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How a London Museum Assembled One of the Largest Haul of Movie Outfits Ever

A new exhibit at London's Victoria and Albert Museum profiles the working wardrobes of Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro and puts a humorous spin on items like Rocky's shorts.

Kevin Davies

This story first appeared in the Oct. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

No item of clothing has the power to transport like a movie costume, and after five years of hunting, favor-calling and sheer force of will, costume designer and UCLA professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis is ready to debut one of the greatest hauls of movie outfits ever assembled in a single museum. Opening Oct. 20 at London's Victoria and Albert Museum, "Hollywood Costume" is a showcase collection laced with memory and imagination.

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Curator Landis has taken a witty approach to staging the mannequins: John McClane's bloody Die Hard singlet spars with Rocky's shorts, Borat leers at Elle Woods, and a tuxedo-clad Marlene Dietrich leans in to light Catherine Trammell's cigarette (don't worry, Sharon Stone's alter ego is posed with legs firmly crossed). Landis' own work on Raiders of the Lost Ark -- she created Indy's beaten-up fedora and leather jacket ensemble -- is paired with a crayon drawing Steven Spielberg sketched of the character when they first met. ("That was on my son's childhood wall," she laughs.)

Landis (wife of director John Landis) also chose to profile the working wardrobes of two acting legends truly transformed by every film outfit: Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. "Bob has saved all the costumes he's worn since he was a young actor," she says. "Every. Single. Thing. They're totems of those different characters, and he didn't want anybody else to wear them." Streep tried -- and failed -- to do the same thing. "She told me, 'I was looking at a magazine the other day, and my daughter was wearing my boots from Out of Africa on a dance floor in a club.' "

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Despite her looted wardrobe, Streep probably deserves a guest curator credit for securing an eleventh-hour addition. Landis had planned to use Debbie Reynolds' vast personal costume collection as the exhibit's core, but she was devastated to learn that a $6 million lien on Reynolds had led to a court-mandated auction of her treasures last year. Sadly, the collection, sold for a staggering $22 million, was scattered piecemeal around the world. Many items were secured on loan, but one showstopper gown was eluding Landis: Eliza Doolittle's white-lace Ascot dress by Cecil Beaton. During her interview with Streep for the show, the Oscar winner exclaimed that she knew the presumed new owner. But after finally getting in touch with her, the actress found that in fact the woman didn't own it. "Then the collector said, 'But I have Marilyn Monroe's Seven Year Itch dress. Any interest?' " recalls Landis. Now, thanks to Streep, cinema's most iconic white dress sits mere feet from a key loan from the Smithsonian: Dorothy's ruby slippers.

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