What dress-up box dreams are made of…

Hollywood Costume, V&A

Indiana Jones, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Donna from Mama Mia, Roxie from Chicago; the characters that we remember live with us far beyond the short time they flicker in front of us on a screen. We escape with them into their dramas, witness love, life, murder, adventure, and then carry a little bit of them forwards beyond the film. The power of storytelling is ancient and potent, human beings thrive on narrative, we learn and develop through words on a page and characterisations on stage, scripts are modern day folk tales told around a fire. Costume shapes the way people move, defines status and time, and helps to bring these stories to life in the most magical way.

This is one hell of a show, a tightly crafted production with universal appeal. Like the James Bond franchise and Kate Middleton’s with her knee length shifts, the V&A is most successful when it sticks to its tried and tested aesthetic formulas. Hollywood Costume takes the best of these, tying together the beautiful, exotic and recognisable screen clothing which visitors have paid to see with engaging interviews, soundtracks and film clips. All of this highlighted beautifully with excellent spot lighting in the opulent dark surroundings.

In the opening space were some of the most iconic pieces, my favourite were the dresses from Elizabeth and Shakespeare in Love, gorgeous things that we will never get chance to wear. This is much more than static clothes on mannequins (head to the fashion department if you want that), these are lively pieces with their own stories. We learn little gems of information, like that Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones had ten of his trademark jackets, and that each was artfully dishevelled with wire wool and sandpaper to make it appear lived in. Tim Burton, further along, describes Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd jacket as a character itself, and I think this could be said of many of the costumes.

One of the best elements of the show were the table sets in the second room, the rotating design sketches, sections of film and the key figures in the costume decision making (designers, actors, directors) discussing their craft. These were all projected onto plain black tables and chairs, inviting a more intimate exploration of a small number of films and the key pieces of tailoring that defined an individual character. The presence of audio-visual has been a constant in V&A exhibitions for many years, gaining in sophistication and testing the creativity of curators and designers who must slot the elements in seamlessly and without detracting from the objects themselves.

The conversations and accompanying texts provide a lot of insight into the tiny and very considered decisions which are made in the creation of costumes, the way that small elements like the cut of a jacket, or the exact shade of a dress, can convey so much information about personality and mood. The last room seemed to heighten this, film outfits were topped off with TV screens showing the faces of the actors who had made them famous. This didn’t just show how these people had worn and worked these clothes, it showed how the clothes had worked them. In a way, the psychology behind the clothing choices we all make is being explored. Next time you choose what t-shirt or dress to put on in a morning, maybe stop and think about what this is wordlessly explaining to others about the person you are.

Hollywood Costume at the V&A.

Hollywood Costume at the V&A.

Hollywood Costume closes tomorrow (27th January 2013).


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