When you see antique clothes in a museum your imagination has full rein. Who wore them? Where and when and how? Were they made for them or hand-me-downs? Just what had those clothes seen? Whether they are beautiful high class embroidered silks or plain hardwearing work clothes there are endless stories and speculations.
To display costumes is so much harder. We already know exactly who wore them and why. We know they were carefully crafted to create a character or a mood. We really don’t need our imaginations at all.
So how do you make an exhibition of the most famous Hollywood costumes exciting and attention catching?
Exactly as the V&A have done.
You start with a huge screen playing key movie moments and the dark rooms, cleverly lit to spotlight the exhibits are rather like walking into a dark cinema. Although thankfully without the smell of kia-ora past and the crunch of stale popcorn under your shoes.
There’s no easing you in gently ether. Straight away you’re faced with Chaplin’s Little Tramp from 1914, a cough and a spit off a century since it was first seen on screen which is pretty mind boggling.
There’s so much to see it’s hard to remember it all and it’s the random thoughts and moments that linger.
There was a slightly surreal moment when I looked up to find Superman – or his suit at any rate – flying over my head! It looked rather thermal but I suppose when you’re off out of the atmosphere you would want to keep all your bits and bobs warm… And who would take seriously a superhero in a cardi?
Halle Berry’s patchwork leather Catwoman costume stalked us from above – and was one of the ones that while it seemed larger than life was actually teeny-tiny!
Indiana Jones’ costume is analysed in detail – how it was created, adapted and aged, how he sat on the hat. All those little details and intriguingly Steven Spielberg had initially sketched his vision of what Indy should look like. It’s pretty close to the end result although it is quite reassuring to see that with all the other talents he has he really can’t draw!
Some costumes could be worn today (please) – Tippi Hedren’s classic suit from The Birds was still covetable and such a neat touch to project a varying array of birds with it. Some you can’t imagine how anyone could have worn them – the various versions of Elizabeth I not only look heavy and inflexible but corseted to hell and beyond. A good moment to mention Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet curtains ensemble – and its unbelievably tiny waist!
I was lucky to visit early enough to see one of the original pairs of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Another reminder of the power of film – in the original L Frank Baum book the slippers were silver, they were changed to ruby red to contrast with the yellow brick road – all in glorious Technicolor!
Modern CGI techniques aren’t ignored and a clip of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? reminds us that it was one of the first films where some of the animated characters had a costume designer. And I have to say that Joanna Johnston certainly did Jesica proud! I’d never noticed before that Jessica’s dress only sparkles with sequins when she is on stage. (That’s a nice little bit picked up from the book that accompanies the exhibition – well worth getting.)
One of the dresses I was looking forward to seeing was Audrey Hepburn’s iconic black Givenchy gown from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It was there but it was curiously lifeless. Beautifully cut, impeccably glamorous but just a dress. The same with the two gowns worn by Marilyn Monroe – Sugar Kane’s sequins from Some Like It Hot and the white silk that billowed so memorably in The Seven Year Itch. They just hung; limp and lifeless on their mannequins, not attracting the attention I would have expected them to demand. Those dresses are testament to the eternal allure of the women who wore them and brought them so vividly and unforgettably to life.
A true case of when women maketh the clothes…
It’s almost impossible to pick a favourite – there were beautiful costumes, some astonishing in their complexity, some in their simplicity, some with background details and quotes that made them even more memorable.
The wedding dress from Camelot lingered in my mind – from a distance so simple and almost out of place among the Elizabethan bling. Up close however the finish was immensely complex – it took ridiculous numbers of craftspeople to create all the hand crocheted fabric and the trimmings are tiny seeds and shells – so much more appropriate than the more obvious pearls and crystals. With its stately train it is an apparently understated but perfect confection, a wonderful 1960s view of the medieval.
I keep thinking of more and more wonderful and iconic costumes – and how amazing it is that so many of them have survived to be displayed. There were cloaks galore – Hedy Lamarr’s peacock feathers from Samson and Delilah and Dracula’s sweeping silk and the less glamorous but just as fascinating outfits from Brokeback Mountain, Fight Club and a surprisingly plain suit from Twilight with not a sparkle to be seen!
I keep wanting to add more, to remember this one and that one – oh, and that one but what I should say is just go and see it for yourself. You won’t regret it and if you do, well, tough. There is clearly no romance in your soul!
And if I had to take one home? Just one?
I think it would have to be the gown worn by Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red. And she most certainly did! Glowing, sparkling red sequins, ultimate Hollywood glamour – practically perfect in every way and all the more so for being filmed in black and white…
You won’t tell, will you?