Pret-a-Reporter

Princess Interest

From Bel Air royal Elle Woods to onscreen queens, curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis gathers Hollywood's finest garb for a new exhibit.

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.

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. Every. Single. Thing. They're totems of those different characters, and he didn't want anybody else to wear them," she explains. 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.' "

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.

IN THE GALLERY

It was Katharine Hepburn herself who demanded that costume designer Walter Plunkett clothe her Mary, Queen of Scots. Plunkett, the most renowned period designer of his time (he created more than 5,000 costumes for Gone With the Wind), once said that he loved working on historical films because directors rarely were knowledgeable enough about the fashions to argue with him.

When it came to transforming Cate Blanchett into England's Virgin Queen, costume designer Alexandra Byrne did not feel bound by historical accuracy. For Shekhar Kapur's second film on the monarch's life, Byrne read letters from visitors to her court and scoured images of Elizabethan fashion but also looked to such modern couturiers as Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga for inspiration. "She was incredibly aware of her appearance," Byrne has said. "She performed the masterful PR stroke of replacing the Catholic Church's Virgin Mary with herself as the icon of Protestant England."

Costume designer Sandy Powell won an Oscar for her creations in Shakespeare in Love. "Since the film was not a factual piece, it allowed a lot of artistic license," Powell tells THR. The "Hollywood Costume" exhibit's "Royal Court" tableau features the gold and white gown Paltrow wore for an audience with Elizabeth I (played by Judi Dench) and Dench's gold and black theater gown. Paltrow's gowns were lighter and looser, more modern than rigid Elizabethan dress. "Gwyneth's dress was made from silk brocade with metallic thread," she says. "I originally chose this light color as the dress was to be shot in a scene outside and at night. I wanted her to look young and fresh and show up in the dark!"

Often inappropriate and overly sexualized for the 18th century setting, James Acheson's costumes in Dangerous Liaisons expertly underpinned the characters' sexual natures. From Glenn Close's decorative but barely contained breasts to John Malkovich's tight velvet britches and Michelle Pfeiffer's demure lace collars, Acheson's Oscar-winning work told as much of the taleas the performances.

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