Soon after they began working on Hollywood Costume, the exhibition of film costume design which opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in October, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis sent her co-curator Sir Christopher Frayling two postcards.
The first was a still from Brokeback Mountain, showing Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wearing jeans, washed-out shirts and cowboy hats. On the back she had written: “This is costume design.” The second was of Audrey Hepburn wearing Givenchy couture; on the back she had written: “This isn’t.”
“Unfortunately, the postcards arrived in the wrong order, so it was a couple of days before I understood,” recalls Frayling. “But Deborah is right, and that is the message of this exhibition.”
The V&A anticipates that Hollywood Costume could be one of its most popular exhibitions, with the combined lure of film and fashion giving it huge box office appeal.
Five years of research and detective work have brought together many of the most memorable film costumes seen on screen. Errol Flynn’s Don Juan tights will be displayed alongside Harry Potter’s Gryffindor uniform, and Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky shorts with Darth Vader’s cape.
There will be a room of knockout gowns, from the floor-length sequins designed by Travis Banton for Marlene Dietrich in Angel in 1937, to the emerald silk designed by Jacqueline Durran for Keira Knightley in Atonement 70 years later.
Some costumes are more than a century old; the newest is from the latest Dark Knight film, due to be released this year. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow outfit will be sent back to the studio when the exhibition closes, in time for filming on Pirates of The Caribbean 5.
Hollywood Costume has a slightly subversive message. This is not another celebration of the silver screen’s style moments, which Frayling calls “a rather camp form of glamour”. Instead, the exhibition sets out to showcase costume design as an integral part of the movie-making process.
Nadoolman Landis, senior guest curator, has costume design credits which include Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Blues Brothers, as well as the Michael Jackson music video, Thriller. (On the press conference podium, she swiftly established her bona fide Hollywood-insider credentials by her habit of referring to Martin Scorsese as Marty.)
She began her presentation standing in front of a photograph, taken on the set of The Birds, showing Alfred Hitchcock deep in conversation with Edith Head, the legendary costume designer.
“Movies are about people. When I was choosing which costumes to track down, I began by asking everyone: ‘Who in the movies do you most want to meet?’ “
“Period costume looks spectacular, but really that is the easy part,” says Frayling. “People associate film costume with fancy dress, but just as much thinking goes into Bruce Willis’s T-shirt in Die Hard as into the most elaborate royal gown. Class, taste, education, biography, income: all of those aspects of a character are built into what the actor wears.
“I’m much less interested in the work of a fashion designer parachuted in to design a few looks than in someone who is there on set, crafting the character alongside the director and actor.”
Nadoolman Landis recalled a conversation with Meryl Streep, who said that she worked in the dressing room with the costume designer until “the third person” – the character – “showed up”.
Hollywood Costume will include Brad Pitt’s clothes from Fight Club. Costume designer Michael Kaplan felt that Tyler Durden, Pitt’s character, would have bought his clothes from thrift stores, so he used staple guns to fix in thrift store-style price tags which he then ripped out, leaving the staples behind as Durden would have done.
Cecil Beaton, who won costume design Oscars for Gigi and My Fair Lady, always said costume was an unacknowledged art in Hollywood.
As a result, relatively few costumes are archived and documented, and sourcing this exhibition involved painstaking detective work.
While searching for Dorothy’s gingham pinafore dress from The Wizard Of Oz, assistant curator Keith Lodwick received a phone call from an anonymous collector requesting a meeting outside Temple underground station.
From there, Lodwick and Nadoolman Landis were taken to a bank vault in Fleet Street, where a large box was produced. Under layers of tissue paper lay the gingham pinafore.
“I put my gloves on, and turned it inside out to check if it was the real thing, and it was. That was a holy grail moment, for all of us.”
Hollywood costumes showcased in V&A blockbuster exhibition
Jess Cartner-Morley, fashion editor, The Guardian