Saturday, 4 May 2013

Guest blogger: Review of Hollywood Costume

Following the success of Hollywood Costume at the V&A it's not surprising that the exhibition is now on tour, currently staged in Sydney

Guest blogger and dress history writer Stephanie Richards shares her thoughts on the V&A blockbuster


Hype and Hollywood go hand in hand.
But as far as this exhibition is concerned, it wasn’t hype, it was all Hollywood.
The first display included a jewel encrusted evening dress and stole worn by Marlene Dietrich, Chaplin’s iconic suit, and the GWTW ‘curtain’ dress. Then there was Indiana Jones. The whip, hat and jacket will be familiar to all. News to me was that his bag was a gas mask case. There was a sumptuous display of gowns that had been worn in costume dramas. Camelot, the Elizabethan court and France before the Revolution were all there.
Although all recognisable as in period, some were more detailed than others. The 1938 Marie Antoinette costumier had used a microscope to get the pattern match correct.  To emphasise her stature, one of the Elizabeth 1 costumes had been made with a wide sweeping skirt to help define the characters space. There was a set piece giving the illusion of costume designers sitting at a table having a conversation about their designs. All due to the magic of computers, but very impressive.
Next, some of the huge changes that cinema took on, adapted to and survived.
Digital techniques.

Sound meant fabric shouldn’t rustle and jewellery couldn’t rattle. Colour meant finding out which ones photographed well. Digital techniques changed everything. From being able to add a costumed cast of thousands at the click of a mouse to designing clothes for a very tall avatar.
When a film was remade, costumes were subtly updated to reflect the period of the remake. Costume dramas have to tread the line between being attractive to contemporary eyes whilst remaining authentic. (In 1934 a version of Cleopatra incorporated art deco Egyptian costumes.)
We saw what a red dress (Joan Crawford 1937) looked like in black and white when the light shining on it changed and suddenly it was slate grey. On past Darth Vader and we learned how to dress an avatar and what Andy Serkis gets up to in a onesie for motion capture.
Icons and others best sums up the final room.
A white jersey Katherine Hepburn dress from the 1940s.
A lavender chiffon dress with sequins and knots of cloth flowers. Barbra Streisand. Funny Girl 1968.  
Audrey Hepburn. How ordinary her black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s looked on a mannequin. A vivid illustration of how much the person in the dress matters. Puddles of glass beaded fabric spread onto the floor from a reclining Carole Lombard figure clad in a 1936 silver dress and cape….
But let’s not forget the men… The Blues bros were there. Batman, Superman and Spiderman were hanging around. So was a Terminator in his leather outfit.
For some reason the Kill Bill track suit got a big plinth to its self and I wondered why Borat was there. At all.

The only costume behind glass was the white Marilyn Monroe dress from the scene over the subway vent. She must have had a figure like a doll. Big bust, small waist and big hips. Hard not to look at that little gingham dress and think JUDY GARLAND wore this. In The Wizard of Oz. Seventy three years ago.
Film is a subjective experience. Each visitor will take away the memory of their own favourite from the exhibition.
Mine was the GWTW green ‘curtain’ dress.
I have actually stood right in front of it.
Gentle reader, never has the temptation to reach out and touch a costume been so strong. (I didn’t.)
To me, this dress sums up the magic of the exhibition…. Legendary costumes, worn by icons who appeared in fabulous films. And all right here in this room.
Oh if only the idea of ‘talkies’ could be applied to costumes….. 

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