(Victoria & Albert Museum, until 27 January 2013)
The V&A have assembled more than 100 of the most famous costumes in film history for their winter exhibition, which is unsurprisingly very popular and consequently very crowded. The selection seems to have been guided by no real principle, beyond the admirable one of trying to include examples from as many different genres and periods as possible. The purpose of the exhibition is to use these outfits as a framework, to educate the general public about the process of designing costumes for the movies.
Carefully curated and taking full advantage of technology, the first two rooms introduce you to the conceptual development of a costume, from first sketch to finished article. Outfits are presented alongside screens which show an impressive assortment of multimedia, blending costume studies with character notes, interviews and film clips, to show how much thought and effort has gone into the final design. Further on, similar displays are set into tabletops. Crowds permitting, you can perch on one of the blockish stools and watch notes, swatches and clips unfolding in front of you, as if you’re sneaking a peek at the designer’s work-desk. This feeling is heightened by the video screens fitted into stands around the tables, which play cleverly-timed interview clips, giving the impression of discussions taking place across the desks between – for example – Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, who designed the costumes for Sweeney Todd. It’s an extremely effective glimpse of how technology can be used to diversify the exhibition-going experience; and this is the perfect kind of material with which to experiment.
The show has been curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who designed the costumes for Thriller and Raiders of the Lost Ark among other things, and these first two rooms certainly show the influence of an experienced designer’s eye. They also emphasise the importance of the costume designers, who are so often overlooked despite their vital contribution to the success of a film.
For me, as for many visitors, the real thrill was seeing the costumes themselves. I felt a little fillip of inner excitement each time I spotted an outfit from a favourite film. The costumes displayed in the first rooms are accompanied by fairly extensive information: for example, Jack’s and Ennis’s costumes from Brokeback Mountain are used to demonstrate the level of attention to detail that designers must employ even when putting together modern outfits. The fit of the jeans, the height of the cowboy boot heels, the width of the hats’ brims, were all specifically chosen to reflect the precise employment, personalities and home states of the characters. I had never imagined for a moment that the width of a hat’s brim could tell you which state a cowboy came from, but that just goes to show that you learn something new every day.
Beyond these introductory rooms, however, the costumes are usually presented on large raked stands, each with a typed label offering snippets of information, and with a screen in each section playing clips from the featured films. Here (I felt) the show became less about understanding the costume designer’s trade, and more about simply ticking off iconic outfits. However, that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it: quite the contrary. With my fascination for history, it’s probably no surprise that I most enjoyed the display of gowns created for actresses playing Queen Elizabeth I. Judi Dench’s gown from Shakespeare in Love sits alongside Cate Blanchett’s from Elizabeth and Bette Davis’s from The Virgin Queen. Although they are all underpinned by the demands of historical accuracy, each costume reflects the particular vision of the film for which it was made.
Personally I would have loved to see even more period costumes, but I understand that it’s important to have a balance covering all kinds of films: so, as well as outfits from Marie Antoinette and Dangerous Liaisons, which you can see at the right of the photo below, you find the costumes of Indiana Jones, Superman and Darth Vader, along with Lucy Honeychurch’s simple white dress and parasol from A Room with a View, Cecilia’s green dress from Atonement and Rocky Balboa’s boxing kit.
Jack’s and Rose’s costumes from Titanic are on show too (the latter complete with fabulously enormous hat), alongside Marilyn Monroe’s dress from Some Like It Hot and the various accoutrements of Captain Jack Sparrow. In one room there was a section devoted to the various roles played by Meryl Streep and Robert de Niro, who divided the stand between them: this emphasised the importance of costume in allowing the actors to assume different characters, although to be honest there are few actors who could rival the natural chameleon abilities of these two, costumes or not. There is even a timely nod to the challenges of digital costume design, based on green-screen and motion-capture technology, explained in a short film by Andy Serkis.
What surprised me, as I came to the end of the show, was that not all the costumes looked as sumptuous as I’d been expecting. Take Holly Golightly’s little black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany‘s. There is perhaps no other film costume which has such an aura around it and which has had such an impact on the average woman’s wardrobe checklist… and yet in reality the dress looks a bit limp, the fabric a little bit cheap and shiny, the whole thing rather disappointing in light of its immense cult status. The breastplate from Maximus’ outfit in Gladiator, with the two rearing horses on the chest, was also a let-down in real life; it looks almost like plastic. And even Dorothy’s ruby slippers had the same slightly cheap, faintly tawdry air about them: at arm’s length, they are simply pumps with a few red sequins stuck onto them.
Perhaps it was in these cases that I drew the most from the exhibition – where the impact of the outfit was sadly reduced by the absence of the movie camera’s transformative trickery. When I looked at most of the costumes, which were lovingly detailed and textured and just as I had imagined, I didn’t really see them; I saw them as symbols of favourite characters or well-loved films and so for much of the exhibition I felt as if I were merely drawing up a mental list of films I had to watch again soon. Yet, when things were less impressive than expected, I was forced to stop, to look more closely and to think more carefully. After all, the skill of the costume designer is not merely in creating an outfit to suit a character. Their true gift is in being able to take a few scraps of fabric, which might not look like much to the untrained eye, and transforming them into something which, on film, looks like a million dollars.
That, after all, is the magic of cinema.