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Dressing the Part | Julie Daunt

Arts and Literature editor Julie Daunt takes a look inside the wardrobe of Hollywood in the latest V&A exhibition, Hollywood Costumes.

     When you think of any film, actor or actress, you often remember that one iconic dress or outfit. For example, Marilyn Monroe and her white cocktail dress worn in ‘The Seven Year Itch’. Audrey Hepburn and that black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Those black suits, skinny ties and Wayfarers worn by Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in The Blues Brothers. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat colourful and dated suit. Those iconic costumes can often make or break a film. They are part of the film’s story and add to the characters’ persona. Film costumes and the stars that wear them (Clara Bow and Greta Garbo anyone?) can also inspire fashion trends (think Flashdance and legwarmers). Film costumes are an important part of the cinematic experience and this is why the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has dedicated an entire exhibition to the greatest and most iconic costumes made over the past century.hollywoodcostume

The exhibition has over 100 of the most unforgettable costumes from films like Fight Club, Big Lebowski, Titanic and Wizard of Oz spread across three large rooms. The way the costumes are displayed is innovative and really highlights the importance of the clothes. The costumes are displayed on mannequins, some with photographs of the stars above them, others with slow moving images of the stars faces on screens. Each outfit comes with a small text behind the creation and inspiration behind the clothes. Some happen due to the medium of film, such as Dorothy’s red shoes in the Wizard of Oz. In the novel, the shoes are actually silver, but due to the Technicolor nature of the film, Adrian the designer decided to make the shoes red in order to stand out against the yellow brick road. Designers often try as hard as they can to create the authentic style from the period the film is set in. Again, for the Wizard of Oz, Adrian sourced a beat up old sewing machine that was typically used on a Kansas farm yard at the turn of the century. This helped create the dropped stiches and patchy nature of Dorothy’s blue pinafore.

Through this exhibition you really begin to understand the time and effort costume designers put into those iconic clothes seen in films. You really see the lengths designers go to when they source the elements to a costume, from the baggy Big Lebowski dressing gown to the cane and worn shoes of Charlie Chaplin. You will recognise nearly every costume in this exhibition. I found some to be surprising, such as the costumes worn by Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Closer. I didn’t realise how small and slight she was! Robert De Niro also gets a whole section to himself. You can really see how his method acting style even affects his appearance. His extremely slim Taxi Driver checked shirt and jeans stand next to his buffed up Raging Bull costume. There is also a section entirely made up of the costumes worn in Shakespearean films and adaptations. The detail of the beadwork and trimmings on the costumes worn by the likes of Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love are extraordinary.

The amount of costumes on display here means there something that everyone will want to look at. Even if you are not familiar with the particular film or character, you cannot help being astounded by the detail, effort and time put into make these timeless and iconic costumes. Each costume on display conjures up the character and the narrative of the film they were in. It was amazing seeing the trend setting dresses and suits in the flesh. It was also great to see the process of costume making coming to life and the designer’s efforts being celebrated. Overall, this exhibition is a must for film-goers and fashion lovers.