Hollywood Costume

Yesterday I visited a stunning exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The V&A’s autumn exhibition, ‘Hollywood Costume’ explores the central role costume design plays in cinema storytelling. Bringing together over 100 of the most iconic movie costumes from across a century of film-making, it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the clothes worn by unforgettable and beloved characters such as Dorothy Gale, Indiana Jones, Scarlett O’Hara, Jack Sparrow, Holly Golightly and Darth Vader. It also included beautiful costumes from Elizabeth the Golden Age and Shakespeare in Love. 

The exhibition is set in a number of large rooms housing amazing costumes on mannequins complete with film clips and a wealth of information. The exhibition is comprised of three sections, or ‘acts.’ ‘Deconstruction,’ strives to examine the role of the designer in researching characters to know who they are, and how they should be presented, while ‘Dialogue,’ explains the collaborative process between the designer and director to bring the character to life. The third gallery, ‘Finale,’ is the culmination of these processes, exhibiting those costumes that have become, simply, part of the ether of popular culture.

It was amazing to see 100 film  costumes on display – from the tatty suit worn by Charlie Chaplin as the tramp in 1915 to to a gown worn almost a hundred years later by Keira Knightley in ‘Anna Karenina’ released in 2012.

It is impossible for me here to write in detail about every outfit as there are over so many included in this wonderful exhibition however I will include a few of my favourites.

A particular highlight for me was the costumes worn by Vivien Leigh in ‘Gone with the Wind’ made in 1939.  On display was the green velvet gown with gold tassels worn by her character Scarlett O’Hara.  In the film her dress was supposed to be made from old curtains as Scarlett cannot afford a new gown.  However in actual fact the dress was made for Vivien and the curtains created afterwards for the set.

A stunning red velvet gown set with jewels and sewn with feathers worn by Vivien Leigh later in the film is also included.  The dress looks red in the display however in the film it looked a dark burgundy colour – whether or not ‘technicolor’ enhanced the gown in the actual scene or the fabric has faded over time I cannot tell.

As my favourite period in history for costumes is the 16th Century I particularly enjoyed the costumes from this period.  The exhibition included costumes from a number of Tudor/Elizabethan films.

The most striking gown in the exhibition is a costume worn by Judi Dench as Elizabeth I in Shakespeare in Love.  The fabric is gold encrusted and heavily embroidered with gold beads and jewels. An amazing, ruff created of stiffened lace is edged with beautiful wired drop beads. The marvellous sleeves are pleated and sewn with individual pearls. The gown has a wonderful stomacher hand embroidered with pearls, gold beads and jewels. The costume looks amazing however it was probably not too comfortable to wear for long periods of time as a boned bodice can feel constricted and the fabric looks very heavy and ornate. As film costumes are worn for ‘takes’ which are usually only a short amount of time it may have been bearable.

 I wore my gold ‘Elizabeth I Gown ‘ for a photo shoot at Belsay Hall in Northumberland – it is quite heavy and although initially it was fairly comfortable  after an hour your back will start to ache with the weight – we are used to our clothes today being mostly ‘easy to wear’.

During her lifetime Elizabeth was followed everyone when she walked outside (they called it walked abroad) – her dresses were so heavy with jewels she left a trail of costly gems behind her and you could make a fortune picking them up!

There is a gown worn by Bette Davis to play Elizabeth I in the Virgin Queen made in 1955.   She also played the part in an earlier film – ‘Elizabeth and Essex co-starring Errol Flynn.  Bette said she preferred playing the part in the Virgin Queen as she was older, more experienced and was nearer in age to the real Queen at that time.  If you look at the bodice it is not flat and is incorrect for the period.  The bust line is curved – Bette Davis had a large bust however she refused to wear a bra as she found them uncomfortable so the front of the gown is not the correct shape.  Nevertheless the jewels on this costume and pretty ruff are beautiful.

An interesting costume was a gown worn by Kathryn Hepburn for her 1939 film about Mary Queen of Scots called ‘Mary of Scotland’. The film is in black and white so it was amazing to see the bright red dress worn by Kathryn in the title role.  It has a rather 1930’s feel to the shape and isn’t particularly faithful to the period as the skirt isn’t quite full enough for the 16th Century. It is however a  lovely red velvet gown embroidered with gold thread. This dress is the same colour as Mary’s execution dress which made such a statement at her execution – red was the colour of Catholic Martyrs.

There is also a costume worn by Joan Crawford for the film ‘The Bride Wore Red’. It is a brightly coloured dress covered with tiny red sparkly bugle beads which shimmer and sparkle.  Although again this was a bright red dress it only photographed as a dark grey as the film as it was photographed in black and white. A special light beam above the dress showed how it would have appeared in the monochrome of the actual film.

I always find it particularly interesting to see costumes for black and white films in reality – it is wonderful for a designer to see the full colour and lively tones which are missed while watching the film in monochrome – seeing them in full colour brings the costumes to life.

Two very memorable and iconic costumes are included at the end of the exhibition. Dorothy’s dress from the Wizard of Oz and Marilyn Monroe’s Gown from ‘The Seven Year Itch’.

Who can forget the costume for Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz.

We have all without exception grown up/grown old with this film – to see the actual costume worn by the 16 year old Dorothy – who never ages is a truly unforgettable. The dress has obviously been cleaned a few times however is still a pretty gown. It is a dress for a teenager rather than a child as Judy Garland was a budding young woman at the time. Shirley Temple was the original choice for Dorothy however she was contacted for another film so Judy Garland stepped in and made the role her own.  Also included with the dress were the famous ‘ruby slippers’. Upon inspection they seem to be completely covered with tiny red sequins. The bows on the shoes are also covered with sequins and embroidered with a number of rectangular ruby jewels.  They are truly a work of art.

A beautiful floaty chiffon/silk gown was created for Marilyn Monroe to wear in ‘The Seven Year Itch’.  She was at the height of her beauty and this dress certainly flattered her figure.  It is seems to be a light beige fabric  now although I think it was originally a lighter tone. It  has been pleated into bands of fabric at the waist to create an hour glass figure. Although ample in the bust and hips this gown emphasized Marilyn’s superb form.  The dress was truly a work  of art. Marilyn’s gown floating above the grating with the blast of air beneath was an iconic  and never to be forgotten cinematic  moment. 

Not so sumptuous however no less forgettable were suits worn by Tippi Hedren in that famous film ‘The Birds’ by Alfred Hitchcock and a suit worn by Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’.  Both outfits beautifully tailored and eminently suitable for the characters portrayed in the films. Tippi Hedren’s suit was a deep green in the film however it seems a lighter colour in the exhibition so it may have faded with time. There were quite a few copies of the suit made for Tippi as it has to be ‘pecked at’ and be covered in blood during the film.

Included is an ornate jewelled and beaded suit worn designed for by Susan Hayward for the film ‘Valley of the Dolls’. This costume has lovely fabric and is well cut however Susan Hayward said the shoulder pads made her look overweight – she refused to wear them and so they were removed.

It is interesting to compare the costumes worn by Norma Shearer and Kirsten Dunst both in the role of Marie Antoinette as they have portrayed the same character albeit nearly 70 years apart.

Norma Shearer wears a yellow gown which is embroidered with gold threads. The pattern apparently was reproduced from actual garments worn by Marie Antoinette herself – It is a lavish and stunning gown befitting the French Queen of Fashion.

The gown worn by Kirsten Dunst in the same role is a lighter and fresher dress created in blue silk.  It is less ornate than the gold gown worn by Norma Shearer.  Possibly because Kirsten is a much younger actress to place the role so her gown is less stately and ornate – it is however very pretty.

Renee Zwelleger’s black beaded gown worn in the film ‘Chicago is on display. The skirt shape is not correct for the period as it is quite flared and most skirts during this period were fairly straight.  The designer added more gores of fabric to the skirt so Renee could kick properly during the dance scene. It is a valid change to the design.

I love the ornate gown worn by Winona Ryder in the film ‘Dracula’ by Martin Scorsese.  She wears the dress at the beginning of the film to portray ‘Elizabetta’ wife of Vlad Dracul. It is green and gold brocade dress with an overlay net skirt embellished with sewn and printed gold vine leaves.  The rich fabric of her brocade skirt is cartridge pleated onto an ornate bodice.  Her dress is very beautiful with gothic overtones and a timeless quality.

The bright red cloak worn by Gary Oldman Dracula is also included – it is amazingly long and covers a large amount of the floor – if you watch the film his long blood coloured cloak slithers along behind him like a snake.

The corset costume worn by Nicole Kidman for ‘Moulin Rouge’ is a wonderful sparkling and glittering confection.  The corset/basque is a pale beige stretchy fabric which is appliquéd with sparkling AB crystals.  It also has a long ‘tail’ of feathers. Although it looks fabulous Nicole Kidman said it was very difficult to ‘kick’ during the dance scene as the corset was so tight. I have myself  worn Tudor corsets for a number of hours and it certainly restricts your movement – luckily I wasn’t required to perform a kick dance routine!!

There is an amazingly complex Michelle Pfeiffer black ‘Catwoman’ suit worn in one of the batman films.  It was supposed to look as if the character has created it from a black plastic coat.  I think however it would take some expertise to make this yourself if you are not trained a s a costume designer.  Nevertheless it is a stunning piece of art in its own right. If you compare it to the cat girl suits worn by Eartha Kitt and Julie Newman for the TV series it is so much more stunning.  It must be remembered however that the film budget was massive compared to the costume budget for the TV series in the 1960’s.

They are also plenty of costumes worn by actors in action films. They include Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather costume from ‘The Terminator’ and Bruce Willis’ horrible blood soaked T shirt from ‘Die Hard’. There are also suits for ‘Spiderman’, ‘Batman’, Darth Vader and Superman – who can forget the man who wears his pants over his tights!  James Bond is there looking suitably suave in his immaculate suit  – Daniel Craig isn’t the best looking Bond in my opinion however he is well cast as an all-action hero. Not forgetting Johnny Depp’s pirate outfit  as Jack Sparrow inPirates of the Caribbean’  and his costume for his role as ‘Sweeney Todd’ as the demon barber of Fleet Street in the dark film by Tim Burton.

If you enjoy westerns you can also view John Wayne’s red shirt and jeans from the John Ford film ‘The Searchers’. Apparently they created a ‘cowboy outfit’ for him however he decided to wear his own jeans as they were more comfortable.

Mel Gibson’s costume as William Wallace in ‘Braveheart’ wearing the famous tartan over his shoulder is on display next to a beautiful brown leather suit with boots worn by Errol Flynn in ‘Don Juan’.

Bizarre vibrant suits added a touch of Technicolor to the final part of the display.  A bright red suit with tie worn by Warren Beatty in the film ‘Bugsy’. This film depicted the life of the colourful gangster Bugsy Seagal who founded Las Vegas. There is also a suit with a vibrant pink/orange jacket worn by Robert de Niro in the violent film ‘Casino’ set in the 1960’s.

I mustn’t forget the iconic ‘white suit worn by John Travolta in that unforgettable film 70’s film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ – it still looks good however seems to be more of an cream colour in reality that the stark white I remember  – again it may have dulled with age.

The exhibition ‘Hollywood Costume’ is a must see for anyone interested in costumes and/or the movies.   I design costumes myself so am particularly interested to see them ‘close up’. I went to the exhibition with my son who is 23 years old and although he loves the cinema he is not particularly  interested in clothes worn in films however he really enjoyed it . I would therefore  recommend this show for everyone – don’t miss it!!

The ‘Hollywood Costume’ Exhibition is presented at the V&A Museum until 27th January 2013.






One Response to “Hollywood Costume”

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  1. Yolanda says:

    I loved reading your interesting article about Hollywood Costumes – I must book to see the exhibition – it sounds fantastic!

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