The V&A presents Hollywood Costume

Part pier-side hall of fame, part po-faced analysis of Jason Bourne’s black t-shirts, the V&A’s new exhibition of Hollywood Costume is an ambivalent mix between art and an extended popcorn-flavoured snog.

The wizard of Oz, MGM/The Kobal Collection
The wizard of Oz, MGM/The Kobal Collection

Featuring over 130 ghostly forms populating the low-lit galleries, the exhibition charts more than a century of cinema, from silent to talkie, monochrome to colour, focusing on the central role of costume design in cinema storytelling.

There is a flourish of camp in the red carpet leading you to the mesmeric screen which hits you a montage of ‘greatest movie moments’ as you walk in. The mood is chosen for you with euphoric closing-credits music, and you can’t help but ooh and ahh at choice titbits such as Vivien Leigh’s heavy green velvet dress from Gone With the Wind, or Joan Crawford’s beaded number from The Bride Wore Red, providing a bit of post-hoc technicolour.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Universal/Working Title/The Kobal Collection/Greg Williams

The section focusing on costumes for Elizabeth I is magnificent, despite the notable lack of Quentin Crisp’s frock from Sally Potter’s Orlando; the queens look grumpily over at their neighbour, an entire stage oddly dedicated to Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, his airborne whip rolling out across a good few metres of display space.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lucasfilm/Paramount/The Kobal Collection

This is a huge exhibition, and as Gary Shelley, associate designer at Casson Mann revealed, it really was a case of the V&A having rather too many costumes to handle; no bad thing, but it was clearly a bit of a design-feat to persuade these ‘shed snake skins’, in Shelley’s words, to get up and dance.

Perhaps sensing the smell of mothballs that hung upon the air, Casson Mann has followed up with an effective aesthetic of backstage studio clutter – signage is propped up on camera tripods, whilst super-slick visuals thrust a host of script extracts and lapidary comments by directors onto screens jumping out from hulking filming equipment.

Roger Mann, Casson Mann co-founder says, ‘The costumes were never designed to be seen outside of the film they were created for, and as working garments we have to be that much more playful, that much more magical with them, much more engaging – to help them come alive.’

Tippi Hedren
Tippi Hendren’s green suit in Hitchcock’s The Birds Squint/Opera

The final room is remarkably silly, though enjoyable. Here you’re in true seaside waxwork land, with all the most ‘iconic movie characters of all time’ jammed together in the awards ceremony from hell.

Here, the mannequin posers have really gone to town – a yellow tracksuited Uma Thurman kicks out in mid air at a host of invisible tea-drinkers, the soles of her trainers proclaiming ‘Fuck’ and ‘Off’, Daniel Radcliffe plods forward, wand outstretched, and Robert Pattinson is apparently attempting to pat Natalie Portman’s bottom as she leaps away in her tutu. The room is presided over by gravity defying Batman, Catwoman, Superman, Spiderman, and that well known superhero, Nicole Kidman of Moulin Rouge.

Superman, Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston
Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston, ©V&A images

We particularly like the way that on leaving the exhibition you are bid farewell not only by two cheerful ambassadors of Hollywood, Marilyn and Dorothy, but by a deflating raft of stowaways: Austin Powers, the Blues Brothers, Borat and… Kate Hudson, playing herself, as ever. It seems at this point all curatorial zeal has been thrown to the winds, and we are welcomed into the gift shop where we can buy popcorn, Darth Vader helmets, a small Gryffindor cape, and an eyeless Daniel Craig mask. The commercial dream is revealed, in one final drum roll.

Borat and Co
Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston ©V&A images

Don’t miss the fantastic ‘DVD extras’ style interviews with the costume designers vs the directors, which reveals some interesting creative tensions. Shown as if in conversation with one another, on facing screens placed across installations of black block tables and seating spaces, the tabletops are splashed with some pleasing space-specific projection by Squint/Opera.

The exhibition is long and indulgent. Neat headers such as ‘Deconstructing Character’ seem to be protesting too much. But it’s not all sequins and theorising. There are fantastic moments spotlighted throughout. One such moment is Ann Roth commenting on Natalie Portman’s wig in Closer, ‘Sometimes when something is cheap, and tough, I like it’. A welcome voice in three rooms of absent luvvies and taffeta bodices.

Ruby Slippers
Ruby Slippers, Hollywood Costume sponsored by Harry Winston, ©V&A images

Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, Cromwell Road,  London, SW7 from 20 October to 27 January 2013.

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