With all the hype, volume and special effects of a big-budget blockbuster, “Hollywood Costume” arrived in Los Angeles in October, concluding a world tour that began a year earlier at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
It is a very different exhibition than sold-out London audiences encountered; many of the iconic pieces seen there (and in the coffee-table-busting catalogue by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who organized the show) were not able to cross the pond because of their fragility, such as Holly Golightly’s little black Givenchy dress. Vivien Leigh’s green velvet curtain ensemble from Gone With The Wind was already committed to a different exhibition; another spectacular green gown—worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement—is also missing in action. However, more than forty pieces were added for the Los Angeles installation, including costumes from The Great Gatsby—the 2013 Oscar winner for costume design—and a certain pair of ruby slippers owned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is hosting the show in its new exhibition space at the historic Wilshire May Company Building.
There are one hundred fifty costumes in total, and less might have been more. True showstoppers are mixed in with unmemorable costumes from forgettable films like Closer, John Carter and One True Thing. The galleries are so densely packed that mannequins are hidden behind other mannequins, or behind video screens, tripods and computer-animated projections; more often than not, the technology gets in the way of the objects, literally as well as metaphorically. It does not help that the galleries are pitch black, selectively lit by spotlights. The effect is one of walking into a darkened movie theater—appropriate, but not easy viewing. A swelling musical score composed for the show by Julian Scott adds to the sensory overload.
With a costume designer at the helm, the show feels staged rather than curated—calculated for visual impact, not narrative logic. Some of the cinematic touches succeed brilliantly. Spiderman climbs the wall; a phalanx of Queen Elizabeth costumes glitter before a montage of her various film incarnations. Famous directors and their costume collaborators converse on life-sized screens: Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis. A suite of costumes from Ocean’s Eleven—surrounding an animated “desk” on which the costume designer’s notes and sketches shuffle around—neatly demonstrates how to differentiate between characters in an ensemble while creating a unified look. (Too bad many of the mannequins were hidden by the desk.) Similarly, a group of ten costumes belonging to Meryl Streep (a costume design major in college) illustrates Edith Head’s remark: “We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.” Costume is not wholly responsible for this transformation, but it plays a starring role. As Streep’s longtime costume designer Ann Roth says about their fittings: “We wait for the third person to arrive.”
Other filmic flourishes are failed experiments, at best. Videos transposing familiar characters into incongruous settings and costumes come across as heavy-handed and silly at the same time. Mannequins have headshots instead of heads. Didactic labels look like pages torn from a script, and consist entirely of dialogue-like quotations from costume designers, actors and directors. Some of these reveal juicy tidbits; after reading that No Country For Old Men costume designer Mary Zophres wanted Anton Chigurh’s cowboy boots “to look like a weapon,” it is impossible to see them as anything else. Others are maddeningly vague, or have nothing to do with the costume on display; a description of Kim Novak’s iconic gray Vertigo suit accompanies an entirely different suit, worn by a different actress. All the labels are difficult to read in the dark. Despite the obvious investment in cutting-edge technology, there are several missed opportunities. Issues like the transitions from silent films to talkies and from black and white to color; the double-edged sword of historical accuracy; and the need for multiple copies of the same costume are raised in the labels, but not borne out by the objects on display or the interpretive gadgetry.
This is not a retrospective of Hollywood’s Golden Age; historic pieces are few and far between, with costumes from more contemporary, crowd-pleasing films dominating the lineup. The exhibition claims to “celebrate 100 years of cinema,” but it mainly celebrates the last two or three decades. This partially testifies to the sad fate that befell many costumes when MGM and 20th Century Fox sold off their wardrobe department archives in the seventies; other studios never kept their costumes in the first place. Security in the galleries is tight, a reminder that the same garments that were once considered disposable are now worth millions. The most valuable pieces—the ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress—are displayed behind glass.
Thanks to private collectors, many classic costumes were rescued from the dustbin of history. Thus, Travis Banton’s mint green, bias-cut, satin Cleopatra gown for Colette Colbert stands alongside one of the sixty-five gowns Irene Sharaff designed for Elizabeth Taylor to wear in the 1963 version. Hedy Lamarr’s costume from 1949’s Sampson and Delilah is here; Edith Head decorated it with hundreds of peacock feathers Cecil B. DeMille collected personally on his ranch, where he raised the birds. But some of the most interesting costumes are the most modern and least flashy, like Jason Bourne’s “functional and forgettable” gray windbreaker. The logo on a humble Gap sweatshirt from The Social Network reads PAG, because it was worn in a scene shot using mirrors to recreate an unavailable location. Tucked among the superheroes and aliens is a gray motion capture suit—a grim preview of what Hollywood costume exhibitions of the future might look like.
With its mix of iconic costumes, classic and contemporary, and its high-tech wizardry, it is easy to see why “Hollywood Costume” was a smash hit in London. Whether it will impress a more jaded L.A. crowd remains to be seen. For better or for worse, though, the tourists are going to love it. They have until March 2, 2015 to check it out.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a regular contributor to Ornament whose art historian background provides additional depth in understanding the context and environment in which costume and fashion are made. Her most recent contribution is the clear-eyed review of “Hollywood Costume,” an exhibition currently hosted by the Academy of Arts and Sciences at the historic Wilshire May Company Building. In November she returned from Florence, Italy, where she presented “Red, White and Blue on the Runway: The 1968 White House Fashion Show” at the Colors in Fashion Costume Colloquium. She has just authored Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, available through Yale University Press.