The Hollywood Costume Exhibition at the The Victoria & Albert Museum. (End Jan 27th)
Sewing can be such a solitary pursuit and sometimes that’s a good thing. There’s no denying that there’s a certain solace in your own company and I enjoy time in my own head space but it’s fairly safe to say I’m an extrovert. I like company and I start to go a bit weird if I’m left on my own for too long. Given a choice, I much prefer the company of others.
I also like getting out of the flat. Like a lot of people living in London, I take the city for granted and find myself talking about exhibitions I want to see or places I want to go which I never actually getting round to doing. But not this month.
I love the Victoria and Albert Museum, the permanent collection is wonderful, their exhibitions are usually well-laid out and set up in such a way as to have broad appeal – and they do gift aid. It made sense that after a stressful and fruitless morning dealing with Italian bureaucracy and still not getting my passport sorted, I should treat myself to the Hollywood Costume Exhibition.
Photography and sketching weren’t allowed but it didn’t stop one woman slowly taking notes on every bloody thing in longhand. Incredibly irritating when you’re stuck behind her and she insists on standing bang in front of everything. Rude. There were too many costumes to count (over a hundred) and at some points it was almost too much to take in. There’s a more detailed description via the V&A here but here’s my take on it.
The exhibition is so varied that it’s difficult to pick favourites. The obvious choices are Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch and the big flashy numbers like the Marie Antoinette/Queen Elizabeth collection. Of course, Dorothy/Garland’s Wizard of Oz dress holds a special place in my heart as many years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the Wizard of Oz. I never, ever, ever need to watch that film again.
Those obvious show-stoppers exhibits aside, I surprised myself by finding I really enjoyed some of the men’s costumes - John Travolta’s white suit from Saturday Night Fever, the Dude’s bathrobe from the Big Lebowski and Johnny Depp’s Sweeney Todd suit were all wonderful. Costumes from silent and black and white cinema were a real treat. Sound and colour must have been such great shifts in film and I can’t decide if this would’ve presented more challenges or opportunities for designers. The exhibition touched on this but I really wanted to know more about the process behind the costumes.
At times, it did just feel like a collection of pretty dresses though. I wanted to know more about what was going on behind and under the costumes. I wanted to know how things were aged and where they were found/made and I wanted more background on the actual costume designers. What I really wanted was to metaphorically and literally see up the all the skirts.
The layout was a bit odd, a 5 metre space for Indiana Jones to extend his whip (I’m not even being rude, it really was extended) yet a cluster of Marie Antoinette costumes all crowded in such a way that you didn’t really get a chance to see more than the front of them. Most irritating was the section which projected lines of the script onto a board RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE COSTUME. Imagine an A4-sized thing, blocking the costume while you’re jostling for a view. There was also a section of hologram interviews between designers, actors and directors. This was organised in the least space-efficient way and really, really annoyed me. You couldn’t see both parties in the interview at once so it was mostly just watching Tippi Hedren talking to herself or Tim Burton laughing at phantoms.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. It was really inspiring and strangely up-lifting and especially touching to see the really old costumes worn by people who died long ago but still live on as characters. And, I think, that’s a magical and timeless thing costume, and even ordinary clothing, has. These things become shorthand for an entire career or personality all tied to character which is, in turn, tied to an inanimate piece of fabric.
It gave me a lot to think about in terms of what our everyday costumes say and it inspired me to try more complex sewing techniques and learn more. It made me think about how different fabrics and colours work in different lights. This is something I’m more mindful of now that I live in the UK where the light changes far more dramatically than Australia’s *brittle, unrelenting sunshine.
It also made me want to watch a load of old films I hadn’t seen for ages and some I’d never seen before.
*”brittle sunlight” an expression I’ve lifted from talented Perth artist and friend Damion Blundell.