would. Dressed in the mesmerizing champagne Travilla halter of astonishing proportions, which sold recently at auction for five million and change, she seems so close that you almost expect a gust of wind to send the pleated skirt skyward.

There are many others. Deborah Scott’s Jack and Rose from Titanic, Fanny Brice by Irene Sharaff, Penny Roses’ unforgettable Jack Sparrow, a pantheon of superheroes, and the impossible acreage of crimson silk satin in Dracula’s cape as imagined by Eiko. It recalls a van Dyck as it descends on Mina’s emerald cartridge pleated gown embroidered with vines. Jessica Rabbit and The Smurfs sneak by in your peripheral vision.

A quote from Harrison Ford from the introduction says, “My job is not to show you that the character and I have something in common. My job is to show you that you and the character (even one who may seem a little crazy) have something in common.” While these commonalities attract us, the most unquantifiable aspect of a costume is the personal relationship that the viewer has with it.

This idea has value, serving as a sort of Proustian madeleine, if you will.

The finale is Adrian’s Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a time capsule in gingham. Her ruby sequined slippers are presented in a black baroque framed vitrine, which recalls a saint’s reliquary.

In speaking to actor Beth Grant at the opening of this exhibit, she connected the effect of the costumes to the Stanislavski idea of sense memory. When moving toward Dorothy’s pinafore and shoes, Grant found a woman who she did not know, sympathetically putting her arm around her shoulder, and they both communed quietly in a silent moment of tears facing an icon of their childhood. Grant explained, “In that moment, what it meant to me, was not just the movie, but the context. It was my mother at that time and the Judy Garland music in the house. This was her favorite film and each year around my birthday in spring, we would look forward to it playing on television.” This love became something Grant shared with her own daughter. It is all of these personal elements woven together in their own fabric, which the gingham pinafore and sequined shoes encapsulate. Magically, they represent something different to every person.

My personal connection to the dress is the immense warmth and kindess of Alice Zitzman, the only person outside of my family who took care of me as a child. She assisted Gilda the Good Witch while at Warner Brothers, and was so transformed by the experience of working on the film that she named her own daughter Dorothy. She passed on to me her delight in fine needlework. This is also the power of Costume Design: to not merely tell the story of the production, but to become a part of your story, your past, and your future.

Glancing around the room packed with people who would never be together again, I noticed Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady. “How perfect,” I thought, because I, like she, could have danced all night.

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