Style & Then Some

Are the clothes the only part of movies you remember? Hollywood Costume at the V&A

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)
MGM/The Kobal collection

In a recent interview with Empire magazine, actor Willem Dafoe was quizzed on his knowledge of his own films. Dafoe struggled to remember his dying words in Spider-Man but when it came to the colour of the rat’s jumper in Fantastic Mr. Fox, he said “Oh, now that’s an easy one. Red and white.”

Costumes are often the most visually memorable part of a film. Directors can’t give away unforgettable lines or big plot sequences in trailers or posters, so often all a film has for hype materials are a few snatches of scenes and the characters in costume. And after the release, you’ll see the same iconic images on the review pages, DVD ads and your friends’ walls. Sometimes they will have a quote or some background detail but more often than not it’s just the protagonist(s) in costume.

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Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston
V&A images

And that’s what I was thinking about when I entered the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A this week. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we became so obsessed with the visual – with the dressing – that we couldn’t remember the words or the plot of a film but we could remember the dress?

The collection the V&A has amassed for this exhibition really is astounding and well worth the price of the ticket*. In three rooms – or Scenes as the V&A has it – you can get up close and personal with Charlie Chaplin’s baggy trousers, Darth Vader’s suit, Satine’s feathery corset from Moulin Rouge and a tuxedo worn by Marlene Dietrich amongst (very many) others.

There is the initial rush of standing next to trousers worn by Brad Pitt/Jake Gyllenhaal/Heath Ledger or seeing how big Beyonce’s bum must be to fit in the sparkly Dreamgirls dress. But after you’ve got giddy at this brush with stardom, chances are you’ll pay your respects to the true Hollywood stars.

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Titanic (1997)
20th Century Fox/Paramount/The Kobal Collection

Some of the costumes on display have been worn – no, owned – by actresses such as Katherine Hepburn, Cate Blanchett, Barbara Streisand and Marilyn Monroe. Streisand’s dress from Hello Dolly was a highlight for me as was the stunning (and stunningly child-like proportions of) the Rodarte dress Natalie Portman wore for the finale of Black Swan. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s dress, on the other hand, looked shiny and cheap. Honestly.

For the boys, there’s plenty to see including the Batman costume from The Dark Knight Rises (shame they couldn’t get the Joker’s suit), Christopher Reeves’ Superman lycra and shorts ranging from Rocky to Raging Bull.

The V&A's Hollywood Costume Exhibition - Installation Photo Call

Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston
V&A images

As exhibitions go, it’s a little busy on the stands but I wouldn’t suggest the V&A should have cut any of these prize costumes out – just that’s it’s hard to know where to look when you have Meryl Streep talking at you, a few De Niro costumes hanging around and a showreel of movies all in the space of a few steps. The videos and images showing the ‘heads’ of the stars too can be off putting – I preferred the costumes without. But through a mixture of interviews, projections and illustrations, the worthy designers get their moment in the spotlight too.

In short, this is the exhibition of the decade in terms of fashion (and fancy dress) inspiration and perhaps this is what accounts for its popularity. The glamour of Hollywood Costume is contagious. Not only will you want to rush out and watch all the films you haven’t yet seen from the roster, you’ll also want to lose weight to fit in similar ensembles, locate an air of mystery from somewhere and drape yourself in sequins and diamonds before noon. Just promise me you’ll pay attention to what the well-dressed and good-looking actors and actresses are saying too.

The V&A's Hollywood Costume Exhibition - Installation Photo Call

Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston
V&A images

Hollywood Costume is showing at the V&A until 27th January 2013. Tickets sell out quickly so if you don’t want to miss it, I’d recommend booking tickets as soon as you can – weekdays are better than weekends.

*Though be warned those ruby slippers have been remade from the original pattern. Boo.

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