The Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A, which I went to see over Christmas, covered a century or so of classic American studio movies, and gathered together a stellar cast of phantom stars. There really was an impressive range and number of outfits on display, crowding three large halls and spotlit within suitably shrouded surrounds of cinematic darkness. In the first hall, the costumes were displayed as empty shells, hats raised on thin lengths of wire to balance on invisible heads. It drew attention to the obvious absence at the heart of the show, the vacuum left by the actors who had brought them to life. We initially left to fill in that void, to add our own spectral superimposition of recollected faces and expressions. As we progressed, however, the ghostly parade of uninhabited but still filled out costumes was replaced by the more solid form of dummies. They were black and featureless, still lacking all but the most notional of features, with just a little bit of stylised hair sculpted from stiff cardboard or leather to suggest character (Johnny Depp’s wild, windblown thickets of Bride of Frankenstein streaked hair from Sweeney Todd, for example). Finally, as we approached the final room (and the culminating shrine to Saint Judy and Our Lady Marilyn), small wafer-thin screens provided odd virtual-reality approximations of heads. It’s an acknowledgement of the squared-off frame through which we always view these legendary figures, and the carefully contrived fantasy which they convey, a fantasy which the costumes they wore did much to construct. The actors faces are caught in a frozen, slow-motion loop – so slow that it took a while to notice them coming to life at first. The effect was as ghostly as the initial invisibility, giving the effect of a projection of imprinted memory.
Marlene in Angel (1937)The exhibition started on a high, the first star you were greeted with being Marlene Dietrich via her dress from the 1937 film Angel. This was a light Ernst Lubitsch comedy from the post von Sternberg period, by which time her image had been firmly established. The extensively jewelled, embroidered and fur-lined gown shows off the feminine side of Marlene (with a knowing wink added) – we’ll see her more masculine attire later. It was designed by Travis Banton, who worked for Paramount in the 20s and 30s, and also created Marlene’s extraordinary costumes for the von Sternberg pictures Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus and the delirious The Scarlett Empress, which established her complex, highly self-conscious screen goddess persona – lazily vampish, wearily erotic and beneath the veneer of indifference, deeply and irreducibly romantic. In the same introductory parade, Vivien Leigh’s green velvet dress with ‘Robin Hood’ hat from Gone With the Wind stands with prim correctness (we get to see her red velvet dress later, too, from this most extravagant of costume dramas). A different shade of green is displayed by Kim Novak’s woollen dress from Vertigo, offering a contrast in period, material and colour tone. The men are noticeably shabby in such company. Jeff Bridge’s towelling dressing gown, as loosely sported by The Dude in The Big Lebowski, faced the more elegant and expensively tailored outfits with defiant obliviousness to fashion or style. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp outfit is obviously one of THE iconic costumes in cinema history, and even if he has fallen from the pinnacle of fame and worldwide regard he enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century, it was still quite a thrill to be able to peer so closely at such an instantly familiar get up. The trousers were authentically tattered and spattered with mud, the shoes holed and twisted, and the jacket frayed at the edges with buttons hanging on to a last wisp of thread. The painstaking creation of such a worn and beat look was achieved with a level of detail which went far beyond what would have been detectable on the screen, no matter how palatially gargantuan. It’s the perfect example of the way in which a costume goes a good way towards defining a character, one of the things which the exhibition set out to explore.
Katherine Hepburn in her Philadelphia Story dressSome of the great designers from the classic Hollywood era were given their due. Many a glamorous picture from the 30s and 40s ended with the credit ‘gowns by Adrian’, a singular appellation akin to an artist’s signature. Its declarative ring and assumption of familiarity put him on a par with the actresses he dressed – Garbo, Harlow, Garland, Hepburn and Crawford. He was in fact Connecticut born Adrian Adolph Greenburg, who avoided the Anglicisation of names common in Hollywood by simply editing the last two out. The most eye-catching of Adrian’s gowns here was the dazzling sequined scarlet of Joan Crawford’s killer dress from the 1937 picture The Bride Wore Red. Its carmine splendour was rather diminished by the monochromatic black and white of the picture, however. The 1938 historical drama Marie Antoinette obviously gave him full reign to produce something of maximal extravagance for Norma Shearer to show off in the title role. It was Versailles via 30s couture, and we also got to see its modern equivalent nearby, with Kirsten Dunst’s costume for Sofia Coppola’s new romantic Marie Antoinette from 2006 also included, galleon-topped hat and all. Katherine Hepburn’s white dress from The Philadelphia Story was simple and elegant, its trim and line showing the influence of Classical Greek styles which was one of the trends of the time.
Greta is Queen ChristinaMost exciting as far as I was concerned was the regal dress Adrian designed for Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, worn in one of the few scenes in which she forsakes her more masculine garb. It produces a priceless look of startlement from co-star John Gilbert when he sees her sitting on the throne in it, having previously encountered her under very different circumstances. Away from the illuminated black and white of its screen incarnation, it is a rather dull beige colour, its jewels rather evidently paste, its precious stones glass beads. But it was worn by GARBO, which gives it its own special aura. Ironically, the costume in the exhibition which caused the most excitement and stirred up the most publicity was the one which, viewed objectively, without this added aura, was the most drab and ordinary of Adrian's creations. It was, of course, the gingham apron dress worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, with ruby slippers adding a touch of Technicolor sparkle. The clash between the two elements of the costume serves to symbolise the two worlds between which Dorothy is torn – the homely, familiar, but limited one of family, hard work and realistic expectations and the more exciting but dangerous one of imaginative freedom and exploration. By the time I got there, the original ruby slippers, immensely valuable and no doubt hugely expensive to insure, had been replaced by reproductions (very good ones, mind you).
Marilyn tries to warm up Tony Curtis in Some Like It HotDorothy’s dress and slippers were saved until the end, a culminating point and perhaps the ultimate example of how a costume can become so much more than just material given pattern and design. Beside it was another costume which may have caused many to feel a little weak-kneed: Marilyn’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch. It was the very one which, raised by wafts of warm air from a New York subway, led to thousands of posters, parodies and statuettes. It was such a simple thing in the flesh (or rather cloth). But elaborate and showy fashions were almost redundant in costumes which Marilyn would be animating. The dress was made by Travilla, another mono-monickered designer. He went the other way from Adrian, dispelling any taint of the ordinary by expunging his Christian names (William Jack), happy to revel in the exoticism of his surname alone (i.e. to sound Latin and foreign). He was the man who clothed Marilyn in her greatest films of the 50s. Perhaps more interesting as a dress than as a piece of iconography like the Seven Year Itch costume was the tassled and beaded 1920s number with accompanying stole draped sinuously across the shoulders. It’s the one she wore in Some Like It Hot whilst singing I Want To Be Loved By You, teasingly playing with the shadowy border of the spotlight’s illumination and the lowcut line of the dress’ bust. She subsequently sports it during her attempted seduction of the duplicitous Tony Curtis’ supposedly frigid heir to the Shell millions on what she believes to be his yacht. It’s not, and he’s just a lowly saxophone player for hire, and it takes all his will power to maintain the fiction. Travilla’s association with the movies blossomed in the 50s, but he started out in the 40s, and won an Oscar early on for his work on The Adventures of Don Juan. Erroll Flynn’s rakishly piratical costume for the title role was on display, loose shirt and trouser allowing flexibility of movement for duelling foil action. Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean foppery was placed adjacent for contrast and to demonstrate continuity and influence.
Edith HeadPerhaps the reigning queen of Hollywood costume design, and certainly the most instantly recognisable with her distinctive black helmet of symmetrically cut hair and ubiquitous dark, round-lensed glasses, was Edith Head. She began work (uncredited) on the 1927 silent picture Wings (winner of the first Academy Award for best picture) and continued through to the 1970s. Most of this long period was spent with Paramount Pictures, and she took on whatever the studio assigned her. During her golden period, spanning the 40s through to the 60s, she was incredibly versatile, responding to any challenge which was thrown down. She worked on film noirs (making Barbara Stanwyck’s costumes for Double Indemnity), comedies (including Preston Sturges’ run of classics in the 1940s, again with Barbara Stanwyck, and the Bob and Bing road movies), and musicals. In the latter category, the exhibition included a striking red, sequin-dazzled dress with open front worn by Ginger Rogers in the 1944 picture Lady in the Dark. Ginger sported it in a dream sequence set in a circus in which vivid colour was used with deliberate and prominent symbolism. Nearby, Nicole Kidman’s showgirl costume from Moulin Rouge, displayed on a dummy perched high with leg kicking out on a pendant swing, provided a modern contrast.
Tippi Hedren in The BirdsHead enjoyed a particularly fruitful creative relationship with Alfred Hitchcock on the pictures he made for Paramount and Universal in the 50s and early 60s. The green dress worn by the second incarnation of Kim Novak’s Madeleine in Vertigo was on show, as previously mentioned. Vertigo is a film in which costume and the identity it confers is a vitally important element. James Stewart’s character Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine’s grey suit, and the recreation of a silvery ‘ghost’ of a woman from the past, could almost be seen as an attempt to reverse time into a pre-Technicolor (or pre-cinematic) era of monochromatic black and white. Head’s light green skirt and jacket for Tippi Hedren in The Birds matches the colouring of the lovebirds she buys as a pointedly sarcastic gift for Rod Taylor’s character, and the equivalence lends her her own distinctive plumage. It’s a costume which carries a certain cool self-assurance, as betokened by the upturned collar. Hitchcock is intent on ruffling that assurance through his avian assaults, and the costume is finally torn and unravelled during the traumatic bird-filled attic scene. Head also worked with Audrey Hepburn on many of her films, including Roman Holiday and Funny Face (whose beatnik costumes were particularly her style). Although fashion house Givenchy provided the costume designs for Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Head was still the supervisor on the film. The black dress in which Audrey glides through the escalating chaos of her epic party was on display, as was her very different cockney flower girl’s costume from My Fair Lady. Head moved aside for Cecil Beaton on that one, who had after all designed the costumes for the original stage play.
Louise Glaum's spider dance costume from Sex (1920)Other costumes played against type or expectation. Mary Pickford’s tomboy overalls and cap from the 1925 picture Little Annie Rooney pulled against her sweet and girlish image. An accompanying clip showed her scrapping with a boy with impressively unrestrained realism. Marlene’s tux and topper (made for nonchalantly flicking to a jaunty angle) from the 1930 von Sternberg picture Morocco (on which Travis Banton was once more the costume designer) emphasised her androgynous appeal and ambiguous sexuality, playing against the almost parodic femininity of her elaborately theatrical and ornately accessorised gowns. Joan Crawford’s waitress uniform from the 1945 noir melodrama Mildred Pierce was drably utilitarian, a conscious dimming of her customary glamour. She soon exchanged it for a fur coat with shoulder pads broad enough for an American football player. Carole Lombard’s costume (another Travis Banton creation) from the 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, meanwhile, stood, or lounged (it was displayed on a dummy reclining in a suitably languorous pose) for the classic shimmering silver sequined sheath dress of the period, a figure hugging suit of armour in which to take to the battlefields of the evening parlours and nightclubs. Other costumes were inventive, offbeat or redolent of their age. Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinnevere outfit from the musical Camelot was a 60s loose and freely hanging woollen dress with the unusual decorative addition of pumpkin seeds sewn into the veil like dessicated beads furthering its wholesome organic look. Bessie Love’s costume for her character Hank Mahoney in Broadway Melody of 1929 was a reductive division into a bare outline of a chorus girl’s outfit, separated into its basic elements: a hollow top hat and a jacket with isolated shirt cuff bracelets emerging from invisible sleeves. Louise Glaum’s tantalising spider web outfit from the 1920 film Sex, which promises more than it actually reveals, was another startling music hall costume, in which her vampish character performs her man-catching spider dance at the Frivolity Theatre in New York. It’s the kind of outrageous and provocative design which Hollywood could only get away with in the halcyon pre-Hayes Code days. Claudette Colbert’s dress from her 1934 film Cleopatra gives the Queen of the Nile a very art deco look. Its lengths of green silk are pleated below a scarab brooch into streamlined folds. The art deco look of the brooch goes to show how much the discovery of Egyptian antiquities and art influenced the moderne style. Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleo, on the other hand, drapes herself in a black negligee of suspiciously 60s vintage, with a tasteful asp design stitched in. Placed side by side, it has to be said Claudette’s costume puts Liz’s in the shade. Of course, we’ve not got Amanda Barry’s Cleo outfit to compare them both with. Neither wins points for historical accuracy, however.
Claudette's Cleo (picture it in jade green)There’s a science fiction section at the back of one of the halls. Darth Vader’s beetle carapace costume from The Empire Strikes Back and Ming the Merciless’ imperial finery from the 30s Flash Gordon serials illustrate the importance of the cape to interstellar dictator chic. Ming’s velvet outfit, with its snazzy yellow zig-zag trim, is looking a bit faded now, like heavy curtains exposed to decades of sunlight. And the metallic instrument panel which forms Vader’s bust is in a shockingly shabby state. The surface is scratched and scuffed and its chunky plastic buttons look like they’ve been ripped off from a flat-top tape recorder. Rachel’s black and charcoal suit from Blade Runner, meanwhile, harks back to the 40s, its shiny material suggesting some synthetic fabric yet to be invented. With its exaggerated shoulder pads and cinched in waist, it takes a classic Edith Head look and projects it into a re-invented noir future (neon-noir, as the film has often been dubbed).
Charles Middleton's Ming the MercilessThere were a good many costumes from more modern films. Superheroes were posed in unusual positions: Spiderman halfway down the wall; Batman watching from the shadows on an elevated ledge; Michelle Pfeiffer’s PVC catwoman suit crouching above the exit door, its stitched together skin torn, leaving gaping gashes; and the Superman of Christopher Reeve’s incarnation suspended awkwardly above the milling spectators, low enough that the exceptionally tall might bump into his stomach and set him swaying. Superhero materials are synthetic, sometimes unappealingly so – Superman’s nylon, and Spiderman’s lycra. The latter could be (and no doubt was) digitally airbrushed on screen, but it looked uncomfortable, impracticable and inelegant close up. Warren Beatty’s lemon yellow Bugsy Malone trench coat attempted to reproduce the colour scheme of the comics, colours which are used on the page to identify and define character. Then there was the black trench coat from The Matrix, whose billowing tails were suspended into the gelid bullet time of the movie. Many others seemed either to be deliberately turning their back on glamour (Bruce Willis’ Die Hard t-shirt, the lovers’ practical outdoor clothing from Brokeback Mountain, Matt Damon’s melt into the crowd high street outfit from The Bourne Conspiracy). As far as women’s costumes go, they seem to be self-consciously harking back to the classic Hollywood period (Kate Winslet’s white pin-striped dress and hat from Titanic, Keira Knightley’s greening evening dress from Atonement), or to be stuck in a permanent recycling of certain historical periods (Cate Blanchette’s regal red costume from Elizabeth: The Golden Age or Judi Dench’s from Shakespeare in Love). They simply fail to hold the same level interest, for me at least. Only in gothic dramas and comedies such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (from which the Count’s capacious red dressing gown and Mina’s ancestral incarnation Elisabeta’s sumptuous gown were included) and The Addam’s Family (with Morticia’s velvet dress sharing the arachnoid theme of Louise Glaum’s webbed dress from Sex) was something of the old flamboyence allowed to shine through once more. Perhaps modern sensibilities are too attuned to the notion of camp, and too ready to detect it and dismiss it. The appetite for a certain sort of realism in dramas beyond the prescribed genres of the fantastic (where its influence has also crept in, leading to the decline of gothic stylisation) has dispelled the old, elaborately artificial fantasies. I guess they really don’t make them like they used to any more. The exhibition continues for a few more days (until the 27th January) before packing its trunks and taking the next liner back to the land of dreams.