Lights, camera, wardrobe!
FROM Dorothy’s coveted ruby slippers to Bruce Willis’s vest in the die hard movies, Hollywood’s most iconic films often feature memorable costumes. see the best in a captivating new exhibition
Out go the lights. Music swells. Images flicker across the screen. The spell is cast. We’re transported to a hardscrabble farm in Kansas, to a Manhattan penthouse, to the Galactic Republic. We leave our own lives behind and become the crusading lawyer, the superhero, the sheriff trading bullets with cattle rustlers in the Wild West. We are at the movies.
A huge, often misunderstood ingredient in the recipe for movie magic is the work of costume designers who, whether the film’s set in ye olden days or yesterday, help conjure character through clothes and accessories that not only flesh out the person, but help to create the mood in any given scene. Costumes are a storytelling tool, a portal, if you like, through which actors step, which helps them transform into their on-screen persona.
Today the V&A in London unveils an exhibition called Hollywood Costume. Visitors will come face to face with the white polyester suit John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever, the suit, hat, boots and cane that made Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp so distinctive, the vivid emerald green gown worn by Keira Knightley, in Atonement, and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man suit. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. In addition to more than 100 costumes, the exhibition features film footage and interviews with the likes of Tim Burton, Robert De Niro – who collects his costumes – and Meryl Streep, who said, “On every film, the clothes are half the battle in creating the character.”
In the book accompanying this exhibition, Senior Guest Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis PhD – who is Director of the David C Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA and the Academy Award-nominated designer who gave Indiana Jones his distinctive look – writes: “Costume design is not just about the clothes: in film, it has both a narrative and a visual mandate. The audience is asked to believe that the people in the movie are real and that they had a life prior to the start of the action. Costumes provide the audience with essential information. Attention to detail is the hallmark of great costuming.”
When I ring her in Los Angeles, Landis’s enthusiasm crackles down the line. Her mantra is: “Costumes are not fashion.” But what explains why a look sometimes spills off the screen and into the shops?
“Costumes only influence fashion when the audience falls in love with the character on screen. It’s true that the V&A’s galleries will be filled with iconic characters and unforgettable clothes but the exhibition is not about costumes: it is about the contribution costume designers have made to cinema storytelling.
“The audience falls in love with the people in the movie because of the storytelling. First and foremost comes the screenplay. The structure of the screenplay has to be perfect. The director has to make all the right choices, not just the costumes, but the lighting and the mood of the scene has to be perfect. The place and the setting has to be perfect, and then the costumes have to be perfectly appropriate for that person in the movie. If all these things work together, you get a great movie and a great story. It’s when the audience is transported to this new place, with these people that they absolutely believe are real, that’s the moment. All of these things must work together perfectly to ignite a fashion trend.”
Costume and character are indivisible, she says. “These [costumes] are just one moment in time of these people’s choices, so when a visitor goes from moment to moment in this vast, iconic exhibition, I hope it’s going to be a roller coaster of feelings. Because each one of these film characters means something different to each person, depending on wtheir age.”
I tell her I want to talk glamour, and she’s unimpressed, but promises to play ball. “For me it’s all about the nuance. Glamour is very noticeable, and glamour is one tool that the director uses to tell the story. What Joan Crawford used to say about the great designer Adrian, was that for a dramatic scene, he wouldn’t let the clothes get in the way of the script. But for that moment when she had to make an entrance, he pulled out all the stops and then the entire movie would come to a halt for all of us to take in Joan in all of her bodaciousness.
“Glamour means power. Glamour says, you must look at me. It’s: ‘Look at me. Buy me. F**k me.’ It’s all about magnetism, charisma, ownership, domination. It’s greater than allure. It’s the moment of shock and awe.”
She says that none of the great Golden Age actresses I might name – Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich – could be glamorous all the time. “They were all great movie stars and great actresses. They could not be glamorous in every scene because film is not a catwalk. Catwalks are terribly boring and the walking models are blank, just living hangers.”
How has changing technology affected the costume designer’s challenge? There must have been a big cultural shift in the industry with the change from black and white to colour, for instance. She sets me straight on the fact that Bette Davis’s life-changing scarlet dress, from Jezebel, was actually chocolate brown. But Crawford’s gown from The Bride Wore Red is red as red can be. So how did that work?
With her voice rising to a fever pitch, she enthuses: “Oh wait till you see it! People are going to have heart attacks. This dress will make you drop to your knees. It is the most gorgeous, solid bugle beaded dress you’ve ever seen. It’s the most brilliant red, and I’ve asked the lighting designer to light it with a green filter, which will turn the dress grey – exactly as you’d see it in the clip. So when you walk up to it it will look grey and then all of a sudden the light is going to change, and you’re going to see it go. And you are going to jump back ten feet.
“When costume designers worked in black and white, they were really working with contrast. When you go back and look at silent films you see they used texture. There’s lots of fur in those movies, lots of sparkles and reflective fabrics.”
Though it’s not a silent film, Carole Lombard’s silver evening gown from My Man Godfrey, strikes me as a great example of that. “That is also solid silver bugle beads – so these girls were on fire! There were sequins, there were paillettes, there was fur, there were diamond bracelets. Anything that could catch the light. Black and white films, a lot of those actresses were in white all of the time. It was silhouettes – let’s get them shoulders, let’s get them furs, let’s get them hats.
“When it moved into colour, it’s like somebody threw paint at the screen, a little OTT. Then it all calmed down. For about 20 years, 1940-1960, the big-budget epics and musicals were all in colour, then the dramas and film noir and gritty melodramas were all in black and white.”
What can she tell me about the amazing, seemingly jewel-encrusted frock Marlene Dietrich wore in Angel (1937), which is in the exhibition? “It’s solid gold. And my shock is that all over the dress it has very large crystals, and they are red and green. So I don’t know whether Travis Banton was saying Port and Starboard, or stop and go, or it’s Christmas!” She breaks off to laugh.
There’s also an exquisite gown worn by Katharine Hepburn in The Philadephia Story, a film that saw her mainly wearing white. “That dress is white with gold embroidery, and it’s from a moment in the movie when you think oh my god, is Tracy Lord going to go for this reporter? She’s a little drunk, they’re standing by the pool, about to go for a swim, she’s flirting madly with Jimmy Stewart’s character, and her ex-husband, Cary Grant, walks up. It’s an unforgettable moment, and one of the great dresses of all time.”
White, explains Landis, is the best colour to wear in the moonlight – Hepburn really stands out.
Several of the exhibit’s gowns are made from fabrics that are no longer manufactured, she says. Claudette Colbert’s green, plunging gown is composed of something called Angel Skin Crepe – it’s six-ply and “feels like nothing else in the world.”
The shockingly sexy white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in Some Like it Hot, is made from silk souffle, no longer available because it was highly flammable. “It would almost spontaneously combust. And you see pictures of all these actresses holding their cigarettes so close to these dresses built on souffle. It’s what Hollywood studios used to make actresses brassieres out of, because they would dye the souffle the colour of their skin, so it would completely disappear.
“When you look at Some Like it Hot you gasp, because Marilyn looks completely naked. Orry-Kelly created this dress, and beaded this silk souffle so even though it went all the way up to the neck and followed all the censorship rules, it showed everything. Also this dress has something you don’t see in the movie: on the left cheek, in single-file bugle beads, is the outline, like a tattoo, of a three-inch red heart.”
Pausing to contain our excitement, we end where we began, with the screenplay and the director’s vision. “Every director is completely different. It’s pretty rare for a director to say exactly what they want, but it’s within the realm of possibilities. If the director looks at the screenplay and says ‘This person reminds me of my Aunt Ida, who always had a cardigan,’ you can bet that those memories, if the director feels they are right, will make their way into the film. It’s the director’s vision that we help bring to life. That’s our job.”
Hollywood Costume is at the Victoria & Albert Museum from today until 27 January 2013. For more information, visit www.vam.ac.uk/Hollywoodcostume; tickets are £14 (concessions available). The accompanying book, Hollywood Costume, by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, is £35, hardback, and available through the museum gift shop and website.
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