Special Feature: ‘Hollywood Costume’ at the V&A

What better way to get closer to the movies you cherish than to see the actual, iconic costumes which were once adorned by your favourite screen stars? From now up until the end of January 2013, London’s V&A plays host to the long-awaited Hollywood Costume exhibition. The gallery’s Senior Guest Curator is one Deborah Nadoolman Landis, no stranger to wardrobe departments as costume designer on all of her husband’s (An American Werewolf in London’s John Landis) films. Broken up into three acts which delve into the world of Hollywood’s wardrobe design, the V&A has really pulled out all the stops here, serving up a collection which elicits goosebumps and giddy excitement with every passing costume.

Firstly, it’s nice to see that concessions have been made to contemporary Hollywood too, and not just those legendary revered films of yesteryear. Alongside Chaplin’s Little Tramp outfit and Scarlett O’Hara resplendent emerald dress, both the inconspicuous threads worn by Jason Bourne and The Dude’s bathrobe/day-wear favourite receive an equally thoughtful and detailed display. For pure opulence and spectacle, the Georgian to Victorian-era, royalty-themed period garments have that covered. One of the highlights in this collection, Marilyn Monroe’s blustery dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955), offers an interesting reminder that it’s not just modern-day actresses who feel the pressure to slim for the screen, as Monroe’s minuscule waist size here shockingly illustrates.

The sumptuously-lit presentation has been purposely given a very cinematic feel, with the faces of each star projected above their respective costumes bringing everything to flickering life. There’s also a fascinating section which focuses on a series of director/costume designer partnerships, with numerous designs and early ideas and sketches from those collaborations projected on work bench mock-ups. The two figures themselves are also interviewed and projected on opposite chairs, giving the appearance that they are having a back and forth with each other about their working partnerships.

The garments from popular genre work offer a playful glimpse at some of the more instantly identifiable outfits in the history of cinema. The yellow all-in-one tracksuit from the Kill Bill films is presented in mid-strike mode, Christopher Reeves’ fitted spandex from his forth appearance as Superman is captured (as to be expected) in overhead flight, while Michelle Pfeiffer’s S&M-inspired Catwoman costume is perched high above the rest on display, casting a beady, feline-like eye across the darkened gallery space.

It’s not just the obvious pieces which make an indelible impression. Sean Young’s character’s retro, 40s-inspired power dress from 1982’s Blade Runner looks just as stunning in the flesh as it does on celluloid, and Catherine Trammel’s cream skirt and cardigan combo from 1992’s Basic Instinct can’t help but evoke memories of the sexually-charged interrogation scene where the character is (partially) dressed in this outfit. Travis Bickle’s wardrobe (Robert De Niro is offered his own special ‘Best of’ section, as is his Hollywood peer, Meryl Streep) offers a similarly unnerving feeling in seeing the character’s clothes up close and personal like that.

Hollywood Costume ends, aptly, on Dorothy’s ruby slippers, perhaps the ultimate representation of wish fulfilment and escape, and something which has been gloriously replicated here. An exquisitely-presented cinematic treasure trove, this is an absolute must-see for cinema lovers of all ages.

For more info on the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition and to book online, visit vam.ac.uk.

Adam Lowes