One of the hottest tickets in the Valley these days is the “Hollywood Costume” exhibit now at the Phoenix Museum of Art. Curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a costume designer, UCLA professor, and past president of the Costume Designers Guild, the exhibit presents more than 100 iconic costumes from both classic and contemporary films. The oldest is from the 1920 film Sex. The newest are from last year’s American Hustle. The show premiered at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in October 2012. It has been shown at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. Phoenix is its fourth and final stop.
The costumes are displayed on posed mannequins with photos of the actor in the role. In many cases there is an iPad-sized screen suspended above the costume with an image of the face of the actor. The images are not static. They move on short loops, changing expressions like the photos in the Harry Potter films. It is effective but almost unnecessary. Virtually every costume is recognizable. In an interview I found online, the curator said she selected costumes from what people said were their favorite films, not necessarily their favorite costumes. The result gives us the best of both.
The displays include informational signage and recorded interviews with directors, actors and costume designers talking about the pieces on display. I learned quite a bit.
Early on, the exhibit contrasts fashion design with costume design. Fashion is intended to be seen in three dimensions and, hopefully, make the wearer look good. Costumes are designed with the knowledge they will be seen in only two dimensions and have the objective of revealing more about the character wearing them. They communicate on a level that fashion does not.
In the days of silent films, designers didn’t need to concern themselves with whether fabric or accessories were noisy. With the advent of sound, it suddenly mattered whether the bracelets jingled or the petticoats rustled.
When films were in black & white, what mattered most was texture, finish, and contrast. The introduction of color not only required the designer to expand their palette but they had to understand technical issues. The colors seen in “Technicolor” films were different than the colors seen with the naked eye. The designer needed to take that into account.
I’m embarrassed to admit I was not aware that the transition to digital technology has changed costumer design as well. With digital and computer graphic technologies, some costumes are added digitally and never actually created in reality. The actors never wear them. I knew this was true of animated images but it had not occurred to be there might be digitally created costumes in live-action films. Fascinating!
Of course the education is interesting and I always enjoy that aspect of museum trips but, in the end, at least in this exhibit, it is all about the costumes. Seeing them instantly calls to mind the film in which they were seen.
As one would expect, many of the costumes are lavish pieces from historical “costume dramas” There is an entire section of costumes worn by actors portraying Elizabeth I; everyone from Quentin Crisp to Cate Blanchett. There are costumes from period films like The Last Emperor, Out of Africa, and Titanic.
The pieces that intrigued me most, however, were the contemporary costumes. These displays really clarified for me the way costumes are a tool to reveal character. The costumes from The Birds, Brokeback Mountain, Basic Instinct, and Fight Club are examples.
Of course no show of this type would be complete without those costumes that are so iconic one must simply approach in silence and genuflect; Marlene Dietrich’s white tie & tails from Morocco, Dorothy’s gingham dress and ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, and Marilyn Monroe’s white halter dress from The Seven Year Itch.
The highlight of the day for me was an unexpected costume, certainly not one in the league of the ruby slippers. Harper’s Other Dad had wandered ahead but came back to find me. He had found something around the next corner and he wanted to make sure he was with me when I saw it. It was the pantsuit Susan Hayward wore as “Helen Lawson” in The Valley of the Dolls. There is also archival video of Judy Garland wearing it in costume tests before she was fired from the film. HOD knows me so well. All I could think to say was; “Broadway don’t go for booze and dope.” I was verklempt.
Photography was not allowed in the exhibit. Costumer images are from the exhibit’s accompanying book edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis.