Clothes Tell Their Stories

An exhibition of Hollywood costumes brings the movies we loved back to life
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WEAR AND TELL Every piece of clothing  comes with its back story...
...such as why  Dorothy’s shoes in Wizard of Oz were  changed to red from the original silver

There is a point in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire when Dorothy, Renée Zellweger’s character, says to the protagonist, “You had me at ‘hello’.” A similar epiphanic moment took place when I walked into the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume show, which has, as its introductory exhibit, a gigantic screen. Across this plays a montage of clips from some of the most memorable movies conjured in Hollywood studios, ranging from silent black-and-white to complex, digitally mastered feats. The screen and surrounding darkness recreates the movie-going experience, the wide-eyed wonder with which we gaze up at flashing, moving images, the feeling that anything could happen on that magical rectangle. Yet, the focus of the exhibition veers away from the usual—actor, director, sets—and is stringently specific. It attempts to explore, in three ‘acts’, the role of the costume designer and how costume brings characters to life on screen.

The first section explains how items of clothing carry stories. A large-scale video replays interviews of everyday people, explaining where they picked up various accessories, or why they’re wearing jeans stolen from siblings. What we wear is ‘an amalgam of stories’. They explain, in clear, confident terms, what they feel is their unique, personal style.

Arranged around the video are several well-known costumes, deconstructed to show how they made the leap from script, scribbles and hurried sketches to real life. In one corner is Scarlett O’Hara’s green ‘curtain’ dress from Gone with the Wind, and Tyler Durden’s 1970s jacket the colour of dried blood from The Fight Club. In the same row is the Dude’s shabby brown dressing gown from the endearing The Big Lebowski.

An array of outfits from Ocean’s 11 explains in detail how each became a marker of a character’s personality—Matt Damon’s less stylishly tailored clothes to show his youth and inexperience, George Clooney’s suits sewn when he was still financially flush, Brad Pitt’s shiny ‘gambling man’ attire. Also interesting is the point made about how difficult it can be to recreate contemporary clothing in a movie. You might remember that scene from Jerry Maguire, but what were they wearing? If you cannot recall, the costume designer has done his or her job. The importance of modern costume is that it should not stick out or seem incongruous.

Large portions of the first section are devoted to single outfits—fleshing out, so to speak, the back-story of the creation. On a large screen, Indiana Jones’ wardrobe is deconstructed and its logic explained. The Herbert Johnson hat had its brim trimmed so the camera could see Harrison Ford’s eyes, its crown raised to flatter his face. The leather jacket, indicating a character who is relaxed, tough, travelled, unfussy, was ‘aged’ using mud and Ford’s pen knife. His attire, in shades of brown and red, reflects his profession, that of someone who works beneath the earth.

Also explored is how costume design has changed through the ages, adapting itself to new technology. With silent cinema, outfits were made larger than life and used to indicate stock characters. Technicolor brought with it further challenges of contrast and hue—in Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s slippers were changed to red (originally silver in the book) to stand out against the yellow brick road.

A section is also devoted to the complex technique of motion capture, used in films like Avatar and Lord of the Rings, in which the movements and facial expressions of a person are captured before they are rendered onto digitally created figures.

The second section titled ‘Dialogue’ expands on a few designer-director collaborations. In the same way that directors often share special relationships with actors—think Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, Tim Burton and Johnny Depp—some costume designers also worked for decades with the same directors, bringing their vision and ideas to life.

Beautifully arranged as ‘conversations’ in the display room, each stand is devoted to a creative pair. The first, and most famous, is Edith Head and Alfred Hitchcock who collaborated on 11 films, including The Birds in which Tippi Hedren wore a single green dress throughout. It was the colour ‘Eau-de-nil green’, Head and Hitchcock decided, that the audience would not tire of seeing.

In another panel, Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, discuss how characters in Gangs of New York were reimagined, blending historical detail and imagination. Daniel Day Lewis, in particular, was ‘elongated’ through his dandy attire, given a large top hat and a long tail coat to make him even more arresting and malevolent. From Ann Roth, costume designer for Mike Nichols’ Closer, we learn that the inspiration for Alice’s outfit came from a girl she saw sleeping at an airport in Greece, wearing a blue coat that “looked like it had belonged to someone else before”.

Set up separately from this are stands devoted to the most well-known contemporary method actors of the industry—Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro. Here, they explain what it means for them to play different characters. For Streep, who has a degree in costume design, it is about adjusting certain emotional elements within herself, subjugating some and highlighting others. In this way, she embodies all the characteristics of everyone she plays. Every detail is singularly important. For instance, it was important for her to know what Margaret Thatcher might carry in her handbag for her role in The Iron Lady. “Not tissues,” she says in the video interview. De Niro explains how, for his character in Taxi Driver, he didn’t take off his costume for days, choosing to sleep in Travis Bickle’s jeans and jacket. An outfit became a second skin.

The ‘Finale’ section discards any attempt at analysis, and the museum throws, for us, an elaborate after-party filled with our favourite characters. Suspended from the ceiling is the sparkly showgirl outfit Nicole Kidman wore in Moulin Rouge, Spiderman crouches against a wall, Batman looms over the room, Cat Woman perches high above us, while Superman flies over our heads. Here, Audrey Hepburn’s elegant Givenchy black dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s slinks through the crowd, Marilyn Monroe’s flirty white dress from The Seven Year Itch flutters in a corner.

But does row after row of framed costumes allow us to reconnect with the characters? Truffaut was famously dismissive of such gimmickry, saying there was nothing special in showing a dress Greta Garbo once wore. Yet, as you gaze at Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume, or squeal over Dorothy’s glittering red shoes, you know that, as Scorsese said, “Costume is character” in more ways than one. Yes, to some, the outfits without the living, breathing person inside could be nothing more than crumpled clothes.

Yet, the V&A, having avoided going the Madame Tussaud’s way by giving us lifeless mannequins, holds these outfits up as characters in their own right. They allow us to study folds and intricate detail, the hours of hard work that have gone into the making of an Elizabethan ball gown, into the beaded splendour of a cabaret dress. They allow us to capture, in some small intimate way, the ineffable magic of the movies.