The V&A’s major autumn exhibition Hollywood Costume explores the role of costume design in film, collecting over 130 iconic costumes in their vast exhibition space. Five years in the making, the exhibition brings together scripts, interviews and animation alongside the awe-inspiring costumes to highlight the integral role of costume design in film.

The exhibition is structured in three “acts” with the first concentrating on the role of the costume designer in cinema. Walking into the dark exhibition room, you are greeted by a large screen showing film clips and loud cinematic music which replicates the excitement of the cinema.

This first section explores the designer’s role in bringing characters to life from script to screen, using costume to embody the psychological, social and emotional aspects of a character. Quotations from the designer explaining the design process sit alongside mannequins displaying the respective costumes with projections of film scripts and design sketches interspersed throughout the room. Highlights of this section include Vivien Leigh’s famous green velvet gown in Gone with the Wind, explanations of Indiana Jones’ recognisable costume and period dress from Shakespeare in Love and Marie Antoinette to name but a few.

…the collaboration between designers, directors and actors…

The next section – “Dialogue” – explores the collaboration between designers, directors and actors in creating costumes for a character and how this team make the world created in the film, and the people in it, come alive. The first part of this section concentrates on the collaboration between director and costume designer. Large chairs are arranged around a table with videos of interviews with key director and designer pairings cleverly and imaginatively projected onto them, creating the feeling that you are watching their discussion.

Conversations between Alfred Hitchcock and Edith Head who have collaborated on 11 films including The Birds and discussions between Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood who have worked together on films such as Edward Scissorhands and Alice in Wonderland are screened. The next part of this section highlights how changes in technology have influenced costume design, with moves from black and white to colour, silent to sound and film to digital all posing different challenges to the designer. Costumes from all genres of film are on display here, from Darth Vader’s costume to Elizabeth Taylor’s dress worn in Cleopatra. The processes behind design for films which use CGI such as Avatar are also explored.

…the importance of costumes in portraying a range of characters…

The final part of this section is dedicated to award-winning actors Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. In commissioned interviews, the two discuss the importance of costumes in portraying a range of characters. Some of their most iconic costumes are on display such as those from Streep’s Iron Lady and De Niro’s Taxi Driver.

The final section, aptly titled “finale”, showcases a vast display of film’s most iconic costumes that are often instantly recognisable, emphasising how costume design has influenced and inspired culture through the generations. Highlights in this section range from Audrey Hepburn’s black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Keira Knightley’s emerald gown from Atonement and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress in The Seven Year Itch, Natalie Portman’s costume from Black Swan and Judy Garland’s blue and white gingham pinafore worn in The Wizard of Oz, complete with the famous ruby slippers.

…a successful costume is one which the audience does not notice…

Overall, the exhibition serves to shine a light on an art that often goes unnoticed, yet is such an integral and crucial contribution to the success of film. Walking around the exhibition, you begin to think not of these clothes as merely costumes, but as a character which portrays more in a film than first thought. Throughout the exhibition the point is made that a successful costume is one which the audience does not notice, but nevertheless will remain connected to the characters. This exhibition proves just that – all the costumes on display have lived on long after the credits have stopped rolling. More importantly, the exhibition highlights how the power of costume design should not be underestimated or go unnoticed.

4 ½ stars


V&A Hollywood Costume from Cultureshock Media on Vimeo.

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