Some Like it Hollywood at the V&A

It’s been a while since I left the country pile and headed up to London. So it was with great pleasure that I offloaded the kids on ‘him indoors’ for the weekend and hotfooted my way to South Kensington to indulge in a spot of grownup culture.

I spent much of my childhood loitering around the Cromwell Road area. My Dad was head of Marine Botany at the Natural History Museum for more than 30 years so as kids we had access all areas. Not much has changed. It’s still a chaotic riot of people and traffic, but you’re less likely to get run over as it has undergone extensive pedestrianisation over the last year. The new street design is based on the ‘shared space’ philosophy of Dutch designer Hans Monderman. To me it remains a magical part of town and never more so than at this time of year with trees festooned with fairy lights and the festive season truly upon us. You can even pull on a pair of skates and try your luck on the outdoor ice rink if you’re feeling brave enough.

My choice of grownup culture was a visit to the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A to see what all the fuss was about. Well there is good reason behind all the brouhaha. It really is rather brilliant and ambitious, and it’s curated by one of Ilex’s star authors, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who gave us FilmCraft Costume Design.

Hollywood Costumes

'Hollywood Costume' exhibition at the V&A.

The exhibition consists of three gallery spaces each full of costume-wearing mannequins – most of the costumes have never been displayed publicly before – and it tells a pretty comprehensive story of Hollywood costume design over the past century, from Charlie Chaplin to Avatar and John Carter. ‘Costume designers are storytellers, historians, social commentators and anthropologists. Movies are about people and costume design plays a pivotal role in bringing these people to life,’ the exhibition blurb rightly tells us.

There’s some great stuff on display. In gallery 1, ‘Deconstruction’, Tyler Durden and ‘The Narrator’ from Fight Club rub shoulders with the cast of The Addams Family. The boys from Ocean’s Eleven sit at a casino table alongside Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist from Brokeback Mountain. The Dude and Jason Bourne metaphorically chew the fat. And Indiana Jones is awarded centre stage cracking his famous leather bullwhip. There are also what might be thought of as the more ‘predictable’ period costumes from films such as Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shakespeare in Love, Dangerous Liaisons, and Marie Antoinette to name a few. What is interesting though is that most designers find contemporary costume more difficult to render convincingly. It’s considered a triumph when the audience doesn’t actually notice what an actor is wearing.

Costume dramas

Costumes from lavish period dramas such as 'Elizabeth: The Golden Age'.

Through to gallery 2 and ‘Dialogue’. Here the close relationship between director and costume designer is explored (for example, Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock, and Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell). There’s also a special tribute to the costumes and the transformative skills of Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. You’ll bump into Darth Vader, Scarlett O’Hara, Ming the Merciless and Maximus Decimus Meridius in this room too. And a personal favourite is an entertaining video of Andy Serkis explaining the breadth of motion capture or as I learned, ‘mo cap’ if you are in the know.

Ming the Merciless

Ming the Merciless from the classic and often referenced 'Flash Gordon'.

The last gallery is called ‘Finale’ and is ‘a celebration of Hollywood heroes, villains and femme fatales.’ You’ll find Hans Solo, James Bond, Captain Jack Sparrow, Neo, Roxie Hart, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, The Bride, Tony Manero, Harry Potter, William Wallace, Holly Golightly in Givenchy, John McClane, Borat, Terminator, that green dress worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement, and a swinging Satine from Moulin Rouge all gracing the stage here.

That green dress

That green dress.

Costume designers featured include Deborah Nadoolman Landis herself, Michael Kaplan, Sandy Powell, Janty Yates, Ruth Morley, John Mollo, Cecil Beaton, Maurizio Millenotti, Alexandra Byrne, Milena Canonero, Jacqueline Durran, Adrian, Joanna Johnston, Travis Banton, Marit Allen, Travilla, Colleen Atwood, Ann Roth and James Acheson. But to find out who did what you’ll have to visit yourself.

High points? A dress worn by Bérénice Bejo in The Artist (designed by Oscar-winner Mark Bridges, who incidentally is interviewed in FilmCraft Costume Design), the Black Swan costume from the film of the same name, Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like it Hot and the dress from The Seven Year Itch. And all-time favourite…those famous ruby slippers. I was also extremely pleased – like jumping-up-and-down pleased – to see quite a few of Ilex Photo’s titles on display in the main shop and book shop (namely Android Photography, Pring’s Photographer’s Miscellany, FilmCraft Costume Design and FilmCraft Production Design).

The seven year itch

The dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in 'The Seven Year Itch'.

The Ruby Slippers

Dorothy's ruby slippers.

The Artist

'The Artist' costume by Oscar-winner Mark Bridges.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman in 'Black Swan'.

Low point? I was hoping for a bit of celeb spotting, but sadly I didn’t see anyone famous – well not alive anyway – although it was very dark so who knows! What really surprised me is how small a lot of the actors are. It just goes to show the illusion and magic of the movies.

FilmCraft Costume Design

Ilex's 'FilmCraft Costume Design' keeping good company on the shelves of the V&A book shop.

FilmCraft Production Design

'FilmCraft Production Design' also in the book shop at the V&A.

Android Photography

Ilex's 'Android Photography' face out in the V&A's main gift shop.

Things I didn’t know before I went to the exhibition: Mae West had a clause written into all her contracts specifying that she would be the only actress in a film to wear white. The original components of Darth Vader’s costume were a motorcycle suit, a Nazi helmet, a gas mask and a monk’s cloak. Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s paintings were of direct influence on the crowd scenes in Ben-Hur. In the original book of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Dorothy’s slippers were silver and not ruby. Red was chosen as it was the most vibrant contrast to the yellow brick road.

Darth Vader

I'll never look at Darth Vader in the same light.

So lovely readers, if you want to be watched over by Superman, Batman, Catwoman and Spiderman then get yourself down to the V&A and see this exhibition before it finishes on 27th January 2013. You can pick up copies of FilmCraft Costume Design and FilmCraft Production Design too. And if you’ve got time, pop in and have a look at Light from the Middle East: New Photography. It’s free and well worth a mosy around. I loved Mitra Tabrizian’s staged photographic tableaux and Tal Shochat’s tree series.

A double dose of culture! I returned to the sticks one very happy lady.




Posted by

Natalia Price-Cabrera

Senior Project Editor at Ilex Press Natalia loves all things film-related. She thoroughly enjoys 'making' books and strives to broaden her design and photographic knowledge on a daily basis. Frustratingly she also spends a lot of time pulling her hair out.

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