Until 18 August 2013
When eminent Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis became President of the Costume Designers’ Guild one of her first tasks was to enter into a collective bargaining negotiation with producers. She knew that costume designers were paid one third less than production designers. She became so disheartened by the lack of understanding of what costume design is and recognition of their role in the production of a film that she decided to go on “a lifelong campaign of elevating the prestige and status of (her) field.”
Thus she equipped herself with knowledge, gaining a PhD in 2003 in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art, London. Her thesis was titled ‘Scene and Not Heard: the role of costume in the cinematic storytelling process’. In many ways her thesis culminated in the exhibition Hollywood Costume. Five years in the making, in 2007 Nadoolman Landis was appointed Senior Guest Curator at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) where the exhibition was first mounted in October 2012. Her co-curators are Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick.
In April 2013 this exhibition opened at Melbourne’s ACMI, where it will be on display until mid August.
No matter what your favourite movie genre is, there is bound to be a costume in this exhibition that will interest you and that you will have a person connection with. Western, Fantasy, Drama, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Thriller; it’s all here. For me personally, it was seeing the gorgeous green dress (that was once voted Best Costume of All Time) worn by Keira Knightly in the 2007 film Atonement.
In this exhibition Nadoolman Landis argues that fashion and costume design sit on opposite ends of the spectrum. Where fashion is all about the clothes, costume design is all about the script.
Taken from the ACMI Hollywood Costume Education Kit:
Sir Christopher Frayling, who acted as co-curator of Hollywood Costume, recounts the story of receiving two postcards from curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis: ‘The first was a still from Brokeback Mountain (dir. Ang Lee, des. Marit Allen, 2005), showing Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal wearing jeans, washed-out shirts and cowboy hats. On the back she had written: “This is costume design.” The second was of Audrey Hepburn wearing Givenchy couture; on the back she had written: “This isn’t.”’
In addition to presenting a wonderful selection of screen costumes Hollywood Costume has an educational role as the viewer learns about the creative process of the costume designer and the collaborative dialogue between film-makers, producers, actors and directors that leads to the maturity of genuine and believable characters in films.
One of the most interesting sections explored the collaborative process between an actor and costume designer. Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro are two actors that have defined their careers and honed their craft by immersing themselves in the life of each character that they play. In examining their careers and the costumes that they have worn we learn that both rely heavily on the design of a costume to complete character development. I imagine that the tight, spangly and sparkly suit that Streep donned in the movie Mamma Mia certainly would have helped her get into character as she sang and danced her heart out. Playing alongside these costumes are filmed interviews between Streep and costume designers, allowing us into the private world of concept, construct and implementation. In addition to this beautiful costume there are also pieces that Streep wore for Out of Africa, Iron Lady, Doubt, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and more.
There are some wonderful storied behind the costumes on display. In an interview with Deborah Nadoolman Landis on the radio I heard her recount the story behind Dorothy’s costume in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Adrian, MGM’s head costume designer, asked one of his seamstresses to go and buy the cheapest cotton gingham they could find because he wanted it to be exactly what Aunty Em could buy from the small farm community in Kansas. He then instructed the seamstress to scrub the material on a washboard. and then wash it over and over again. He asked if anyone in the workroom had a treadle sewing machine: “Bring it in! We’re going to sew ten dresses [you always need spares in the movies] and pink the seams just like you’re Aunt Em.”
The mannequins stand on long plinths that allow you to get close, but not too close, to the costumes. There is plenty of room between the plinths, catering for the many many people that will visit this exhibition over winter.
On the subject of exhibition design there were impressive digital displays that supported the costumes, in which three-dimensional objects sat on plinths and then had moving images projected onto them.
The heads of the mannequins were actually small screens onto which a barely-but-just-moving video face of the relevant character was projected. The result is not intended to be seamless (pun intended), but instead allows the emphasis to be placed on the costume instead of the character. And what costumes!
I’ll stop here because you should go and look for yourself. The best bit is that all the way through I was trying to keep a list of all the films that I should watch, or rewatch, and I couldn’t keep track. But it’s okay, because the free brochure that is handed to you at the start has a list of all the films and costumes included in the exhibition. So that’s now my go-to list when I feel like watching a movie!
Overall, this is an interesting exhibition that people will most likely visit to see Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz dress, or Batman’s caped garb but really, the exhibition is a well-constructed (pun not-intended) argument that demonstrates that the costume designer plays a critical role in the development and production of transforming a script into a film.