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Costumes come to life

The V&A’s new Hollywood Costume exhibition wows with its selections and staging.

Last night I was lucky enough to go along to a gala dinner and preview of the V&A’s new Hollywood Costumes exhibit.

The dinner was one of the swankiest I’ve ever attended — I felt a bit like I was at Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton’s very posh wedding (they were on the head table). From the food to the wine to the flowers, it was all done with impeccable taste (it never hurts to eat beneath a Raphael painting). Attendees included Michelle Rodriguez, Simon Pegg, Bill Bailey, and costume designers Sandy Powell and Michael Kaplan, among many others.

But enough about the Pinot Noir and roses, the real star attraction was the exhibit itself. I can honestly recommend it to anyone who calls themselves a film fan. Or a fashion lover. Or basically anyone with eyes.

I found myself almost getting weepy by the end of my viewing. There’s something very special, and very magical, about seeing the exact vest that Charlie Chaplin wore, or the green velveteen ‘curtain’ dress that Vivien Leigh wore as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. It’s different than seeing a film prop, it’s a personal, human connection with the past… I found myself looking at Kim Novak’s green dress from 1958’s Vertigo and wondering how she felt when she had it on, or if Hitchcock himself touched that very fabric moving her around a set.

There’s dozens and dozens of costumes that I could wax lyrical about, but I admit to being most drawn to some of the older pieces, which were in remarkable condition — Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina gown from 1933 looked like it was no more than a few years old. It almost gave me goosebumps. As did Darth Vader. And who would have thought I would live to see the day I was within mere inches of John Wayne’s jeans.

If I had to pick one favourite it would be Hedy Lamarr’s peacock cape outfit from 1949’s Samson & Delilah. Breathtaking.

As for more contemporary inclusions, I was most wowed by the black tutu from Black Swan. And let’s just say that Hogwarts fans won’t be disappointed, THAT green dress from Atonement gets its due, and The Dude Abides.

The clothes aren’t just slapped on mannequins, they are brought to life with video screens, with interviews and script notes and comments. It’s a learning experience, with videos from experts like Meryl Streep, Andy Serkis and Martin Scorsese. The whole exhibit even had its own score commissioned. It’s quite a forward-thinking move for the V&A and they should be applauded for taking some risks with this presentation.

The only drawback to visiting during a lavish dinner was seeing all the impossibly tiny waists of the outfits. Even Chaplin was quite a slight chap evidently. I found myself doing a tiny-waist-survey, which was unscientifically led by Tippi Hedren (The Birds), Vivien Leigh (Gone With The Wind), Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and Helena Bonham Carter (Room With A View).

Some of the costumes on display were part of the BFI’s collection, and indeed during the dinner it was announced that the BFI had donated its entire 700-piece collection of film costumes to the V&A collection.

The exhibit, and the dinner, were sponsored by Harry Winston. Sadly, there were no diamonds in the goodie bags, but there were a few uber-glamorous models showing off some spectacular jewels that you’d rarely see off the red carpet.

Director John Landis and Deborah Nadoolman Landis

Director John Landis and Deborah Nadoolman Landis

Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis (wife of John Landis) was the senior guest curator for the exhibit, and many in attendance paid tribute to her passion during years of work to bring it to life. When she took the stage, she noted that “this exhibition is a dream come true”. As a lecturer at UCLA, she noted that Britain continued to be a powerful force in costume design. “Britain continues to be a wonderful educational breeding ground for the Hollywood costume designers of the future.”

She said the exhibition went far further than glamour. “For us as costume designers, it still comes down to substance over style. We answer the question, who is it? who is it?… As long as people re the centerpiece of every story, costume designers will help bring them to life.”

Nadoolman Landis and her colleagues have brought many things to life with Hollywood Costume. It’s glamourous, it’s educational, and if you’re a sap like me, it may bring you to near tears. There are also a series of events and workshops and lectures around the exhibition (more information here). It is open to the public Oct 20-Jan 27.

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