Los Angeles Art Exhibit Review: HOLLYWOOD COSTUME (Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences)

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by Tony Frankel on December 21, 2014

in Extras,Film,Theater-Los Angeles


More than a celebration and appreciation of over a century of cinematic costume design, this exquisite exhibit is a piece of art unto itself. Surprisingly, Hollywood Costume goes beyond a Planet Hollywood-esque display of artifacts with a swanky, insightful, and exhaustive (but not exhausting) look into the creative minds who brought us some of the most iconic fashions in film history.

Hollywood CostumeThe entertaining, enlightening, and energizing collection, presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has increased in size since it was originally shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, which organized the exhibit. The scope of cinematic apparel is staggering. Many of these clothes have never been publicly displayed, let alone been seen outside of studio archives. Other contributing collectors include costume houses, actors, museums, and private individuals.

By breaking the tour into three sections, we can comprehend that costume designers are more than artists. They are also, per costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, “storytellers, historians, social commentators, and anthropologists.” Co-curator with Sir Christopher Frayling (Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, Royal College of Art), and Keith Lodwick (Assistant Curator at V&A), Landis includes a fascinating genesis of her seminal Indiana Jones fedora and leather jacket (additional Raiders of the Lost Ark outfits are also displayed).

Hollywood CostumeThese designers are also inventors: Notice the letters on Jesse Eisenberg’s GAP sweatshirt used in The Social Network (Jacqueline West, 2010) are sewn on backwards to accommodate mirrors used in certain shots. Along with other pictures seen in this review, the photo to the left, which includes West’s outfit for Ben Affleck in Argo (2012), do not begin to represent the beauty of this exhibit, which runs in this final showing through March 2, 2015.

The four-gallery tour begins with a giant film, followed by a deconstruction of the development process, the collaborative process between director and designer, and a section which has raiment informed by context (actor, era, digital technology, etc.). All of this is aided by spectacular multi-media placards and monitors. As your jaw drops gazing at Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 Little Tramp get-up, or 2 of the over 10,000 costumes from The Last Emperor (James Acheson, 1987), also notice Julian Scott’s unobtrusive, thematic, Elmer Bernstein-esque score filling the gallery (don’t worry if you can’t place the music—it was commissioned for this event).

Hollywood CostumeFive costumed characters from Oceans Eleven (Jeffrey Kurland, 2001) appear around a table which has video displays of notes, sketches, script pages, posters, poker cards, Post-it Notes, and 8 x 10s. But the info never feels like overkill. You would think that written material, montages, animation, film clips, projections, interviews, and that lush “soundtrack” would add up to a cacophonous and dizzying experience, but as with a great movie, the seamless blend of sound, costume, and visual design is actually inspiring.

The clothes are sometimes exhibited alongside dialogue in script form which was spoken while the costume was worn: Taking in the splendor of Marlene Dietrich’s dress from Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel (Travis Banton, 1937)—which took a score of embroiderers who worked on the silk, glass, and paste beads, metal sequins, and sable for two and a half weeks—it makes sense that Frederick (Herbert Marshall) says to Maria (Dietrich), “They’re looking at you.”

Hollywood CostumeThe exhibition resides in the historic 1939 Streamline Moderne style May Company Wilshire building, the future location of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. As with any museum, this is ultimately for me about the art. Take for example a quarry of queens, which includes the finery of a slew of Queen Elizabeth gowns: Cate Blanchett’s from The Golden Age (2007), Judi Dench’s from Shakespeare in Love (1998), Quentin Crisp’s from Orlando (1992), and Bette Davis’s from The Virgin Queen (1955). Next to these is designer John Truscott’s wedding gown and its extraordinarily long train for Guinevere (Vanessa Redgrave) in Camelot (1967): notice what Redgrave describes as “hundreds of finely crocheted woolen spider webs, with tiny shells sewed into the center of each, and leached seeds instead of pearls hanging from each corner.”

Hollywood CostumeYou will no doubt discover your favorite outfit, but while I couldn’t stop staring at Mary Poppins’ travel clothes—complete with mohair muffler, carpet bag, and parrot umbrella (designed by Julie Andrew’s then-husband Tony Walton)—Truscott’s gown was my favorite for sheer artistry and the way it was informed by both medieval and 1960’s fashions.

And what is more impressive? Is it the intricacy of designer Adrian’s gown for Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette (1938), which was crafted after viewing under a microscope the paintings of Marie’s court painter, Mme. Vigée Le Brun? Or is it the simplicity of Dorothy’s blue and white gingham pinafore dress shown next to the original ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939)?

Hollywood CostumeNothing that came before will prepare you for The Finale. Here are some of the best-known costumes (some of which actually defined an era or were trendsetters): John Travolta’s polyester and cotton suit from Saturday Night Fever (1977); Marlene Dietrich’s tuxedo from Morocco (1930); Harrison Ford’s futuristic western digs from Return of the Jedi (1983); Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi’s suits from The Blues Brothers; and Uma Thurman’s golden-mustard track suit from Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003), which hangs in a karate-kicking position so you can see the bottom of her sneaker, which has a very clear expletive in the tread.

I have referred to just over 20 costumes. You will need about two and a half hours to see these and the other 130, which like the display itself, are unforgettable.

Hollywood Costume

photos by Richard Harbaugh / © A.M.P.A.S.

Hollywood Costume
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences
with the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Wilshire May Company building, 6067 Wilshire Blvd @ Fairfax
on view through March 2, 2015 (closed Wednesdays)
for timed-entrance tickets, call 310.247.3049 or visit Oscars

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