A movie costume is much more the sum of its parts. Sure the sumptuous satin, voluptuous velvet and sparkling stones are gorgeous to gaze upon, but it’s the knowledge of what it represents that truly transforms a movie costume. Not only does it have history (up close you can see the fabric’s wear, strain and loose threads) and star power (no doubt it still contains the actor’s DNA) but, if it’s really lucky, the movie costume becomes a metonym for the movie itself.It was in this frame of mind that I excitedly approached the Hollywood Costume exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. As I laid eyes on Scarlett O’Hara’s green curtain dress from Gone With the Wind, in the first room, everything I have ever felt about costumes was justified in the presence of this emerald of an outfit that had survived since 1939. Mainly, I just really, really wanted to wear it.A number of the other outfits had the same effect on me. I did a little jig inside when I came face to face with Morticia Addams’ dress from Addams Family Values (not least because I’ve been hunting down a good reference photo for months to try and make one myself) and shuddered when I came to the eerie sight of a bodiless Mina costume lying across the lap of a bodiless Bram Stoker’s Dracula from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version.Even the films that I didn’t love quite so much or hadn’t even seen (Black Swan falling into the former category; Marie Antoinette the latter) didn’t fail to inspire something within in me, whether it was the delicate netting of Natalie Portman’s tutu as created by design house Rodarte (which prompted my friend to sigh she wished we’d both stuck with ballet classes for longer), or the stunning detail of Kirsten Dunst’s gown as Antoinette, which made me wish I’d become an actress, just so I would have had the opportunity to wear a dress like this. It would be interesting to know what the actors’ feelings are towards these pieces of cloth.And then of course, we got to the most famous pinafore in history: Judy Garland’s Dorothy dress, complete with replica red shoes. When the exhibition first opened the V&A had held a Dorothy flashmob, which, since I own a pair of red sparkly shoes, I of course had to attend. To see the real thing – without even glass to separate us – was gratifying.However, as a whole the exhibition was disappointing, in terms of the layout, the lighting, the unnecessary technology and the sheer number of costumes.
The outfits were arranged in three ‘acts’ across three rooms. It was unclear what each ‘act’ symbolised because it looked like the costumes weren’t in any order at all. There were two Scarlett O’Hara dresses: one in the first room, next to Charlie Chaplin, and one in the second room, on the same platform as Darth Vader and Gollum. Similarly, Darth Vader was nowhere near Hans Solo, who was in the third room, along with two Marilyn Monroe dresses that were also far apart. Why?Meanwhile, a clumsy attempt to group period dresses together came across as excessive: there was one medieval gown from Camelot, four Queen Elizabeth I, two dresses from Marie Antoinette (above) and a number of others I didn’t recognise. Whilst each dress was stunning it was difficult to appreciate with such a mish mash of styles: the heavily beaded Elizabeth gowns next to the delicate sexy satin of 18th century France. Had the four Elizabeth I gowns been instead displayed away from the rest, the effect would have been stunning.The third room lacked any cohesiveness at all, with one huge platform in the middle of the room containing outfits ranging from Holly Golightly’s LBD to Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge gown to Kianu Reeve’s Matrix trenchcoat to Will Smith’s Independence Day army uniform. And of course, the Marilyn and Dorothy dresses at the end. Meanwhile the superhero costumes– Batman, Superman and Catwoman – were placed so far and awkwardly above visitors’ heads that it would be more efficient to watch the Blu-Ray if you wanted to see any detail in the costumes.None of this was aided by the bizarrely low lighting. Perhaps this was meant to create atmosphere but it just meant that I was straining to see the lace of the Black Swan tutu (above) in the third room while in the first room there were spotlights above some of the costumes which were programmed to turn off and on – a ploy that resulted only in slowing down the queue as visitors waited for the lights to come back on in order to get a better look at the costume before they moved on.As exciting as it was to see many of these costumes, the sheer volume lessened the impact of the true jewels (helped in no small part by the awkward arrangement of the costumes). For example, Sacha Barron Cohen’s Borat suit from Cultural Learnings of America. Not the green mankini, which at least had a cultural impact, but the nondescript grey suit he wears in the other scenes. I loved the film, but was its presence really necessary, particularly so close to John Travolta’s iconic white suit from Saturday Night Fever? Similarly, Ed Norton’s outfit from Fight Club – another film I really enjoyed – consisted of a t-shirt and trousers and was placed next to the spectacular gothic extravagance of the Addams Family costumes (above). It’s not that more recent films don’t have a place in the exhibition (I loved seeing Elle Woods’ pink suit from Legally Blonde 2 and Kate Hudson’s yellow dress from How to Lose a Guy in Seven Days) but it was inappropriate to have these dresses next to the Dorothy and Marilyn dresses, near the end of the exhibition. Instead, how awesome would it have been to see Audrey’s black dress and Marilyn’s white one next two each other, contrasting between the style icon and the sexpot. This was all compounded by emphasis on unnecessary and distracting technology, such as the actors’ moving faces on computer screens above the costumes instead of heads, when ordinary acrylic busts made to look like the actors would have sufficed.It’s a shame, because apparently this exhibition was five years in the making and the effort that went into sourcing the costumes was clearly phenomenal. All the right ingredients were there but the execution was faulty. As Elizabeth I might have said of a faulty execution: awff with their heads!
Hollywood Costumes at the V&A is on until 27 January 2013 before moving to Australia and the US. For more pictures and commentary on the exhibition, check out my column, Le Geek C’est Chic, over at Unleash the Fanboy.