Hollywood Costume – The Art of Becoming to New Frontiers

American Curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis at the Melbourne Media Launch of the ACMI Winter Masterpiece Exhibition Hollywood Costume - photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more’, was a particularly apt comment made by the youthful Dorothy, played by actor Judy Garland, to Toto her dog in the childhood classic movie The Wizard of Oz, after a tornado had transported them to that weird and wonderful place. When it was reiterated by the rugged villain ‘Colonel Miles Quaritich’ in James Cameron’s contemporary masterpiece of movie making, Avatar, it was particularly poignant.

In that 70 years between 1939 – 2009 Hollywood costume, which so defines and creates a movie character’s identity, had been transformed from those early days of cinema when Dorothy first clicked the heels of her dazzling gem encrusted red shoes three times to transport her back into a future where performance capture would challenge the designers and their designs forever more.

From script to screen, costume created for the movies is all about ‘the art of becoming’

Hollywood Costume the show has come direct from the V & A Museum at London to Melbourne to be the Winter Masterpiece Exhibition at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image). It is a fabulous display of costumes belonging to many of the characters that we have admired at the movies, from the days of the silent era in 1912 until 2012, the new and exciting age of technology.

This is a show where you can escape from your day to day experiences into a world of fantasy created by the many talented designers of costumes for the movies. So if you are a cinema buff then you have until Sunday 18th August to book your visit to view this impressive exhibition, one that explores the pivotal role costume plays in telling the story of a character.

Since their inception in 2004 Winter Masterpiece Exhibitions at Melbourne have attracted millions and millions of dollars worth of business for the tiny state of Victoria. So it’s no surprise that the Minister of the Arts, the aptly named Heidi Victoria was there at the media launch my colleague and I attended to welcome the renowned curator of the exhibition, Deborah Nadoolman Landis.

Glamour plus, costume for actress Ginger Rogers playing the character Liza Elliot in 'Lady in the Dark' 1944 Costume designer Edith Head photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

At the V & A Museum at London this show broke all attendance records and Melbourne will be the only other capital city in the world to have the pleasure of being able to offer its citizens an opportunity to see it.

Documenting nearly 100 years of cinematic excellence, the design and make up of the exhibition, the way the costumes have been curated and presented, as well as the content is far more than impressive. Landis has brilliantly conceived its layout, philosophy and presentation.

Jetting in from America on her first trip down under, Ms Landis was very excited as she pointed out to the media that the costumes on view are not only all about the characters, but also about the people who inhabit them.

Every nuance of that relationship is put under a microscope so that the designer can do their job.

Her own passion for her craft was evident, and has also been expressed well in costumes she has designed, including those defining trademarks of archaeologist Indiana Jones persona, his fedora and leather jacket, as well as Michael Jackson’s ‘red’ leather jacket for the video clip of Thriller.

The consideration she has given to how the viewer perceives the presentation has also been sensitively achieved.

The show is a great combination of ground breaking technology combined with tradition as the stars are cybernetically generated to appear among us again, While the costumes are displayed on models, they have no heads – the actual character’s face is projected onto a miniature screen where the head should be.

So above the costume designed for Liza Elliot in ‘Lady in the Dark’ 1944 is the smiling face of the legendary actress, singer and dancer Ginger Rogers (1911 – 1995). No wonder she looks  happy the costume she was wearing was ‘touted as the most expensive film costume’ ever at the time. It was encrusted with thousands of tiny hand sewn sequins that were set off with a real mink fur train.

It was designed by the doyen of costume design at the movies for years and years, the woman who won eight Academy Awards for her brilliance Edith Head (1897-1981), already a legend when I was born!

Detail of costume for 'The Last Emperor' 1987 - rich with embroidery and lined with mink it is a statement of sartorial splendour at its most opulent - photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

My colleague and I certainly enjoyed the diversity and variety of costumes on display, from a well-worn dressing gown to a gem encrusted period gown, we found that the attention to detail too was also amazing.

Two striking ‘red’ costumes from the Last Emperor (1987) revealed the intricacies of Chinese embroidery on silk, superbly rendered.

Costume at the court of the Chinese Emperors had a huge role to play, it helped to communicate ideas denoting power, which is more than often equated with wealth. On this level costume becomes subject to politics, as it did in China. Different classes of society under the rule of the Chinese Emperors where strictly controlled, which is reflected in the costume they wore that displayed badges of rank.

They were introduced during the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), when mandarins or officials were the backbone of Imperial bureaucracy. Worn by officials and their families they gradually became over the years, a highly skilled art form that today has many collectors.

The sartorial simplicity, or the proletarian uniformity of the Chinese under their socialist leader in modern times Mao-tse-tung, contrasted dramatically with the former preening extravagances of exotic and often, charismatic emperors, princes, potentates or dictators from antiquity right through until today.

Ms Nadoolman Landis is an academic of very high standing, who has the ability to make this art form accessible to all, a unique quality.

To help the viewer better understand the process the costume designer goes through when creating for the movies she has divided the display into three scenes.

Scene 1 is all about answering the question what is costume design? We discover that its not only just about clothes, but also about colour, texture, the silhouette, the play of light and shadow and how the costume enhances and emboldens the character played, allowing he or she to either blend into their surroundings, or to stand out.

An example is given with images of actor Matt Damon as secret agent Jason Bourne moving through the crowded scene on a concourse leading to the railway station. We are informed that nothing we are looking at is real; every person on the station has been staged and choreographed and also given a costume to set the scene

Bourne’s ‘grey’ jacket, black pants and dark shirt have been designed to allow him to blend into the surrounding crowd so that his enemies won’t notice him stealthily going about his job; he looks so ‘ordinary’.

As he moves quickly, with the addition of computer imaging, he suddenly appears to be dressed in weird and wonderful outfits that make him stand out, highlighting just how successfully the costume designer was in completing the brief of the Director to make him appear invisible in the first place.

It’s also about how important the costume he is wearing is in affecting our perceptions of, and about him.

Scene II offers a creative teamwork context, where the designer collaborates with the chosen team of actor, director and cinematographer so that they can help to make the character and the world he or she inhabits come alive.

Two costumes worn by actor Meryl Streep, one in 'Out of Africa' and the other in 'Mamma Mia' at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of the characters she was playing photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

The designer needs to understand at first what drives the character in order to give form to the costume they would be likely to wear. Every person is an individual and they need it to both suit and to project their personality, within the setting in which the story takes place

Rarely seen interviews between costume designers and actors such as Meryl Streep are projected, allowing us to be a voyeur on a clever and private process, that allows a fusion of both creativity and cultural development.

Meryl Streep is an extraordinary actress, able to met morph and become so many different characters, a chameleon who can transform her persona through voice and appearance, aided by her close relationship with the costume designer.

In the catalogue an interview reveals all sorts of interesting anecdotes on the process and importance to Ms Street of how the costume helps her refine her performance.

From her early role in the ‘French Lieutenant’s Woman’ when the mystery surrounding her character was enhanced by the enveloping cloak she wore to transport her back into the nineteenth century when women were constrained in every way, through to becoming the ‘indelible’ Miranda Priestly in the Devil Wears Prada in 2006, we learn that Meryl believes that costume is also about your ‘inner world – because you just don’t feel right in the wrong thing’.

A number of costumes of hers were there, including one made for her role as Britain’s Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher.

Amazing 'Mocap' suit photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

The show also documents for us how the process has changed over the century and includes a ‘mocap’ (motion capture) suit, complete with the defining ‘markers’ that allow or an optical motion capture system to work for the costume’s digital creators.

Avatar actors Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana were stunningly transformed, with the aid of this new and exciting technology, into giant blue beings from the planet Pandora.

Conceived by James Cameron, in an interview we can watch he reveals that the various beaded skimpy ‘costumes’ the blue beings do wear, still had to be manufactured with careful attention to detail.

They also help us to believe that what we were seeing could be a new reality, only limited by a new age costume designer’s imagination, the director’s innovative approach and our own perceptions of what we are seeing.

Scene III, the finale scene has been set to let everyone engage with a splendid cavalcade of costume belonging to characters from over the century.

They entirely engage us, intellectually, emotionally and in some cases, spiritually. The idea is that we will continue to ‘pass down’ their stories, ensuring that the best of them become ‘iconic’ (although Deborah pointed out this is a much abused word) and known to future generations.

Spiderman, clinging to a wall, photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

Spiderman and Superman appear above us, one flying through the air, one glued to a wall.

Batman stands confidently astride a high ledge, with Catwoman crouching on another ledge nearby. These comic book heroes have helped every person, who is young at heart, to relive their dreams when as a child, being a superhero was something that every kid and his friend wanted to be.

Hollywood Costume the show puts forward its women as goddesses and its men as bachelors, stripped bare and vulnerable. There is an equal amount of male and female costumes on show, including several worn by actor Brad Pitt, which undoubtedly he could still wear when he walked off the set.

Charlton Heston’s toga which he wore as Judah Ben Hur in the epic story of Christ  (1959) set in the Roman age is there as is Russell Crowe’s armour and tunic he wore as Maximus Decimus Meridius from Gladiator (2000). We learn that while historically Ben Hur’s designers worked hard to ensure they were spot on in terms of style the colours of the fabrics available in the 50’s that give that particular performance a unique look. The armour the men wore too was made by authentic Italian craftspeople working in traditional materials. However by the time of Gladiator, the team surrounding designer Janty Yates were able to construct it out of lighter materials, because of the physical demands of the role. It was made of foam coated in leather.

The famous 'halter' dress worn by actress Marilyn Monroe in 'The Seven Year Itch' photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

Wearing the costumes they wore for famous roles, whether they are still with us or not, the spectral shimmer of their apparitions appear on screen. Famous persona all mingling together, stars of silent and talking movies, many of whom are long since dead.

Ronald Reagan, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn and Charlton Heston all jostle closely together like phantoms or ghosts of perpetual beauty.

Glamour sex symbol Marilyn Monroe is there in a number of guises, although the main attraction is her favourite ‘Seven Year Itch’ frock, waiting lifelessly for a brisk breeze to rise up through an invisible grate in the ground to blow up her skirt and recreate a scene that has become iconic in itself.

The waist on her costume is so tiny, in comparison to the ample ‘halter’ neck, which emphasizes her bust line ensuring that her breasts seem huge – well they were.

As we gaze at nature’s grand designed wonder woman in amazement, those of us who were never lucky enough to meet her in person begin to understand why she had almost every man in America dreaming and drooling about and over her, including the President!

My mother’s favourite actress Claudette Colbert wore my colleagues and my favourite costume in the show in her 1934 film Cleopatra.

Cleopatra certainly wowed everyone in this costume and actress Claudette Colbert certainly had the figure to do it justice - photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

Made from green silk clingy fabric, hundreds of even tucks were sewn into the bodice forming appropriately a perfect pyramid from under the bust line down to the knee – an amazing piece of engineering and a grand ‘modern’ statement about the ancient culture through design.

Colbert was one of ‘Banton’s Beauties’, those who worked with Travis Banton.

His contemporary colleagues reported that this costume designer was imbued with ‘imagination, wit, charm and ‘pitch perfect’ taste and renowned for knowing how to ‘dress a woman’.

He was famous for his ‘sillhouettes of seduction’, clean clear lines of beauty created by designing bias cut dresses as this is, and for using colour for contrast.

It was very green, although the colour didn’t show up in the movie at the time because it was in black and white.

Another favourite costume was one thought to have been designed by an actress famous for her roles as a femme fatale. Designed by Louise Glaum, for the movie provocatively titled Sex (1920) in which she appears as Adrienne Renault.

It was the story of a New York cabaret star who used her sex appeal to end a marriage then leaves her lover for a wealthier prospect, only to have her selfish way of life come back to haunt her.

Louise Glaum's costume for Sex 1920 photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

The ‘siren’, to complete her aim, wore a seductive dramatic spider web dress costume that is ‘eye catching’ to say the least and certainly would have added to the ‘drama’ of the scene.

Not the sort of thing you would wear to cook the family dinner on a Friday night, but certainly great fun.

On the subject of sex, the outfit worn by Sharon Stone in her famous ‘Basic Instinct’ ‘interview’ scene is also there and sure to attract a crowd.

Fashion is not something that generally comes into contention for costume designers, who usually spend the first phase of any design process researching the period in which the film is set and considering all their options.

They remain subordinate at all times to the Director and his vision, which is only sometimes modified in collaboration with the actor.

Johnny Depp is well-known for his successful collaboration with designer Penny Rose as Captain Jack in Pirates of the Caribbean and they have recently worked together again on Disney’s new upcoming action movie The Lone Ranger, which is currently in post production.

Period costume design is usually all about being authentic, as revealed in some of the displays based around period movies including outfits Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett have worn when playing Elizabeth 1. Shown with images of many other Elizabeth 1’s, including Bette Davis, Flora Robson and Glenda Jackson, Judy’s dress particularly is a tour de force of gem encrustation.

Costume for 'Marie Antoinette' 2006 worn by Kirsten Dunst, based on historical imagery photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

Starting out with many mistakes in the past, the historical genre is now taken reasonably seriously, at least in terms of accuracy.

The design of costume for Marie Antoinette, 2006 is, and remains controversial.

While it is inspired in some aspects by historical records of the day, such as the ‘ship on her hair’ worn ‘…when France joined forces with the American revolutionaries, Marie Antoinette showed her support by wearing an intricate hairdo displaying a French frigate that won a key victory against the British in June 1778′, it was also a step in a new direction.

Contemporary fashionable concerns came into play when the designer Milena Canonero was instructed by Director Sofia Copppola to use ‘bright pastel colours’ for his costumes for the famous Queen, mimicking the colour of macaroons from the famous contemporary French teahouse ‘Laduree’.

This ensured that the movie projected a ‘sugary sweet image of youth and frivolity’ so that it also gained favourable ‘fashion’ press, because in France fashion is always a concern.

Kirsten Dunst appeared on the cover of Vogue in a costume designed just for the ‘shoot’, which however did not ever appear in the film, which ruffled more than a few feathers.

Although it did fulfill the Director’s aim and ensured a youthful following for the movie, which according to facebook and other modern media, is still growing.

An essay by Valerie Steele in the catalogue on the subject points out that ‘fashion in film’ can indeed be both complex and problematic. So it’s more or less left up to the viewer to decide if he wants historical accuracy or not?

The catalogue of Hollywood Costume is quite simply a brilliant production.

Gleaming gold; costume for Irene Bullock, My Man Godfrey 1936, designed by Travis Banton and Brymer Gown, with the duster jacket designed by Travis Banton photo by Belinda Watsford 2013

Edited by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, it contains numerous essays and articles on all aspects of costume design and manufacture by noted consultants with considerable expertise in the field, as well as those who support the conservation and preservation of its most interesting and iconic pieces.

It’s a fabulous reference tool for all those interested in historical, social and cultural development; about how important costume has been in the past for defining a character and identity on screen, and the new frontiers and challenges that costume designers will face when creating the future of film.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013

You can purchase the catalogue by clicking our link http://wp.me/plN7Q-8WX

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.