Hollywood Costume Exhibition

a review by Nalini Haynes

Lee Harding had spare tickets to see the Hollywood Costume Exhibition on Wednesday,  and LynC thought of me  so I followed the yellow brick road – would you believe the naturally coloured pavers? – to ACMI in Federation Square. Sadly no photography was allowed but if you google this exhibition you’ll find photos from the first incarnation.

The ACMI blurb about this exhibition says:

Direct from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Hollywood Costume explores the central role costume design plays in cinema storytelling. Bringing together the most iconic costumes from a century of filmmaking, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the clothes worn by unforgettable and beloved characters in films from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Titanic(1997), Ben-Hur (1959) to Casino Royale (2006).

This groundbreaking exhibition unites classics from the Golden Age of cinema, including Scarlett O’Hara’s green ‘curtain’ dress designed by Walter Plunkett for Gone with the Wind(1939) and the ‘little black dress’ designed by Hubert De Givenchy for Holly Golightly inBreakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) with costumes from the latest Hollywood releases including Consolata Boyle’s outfits for Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady (2011) and Lindy Hemming’s high-tech Batman suit for Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Hollywood Costume illuminates the costume designer’s creative process from script to screen and reveals the collaborative dialogue that leads to the development of authentic screen characters.

Hollywood Costume is curated by eminent Hollywood costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis with Sir Christopher Frayling and Keith Lodwick.

I’m not normally a fan of clothing other than to be practical although I greatly admire cosplayers with their creativity and sense of fun. Fashion is a mysterious thing devised to confound the likes of me while making $billion$ every year by playing on people’s insecurities and desire for acceptance. In contrast to my preconceptions this exhibition was a fascinating educational experience; I only wish I could have taken longer to read all the placards and listen to all the recorded dialogue.

Original costumes are on display on mannequins, many of which are crowned with back-lit images and even moving projections of the actors of who wore the costumes. Additional displays include stationary placards, projections of images of props, screens displaying written dialogue about the costuming process and even short videos about costuming.  This gave significant added value to the purpose of the exhibition as it ceased to be a historical record of costume in notable movies, becoming a lecture theatre discussing the added dimension created by effective costuming in any given story.

I found it difficult to read some of the placards and impossible to keep up with some of the text-only projections because the print was small, uneven or awkward to read and it moved too quickly. It would have been good to have an audio option.

Clothing designed to reflect mood is something I’d never really considered before although I accepted that clothing is supposed to reflect personality and occasion (assuming you can afford said clothing). Colour, cut and texture were selected with intent to infuse the two dimensional image of any given movie with greater depth. While pretty dresses can be a feature, often clothing that is noticed is like special effects that are noticed: once the viewer is critiquing the SFX, the movie-makers have a problem because the viewer is not caught up in the story.

After this journey through Hollywood, I came away with three main thoughts:

  1. I must design clothing as part of world-building for any story I write;
  2. I want to see costumes from movie reboots all in a row, with discussion about why the costumes were selected and changed. Imagine seeing every Superman, Batman or Terminator costume in a row, with explanations about the choice based on the era in which the movies were made and the changing story.  Fascinating!
  3. I must watch or rewatch some of these old movies, if for no other reason than to look at their costumes and the changing style of storytelling.

The Hollywood Costume Exhibition is a must for movie buffs and for every writer.

Thanks so much to LynC and Lee Harding for inviting the minion and me.