Hollywood costumes – London’s blockbuster exhibition

Judy Garland, Dorothy

Judy Garland as Dorothy

It’s one hell of a movie blockbuster.

No, I’m not talking about the latest Hollywood movie release but the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume exhibition in London.

Imagine a celluloid dream where you can schmooze with Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Daniel Craig and Brad Pitt.

Well, this is as close as it gets to that fantasy experience. For this is your chance to rub shoulders with classic icons of the silver screen and see at first hand the iconic costumes they wore in their most famous roles.

Marilyn Monroe costume

Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch cocktail dress

The Hollywood exhibition is stuffed to the brim with classic Hollywood style and brings together 130 of the most iconic costumes designed over a century of film history.

Our journey takes in three galleries of unforgettable costumes imaginatively presented with projections, overhead slide shows, film montages and interviews.

Amongst the stars and directors talking us through the history of the costumes are Meryl Streep, Tim Burton, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese.

This impressive exhibition has a real wow factor with visitors emitting ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as they travel back through Hollywood’s time machine.

I found myself swooning over Keira Knightley’s green silk dress from Atonement and Hedy Lamarr’s gorgeous peacock feathered gown from Samson and Delilah.

Apparently the designer spent a whole weekend at a stately home picking up stray peacock feathers to make this most sumptuous of costumes.

One of my favourite exhibits was Marilyn Monroe’s ivory cocktail dress from The Seven Year Itch.

Who could forget the dress blowing up around Marilyn’s thighs as she walked over a subway grate on a New York street. Today it looks somewhat immobile but the style factor is still there.

Stepping back down the decades I got a real shiver down the spine encountering the old classics from the golden age of Hollywood.

Charlie Chaplin’s tramp outfit reminds us of the silent pictures era and makes you realise how small and slight the British actor must have been.

Marlene Dietrich’s gender-bending monochrome outfit of top hat, white shirt and tails from Morocco takes you back to the 1930s with its fabulous femme fatales.

Stunning gowns

Some of the most stunning Hollywood exhibits are Vivien Leigh’s remarkable dresses from Gone With The Wind in 1939.

Hollywood gowns

Joan Crawford and Vivien Leigh’s scarlet gowns

Her green velvet gown – made in the film by Scarlett O’Hara from her mother’s drawing room curtains – was actually designed by Walter Plunkett.

He toured the American South visiting the Daughters of the Confederacy and viewing vintage collections for historic inspiration.

The beautiful velvet sweeps of this costume remain as dramatic as when it first appeared in the film.

Another red dress worn by Vivien Leigh in the same movie is a show stopper with its classic lines and tailoring.

Next to it is a sensational beaded ruby gown designed by Adrian for the inimitable Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red in 1937.

It struck me how thin Crawford must have been despite her voluptuous, hour-glass figure.

If only I could get a waist like that – it looked to be around 20 inches!

Guys on film

The V&A's Hollywood Costume Exhibition

Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Arnie and Warren Beatty get in on the action

If you’re worried that the exhibition is a bit ‘girlie’ and feminine, think again.

Hollywood’s men get a good shout with a whole wardrobe of male exhibits including Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark outfit, Brad Pitt’s Fight Club jacket and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s leather-clad Terminator.

For the Indiana Jones costume, designer Deborah Nadoolman picked dark browns to balance his intrepid sense of adventure and stuffier academic background.

She based his fedora on an Australian hat found in Herbert Johnson’s on Savile Row – and adjusted the crown and brim to flatter Harrison Ford’s long face!

Humphrey Bogart’s classic Hollywood style and fedora take us back to an earlier era of Sam Spade whilst John Wayne’s western style and cowboy hat recall bar room brawls and shoot-outs.

You get a real sense of the impressive size of Wayne – he must have been a veritable giant from the cut of his outfit from True Grit.

Robert De Niro fans will be thrilled to see a large collection of his best-known costumes including pieces from Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. I was struck by the almost day-glo colours of the shirts and jackets from the latter.

Robert De Niro

Robert De Niro’s looks mean in his Vietnam vet costume

In complete contrast, there’s a great selection of modern sci-fi and fantasy oufits including Darth Vader’s Star Wars costume with its extended cape, Nazi-style military style and padded body suit.

Keanu Reeves’ costume for Neo in The Matrix is one of the most impressive boys’ outfits with its large black overcoat and noirish mix of Goth and Gary Numan.

Coming up to date, there’s a cool tableau of costumes from Ocean’s Eleven including Brad Pitt’s styishly retro beige jacket and George Clooney’s tailored suit.

Brokeback Mountain’s understated cowboy costumes also impress and I reckoned that my friend Clive would’ve looked good in the Heath Ledger jeans, cowboy hat and checked shirt (if a little over-the-top by his usual dress standards).

It’s also a thrill to see Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow costume which comprises a lightweight silk tweed frock coat, knee-length breaches, tricorne leather hat and brown suede boots. All have been given a distressed look to create the authentic appearance of a sea dog.

It’s pretty cool that the same costume will be used for the next Pirates film straight after the exhibition. Perhaps I could help Mr Depp as his wardrobe assistant?

Johnny Depp, Pirates

Johnny Depp transformed as Captain Jack Sparrow

Historic costume dramas

Elizabeth costume

Historic costume designs are beautifully showcased in the Elizabethan section of the exhibition.

I’d forgotten how many leading ladies had played Queen Elizabeth 1 from Flora Robson and Bette Davis to Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench.

All of their ravishing costumes are on show with hardly any iconic pieces absent from the regal roll call.

It’s hard not to get lost in the detail of the sensational embroidery, gold trimmings and carefully re-imagined ruffs and decorative head-gear.

Completing this royal court of characters are costumes from the recent Marie Antionette film and Vanessa Redgrave’s Guinevere from Camelot in 1967.

Vanessa Redgrave’s dress is like a spider’s web and is very much a product of its period. It was heavily influenced by 1960s fashion and looks like something Twiggy would have worn in her heyday.

It reminded me of a macrame and crocheted dress I flounced around in during the early 1970s!

There was stiff competition for ‘best costumes in show’ from The Last Emperor exhibit with its imperial robes which were mind-blowingly beautiful.

No surprises that the film won Best Costume Design for James Acheson at the Oscars in 1988.

Super heroes and villains

Although I was less keen on the modern fantasy designs for films like Avatar, the exhibitors have done a great job in assembling a roll call of super heroes and villains.

It’s slightly scary to catch a glimpse of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman leering in leather from the ceiling but reassuring to spot Spiderman stuck to the walls.

Batman’s hi-tech suit from The Dark Knight Rises is suitably imposing whilst Gary Oldman’s rich red cape from Bram Stoker’s Dracula engulfs the stage in an impressive sweep.

I can only guess how heavy it must have been to wear that eye-catching villain’s costume.

There’s also a few sops to the kids including Robert Pattinson’s grey flannel suit from Twilight. Personally, I preferred the creepy Goth-like designs for Addams Family Values including a couple of gorgeous sequinned spider woman style dresses worn by Anjelica Huston.

Hollywood Costume at the V & A

A sweep of fabulous fashion from the Hollywood costume vaults

Heroines and classics

Kate Winslet, Titanic

Kate Winslet in Titanic

There’s plenty of classic Hollywood heroines to get you excited as you stroll around the exhibits.

Kate Winslet’s Titanic costume is a stand out. Its finely-tailored suit of white twill with dark violet pin stripes with white starched shirt is topped off with a sensational Milan straw hat with a double bow.

It reminded me of Audrey Hepburn’s classic Ascot dress, designed by Cecil Beaton, from My Fair Lady, one of the few iconic costumes missing from the exhibition.

Fans of that classic musical can, however, see Hepburn’s flower girl costume  which is lovely but not quite as powerful.

Audrey Hepburn features prominenly in another of her movies – Breakfast at Tiffanys.

Her black dress, long gloves and sparkling pearls were designed to suit her elf-like, gamine style in the role of Holly Golightly.

The dress looks as fresh as it did in 1961, showing that great costumes don’t really age but become style classics.

The iconic black dress was designed by the French couturier Hubert De Givenchy but its finishing touches of pearls and tiara lend it extra class and style.

In complete contrast, there’s a brilliant display of Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcocks’ thriller The Birds (1963) which captures the film’s air of menace and paranoia.

Hedren’s outfit was designed by the grand dame of Hollywood costume design, Edith Head, whose work features heavily throughout the exhibition.

The wool suit in pale green was designed to be versatile as it featured in many different shots including the dramatic scene when the birds attack Hedren.

Hitchcock instructed the designer to use green because this fitted with his extensive use of the colour throughout the film.

Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels

Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in The Birds

Over the rainbow

It’s fitting that the Hollywood Costume exhibition leaves the best to the very end.

Judy Garland’s blue and white gingham pinafore dress – designed by Adrian for The Wizard of Oz – is perhaps the most instantly recognisable costume in the exhibition.

The dress was made in MGM’s costume department on an old treadle sewing machine as if it had been sewn by Auntie Em, lending an air of authenticity.

Although now faded after 70 years and multiple washes, it is still a striking reminder of the power of Hollywood design even for a home-spun outfit.

Legend has it that the 16-year-old Judy Garland had to have her breasts strapped down to wear this tiny outfit and play a role which was several years her junior.

If the dress looks small, the luminous red slippers next to it appear even tinier, like something the Munchkins would have worn on their feet.

It’s the first time in history that the red slippers have gone on public display in Europe. The slippers are only on a four week loan from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC.

The red slippers were designed by Adrian, MGM’s chief costume designer, as a contrast to the yellow brick road.

Apparently the shoes in the original L. Frank Baum novel were silver but Hollywood wanted to change their colour to show off the power of Technicolour which was still a novelty.

It’s also the only occasion that the dress and slippers have been reunited since filming on the classic movie in 1939 – which makes this exhibit really special.

It’s almost impossible not to gulp when you see the outfit reunited with the slippers which have lost known of their sensational sparkle.

By the end of the show, there’s a sense that we’re definitely not in Kansas anymore as we exit through the gift shop.

But for 90 minutes I was taken back to the wonderful world of Hollywood and a once in a life-time opportunity to get close to some of cinema’s truly iconic costumes.

Judy Garland and the red slippers

Judy Garland’s sparkling red slippers

Credits: Thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Kobal Collection, Walt Disney, Columbia Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Lucas Film for permission to use the above images.

The Hollywood Costume exhibition continues at London’s V & A Museum till 27 January, 2013.

Watch a video from the V & A exhibition below.

<p><a href=”″>V&A Hollywood Costume</a> from <a href=””>Cultureshock Media</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

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