'Hollywood Costume': Exhibition Review

Hollywood Costumes - H 2014
Richard Harbaugh/A.M.P.A.S.

Hollywood Costumes - H 2014

A feast for film and fashion lovers.

The exhibit at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles gives costume designers their due

When the grand dame of fashion Diana Vreeland staged the exhibition Romantic and Glamorous Hollywood Design at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1974, the show drew cheers and sneers. The event broke attendance records, but some in the New York art community (including museum director Thomas Hoving) saw little artistic value in an exhibition of film costumes. Vreeland argued that the costumes were couture, but they still carried the stigma of being associated with the popular art form of film.

In 1974, even the idea of film as an art form was only starting to gain ground in the United States. As the studio system disintegrated, auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola were being given freedoms that had already been accorded to their French counterparts like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. But what of the costume designers (and cinematographers and art directors) who collaborate to help the directors realize their visions? If they have done their job well, the film viewer has no idea what magic they have worked. 

The exhibit Hollywood Costume, now on view at the Academy Museum in the Wilshire May Company Building through March 2, 2015, not only features a “Greatest Hits” of over 150 costumes, but uses cinematic techniques to unabashedly educate the viewer on a costume designer’s process of interpreting a script and working with the actor and director to bring a character to life.

The exhibit has been curated by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, director of the David C. Copley Center of Costume Design at UCLA, School of Theater, Film & Television and a former two-term president of the Costume Designers Guild. Sir Christopher Frayling (Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, Royal College of Art) and set and costume designer (and Victoria and Albert Museum assistant curator) Keith Lodwick also contributed.

Curating a show like this is no easy feat. Landis has balanced serious film scholarship with a certain “wow” factor that is to be expected in a show devoted to Hollywood. It required true detective work just to find the costumes that still exist. While some institutions and studios have had the foresight to preserve vintage costumes, Landis has also courted a network of private collectors to realize her vision. When costumes can be found, restoration can may be necessary and steps often need to be taken to ensure the costume can withstand the rigors of display. An exhibition like this one helps to underscore the race against time for proper conservation of Hollywood’s historic past.

The first section of the exhibition highlights how a costume designer brings a character to life, with examples of a designer’s tools — research materials, costume sketches and script pages. Costumes represented include Jacqueline West’s from The Social Network, Mary Zophres’ from The Big Lebowski and Michael Kaplan’s from Fight Club.

Some of the most effective moments of the exhibition include video presentations of conversations between directors, costume designers and actors (the interviews have been recorded separately, but interaction between the talking heads is simulated through the arrangement of the monitors and the timing of the footage), as well as a presentation of preparatory materials, side-by-side with the actual costumes being discussed. Alfred HitchcockTippi Hedren and Edith Head chat about The Birds as screen tests, film stills and some birds themselves fly by; Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell discuss the accentuation of Daniel Day Lewis’ costume in Gangs of New York; and Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis discuss how rock stars inspired the characterizations in spaghetti westerns for Django Unchained. Meryl Streep is also shown on video explaining her characterizations and their manifestations through costume. Unfortunately, some of these installations are too close to one another, making it difficult to hear the participants speak and forcing the viewer to rely largely on the subtitles provided.

In the last gallery, there are no costume design lessons taught; there are only the clothes. And what clothes they are. We may never see the likes of them in the same space again — Travilla’s white halter dress for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, Albert Wolsky’s beaded evening gown for Annette Bening in Bugsy and Adrian’s gingham pinafore and a pair of the ruby slippers for Judy Garland The Wizard of Oz, among them. If you love movies, there will be something here that will make your jaw drop.

Jay Jorgensen is a costume historian and the author of "Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywoods Greatest Costume Designer."