Friday 18 January 2013

Hollywood Costume at the V&A

So what do you do on a cold and snowy dark January to make the most of your birthday week? Take a trip to London to see some of the most iconic and fabulous costumes from the last 100 years of cinema, that's what!

Last Sunday I caught the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A before it roles the final credits and raises the lights. This amazing showcase of costumes is only on for another week or so (it finishes on the 27th Jan) and is well worth the effort if you can get around to seeing it.

The power of dressing up and artifice has always been a love of mine and something I investigate in my art work, so the opportunity to see these costumes on a grand scale and delve deeper into how and why they work was too good to miss.

 Ginger Rogers mink trimmed dress takes centre stage
I've been longing to see this exhibition since I first found out about it. One thing which really caught my eye was the fact that Scarlett O Hara's famous green dress was going to be there. As a huge fan of Gone With The Wind, or GWTW for us super geeks, I couldn't think of anything more wonderful than to see something from the film up close and personal.

With tickets sold out on the web, it was no surprise that we had to queue before we got in and the actual show itself was packed out! After having our tickets torn we were greeted by a huge cinema screen showing well loved movie characters, instantly recognizable because of their clothes, seamlessly edited together as they twirled, walked and swung their way across the screen. To our right was an old cinema style billboard announcing 'Hollywood Costume, starring: Spider-man  Captain Jack Sparrow Scarlett O Hara' and many more!

Turning the corner into a huge and black space we were greeted immediately by the object of my desire, Scarlett's green dress of velvet made from her mother's portières (that's curtains to you and me). It was as if Scarlett O Hara stood there herself! I was in heaven! 

That dress has had me enraptured for the past 20 odd years of my life. It symbolises everything I loved about Scarlett; her initiative, bravery, scheming and zeal! And there it was, just a foot away, looking as if it had just stepped from the screen, every bit as perfect as it was 74 years ago. Unbelievable. But a true testament to the power of the costume and it's design.

'The costume designer must know 'who' a character is before they can design their costume. No matter the era that the story takes place, the audience is asked to believe that the people in the movie are real and that they had a life prior to the start of the movie. We join our cast of characters at one moment in their life. Everything about them must resonate true, including their clothes'

We saw how Indiana Jones' costume was built from ideas and period details, his WW2 leather pilot jacket, bikers waxed trousers and army shirt all evoking adventure and action, while his fedora and shoes spoke of a more practical quiet nature his intellectual side. Everything right down to the angle of the hat brim was customised to create the individual, and instantly recognisable character.

By this point my eyes were on stalks; we'd seen period costumes from Dangerous Liaisons (exquisite) Marie Antoinette (not as good as you'd imagine) and the various incarnations of Elizabeth the First over the years (including dresses worn by the great Bette Davis!). It was interesting to see how each generation through the decades chose to re-imagine the past, each costume so very different but taking something of the details we understand in our present to evoke a time and person.

But there was so much more to come; Had you ever realised that Jessica Rabbit had to have a costume test? That those blue things from Avatar had every item of clothing made for real? We saw how animated characters had to undergo exactly the same planning as living actors in order to capture their personality and story. Incidentally, Mrs Rabbit's dress was based on Rita Hayworth's slinky number from Gilda, one of the most sexy characters from the forties to hit the silver screen!

The third gallery was probably the most awe inspiring. Imagine a room filled with the greatest and most famous movie stars from the past 100 REALLY imagine it!
Can you see Nicole Kidman chatting to Ginger Rogers while Judy Garland sings a torch song to Brad Pitt, it is so crowded the air is virtually buzzing with star quality! Marilyn Monroe sips her champagne and Charlie Chaplin tells a few jokes. People make room as Natalie Portman pirouettes across the floor Marlene Dietrich takes it all in her stride, whilst being beautifully lit from above of course.

This is the jewel in the exhibition's crown, each costume was familiar, and each character they portrayed was linked with Hollywood glitterati. They spoke of bygone eras and real stories mixed with our fantasies.

Walking around the show I could name practically every film and character, but seeing the costumes up close also took me closer to the wearer, the real person within them or not within them as the case may be. Above each outfit was a small projection screen displaying the actor's face in a slow motion clip from the relevant film, it was a wonderful way of representing them and putting the costume in context. 

I was fascinated to see how small the likes of Joan Crawford and Claudette Colbert were in real life (each costume in the exhibition being fitted to a life size mannequin of the wearer). Even the voluptuous Marilyn Monroe was tiny waisted. I was very excited to see her 'nude' gown from Some Like it Hot and her infamous white dress from The Seven year Itch. Having visited the Getty exhibition of her outfits and costumes last year I was keen to add yet more of her clothing to my list. I have watched every film she's made and committed each dress to memory! To see them as real tangible items adds a new dimension to their mythical status.

It's true these might have only been clothes once worn by someone in a film, but every garment in the Hollywood Costume exhibition represented a personal memory or point in time for us the visitors. They not only brought to mind the fabulous films and stories we have grown up with or become fans of (films which represent whole universes of cult and culture) but they also symbolise the legends of the actors who wore them and allow us to imagine for a moment being in the presence of Hollywood royalty, which I suppose we were, the costumes being stars in their own right.

Top moments of the Hollywood Costume exhibition:

-Finding out who Harry Winston is, after years of hearing Marilyn sing about him in Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend, 
 'Talk to me Harry Winston, tell me all about it!'
Turns out Harry Winston is only one of the oldest jewellers in the USA, and the FIRST to hire jewels to stars on the red carpet. The House of Harry Winston caters to all the rich and famous and has done for the past 70 years! Harry Winston is the lead sponsor of the Hollywood Costume exhibition.

-Taking a look at a showgirl costume from Broadway Melody of 1929 and thinking that the outfit has probably outlived the young girl who once high kicked in it.

-Seeing Ginger Rogers gown for 1944 film lady in the Dark. It was encrusted with beads and sequins but also had a mink trimmed train which set the studio back a cool $35000! And we're talking old money here!

-Learning that Darth Vader's costume is a mixture of biker leathers, a nazi helmet and a monks cloak found in the medieval department!

-Being able to view Marlene Dietrich's famous top hat and tails which she daringly wore to kiss her female co-star in 1930 film Morocco, pre Hays code