The real stars of the silver screen

As the V&A museum in London opens an exhibition of iconic Hollywood costumes, Suzanne Harrington takes a look at the stories behind the clothes.

The real stars of the silver screen

IMAGINE walking through a darkened room filled with Hollywood movie heroes and heroines, gods and goddesses, baddies and goodies.

Where a simple brown fedora and bullwhip conjures up swashbuckling adventure. And a small pair of sparkly red shoes in a glass case triggers all your memories of a faraway world of wizards and witches and yellow brick roads.

Hollywood Costume, the V&A’s major autumn exhibition, shows the part played by costume in making characters come to life. Costume forms a visual connection between character and audience, without us even realising it — modern movie costume is considered a success if the audience isn’t distracted by it, yet intrinsically links it to the character.

Spiderman, Captain Jack Sparrow, Scarlett O’Hara, the Terminator, Indiana Jones, Darth Vader, Dorothy, the Addams Family — we would recognise their costumes at a thousand paces, no matter who is wearing them.

They’re all here at the V&A, 130 of them spanning 100 years of cinema history, gathered from museums and private collectors by guest curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, professor at the American Film Institute and wife of film director John Landis. Her costume design credits include the Blues Brothers, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ — she designed that red leather jacket for the video, which was directed by her husband. She says that film costume works at its best when it appears not as a change of clothes, but as a change of skin.

This exhibition, therefore, is more than a pile of old frocks and capes hanging on mannequins — costume is not about fashion, but about signifying character. Think black cape, think Batman. Think navy suit, think Iron Lady.

“You have to work doubly hard to make them [costumes] disappear,” says Hollywood designer Ellen Mirojnick. The famous costume designer Edith Head, who won more Oscars than any woman in history, used to say that her only requirement was that a costume not fall apart in a shot; these are not clothes, but made-up costumes from Hollywood’s giant dressing-up box, created to enhance a scene, reinforce a character, yet never ‘wear’ an actor. Unlike catwalk fashion, they are not designed to dominate. Says Oscar-winning designer Ann Roth, “I don’t dress movie stars. I dress actors who are playing characters.”

Meryl Streep, the ultimate character actress who has her own section within the exhibition, herself has a degree in costume design. She says that costume is “the marriage of the idea of character and the actuality of it”.

Her costumes from Out of Africa, The Iron Lady, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Lemony Snicket and Mamma Mia surround her as she talks — digitally — about costume and explains how it can accentuate character: the anxious nature of the aunt she plays in Lemony Snicket is mimicked by a fussy dress that subtly rattles with agitation.

“On every film, the clothes are half the battle in creating the character,” she says. “I have a great deal of opinion on how my people are presented. We show a great deal by what we put on our bodies.”

Doing all of this in black and white was an even more precise art form. Old black and white movies relied on silhouette, pattern, contrast, and the reflectivity of beads and sequins. A Peppy Miller costume from the 2011 black and white Oscar winner The Artist shows how this was done — fake fur, glittery fabric, draping, but no colour. Mae West had it written into her contracts that she was the only actress who could wear white on film. An exception is Joan Crawford’s slinky sparkly red gown, vivid as blood, from 1937’s black and white classic The Bride Wore Red — its redness is portrayed in shading and movement rather than actual colour.

When Technicolor came into being, a costume designer from early Hollywood, Travis Banton, was worried. “If we try to dress the feminine stars in a kaleidoscopic range of colours, it will surely be distressing to an audience,” he said. But by 1939, the year of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, colour was deemed essential — even if early colour film did not portray colours accurately. (The Ruby Slippers are actually not ruby at all, but darker garnet — yet in Technicolor they glowed bright red).

Close up, some of the costumes are breathtaking. The gothic richness of the Addams Family wardrobe — Morticia’s gowns, the smoking jacket of Gomez — and the intricate work on the Last Emperor’s garments make you stop and stare. Some make you gasp for their sheer iconic value — for example, Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet dress, made by Mammy from Mrs O’Hara’s drawing room curtains, but in reality made by costume designer Walter Plunkett, who toured the South viewing collections of vintage Confederacy gowns for inspiration.

There is some predictably classic stuff in there — Holly Golightly’s (teeny weeny) black Givenchy dress, pearls, tiara and cigarette holder from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, lots of Marilyn frocks, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp suit, a host of glittering gowns from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Then, in the second half of the 20th century, costume became more naturalised. Edith Head worked with maestros like Hitchcock, putting his heroines in classic tailored pastels that would not vary much throughout filming — think Tippi Hedren’s pale green suit in The Birds. But despite creating so many classic costumes, Head did not have her contract renewed in 1967 after 40 years at Paramount. Change was coming.

The found-material approach of costume designer Ann Roth epitomised this new era. For 1969’s Midnight Cowboy she dressed Dustin Hoffman in a jacket that had been dumped in a bin by a down-and-out. She had it cleaned and put it on the movie star. Just as Travis Banton and Edith Head had dressed their movie stars to look like movie stars, the new breed of designer dressed their movie stars to look like who they were portraying — think the grey baggy sweatpants of Jennifer Beale in 1983’s Flashdance, or the cheap leather jacket of Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden character in Fight Club.

Although Hollywood costumes tend to get tossed aside rather than lovingly preserved, Robert de Niro kept all of his, and has lent them to the exhibition — Jake LaMotta’s leopardskin dressing gown from Raging Bull, the garish red suit from The King Of Comedy, and best of all, Travis Bickle’s entire costume from Taxi Driver.

Designed by Ruth Morley, the costume shows Bickle’s alienation as an American citizen. He wears classic American items — plaid shirt, aviator sunglasses — but his look becomes more militarised as his grip on reality diminishes.

Yet some of the costumes which are super high-impact on screen look quite different in reality, showing once again the importance of lighting and cinematography.

Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman suit, for example, looks delicious on screen, because it was filmed coated in a layer of latex, making it shiny and slinky. Not so in real life. The shell of Darth Vader, the baddie to end all baddies, looks as plastic as Jaws close up, the flashing lights on his chest like something sellotaped on from an old Amstrad computer. The mask is still terrifying though.

Like Vader’s black mask, some costume items have a depth of meaning that transcends their physicality. That denim shirt from Brokeback Mountain is a cinematic symbol of love akin to the Taj Mahal; the bloodstained vest from Die Hard signifies action as much as Indiana Jones’s bullwhip.

Best of all are the ruby slippers, at the end of the exhibition, next to Dorothy’s gingham pinafore. There they are in a glass case, smaller and darker than you’d think, a bit battered, on loan from the Smithsonian Museum of American History for one month only. It’s their first time leaving America — they’re the equivalent of the Crown Jewels. “The ruby slippers transcend Hollywood costume design and have the power to transport us to the limits of our imagination,” says Deborah Nadoolman Landis. “These precious shoes evoke memory and emotion.”

She’s right. You look at the ruby slippers and you are transported — and that’s what the movies are all about. Transcendence.

Hollywood Costume at the V&A, London, Oct 20 to Jan 27

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