Sunday 21 October 2012

V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition

Yesterday I bounded out of the house bright and early to the long awaited exhibition on Hollywood costume design which has (after 5 long years) just opened at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I booked my ticket months ago when dates were first announced as I think even then I knew I was going to love it and boy did I!

Curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, an esteemed Hollywood costume designer herself, the press releases beforehand had suggested that this was to be an exhibition not just about beautiful dresses and extravagant designs but about the process of costume design and the importance of what it can communicate to the viewer. I was wondering how this might be put across in an exhibition when the attention would probably easily be drawn to the beauty of the finished article but I was really impressed! I trained in costume design so probably was keener than most to learn about the designers' processes and the story behind each item and therefore spent more time looking at these parts than the average attendee would but I really do think most people going through the exhibition would have learnt at least something about role of costume and the designer in movie making.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was a recorded interview with designer Ann Roth in which she said something along the lines of 'Whenever I tell anyone what I do the response is always 'ooo a costume designer, what fun' and I always think 'fun?! I don't think I've ever had fun!''. It's SO true! Well perhaps a slight exaggeration as of course it is always fun, creating and doing what you have a genuine passion for; but it isn't something undertaken for fun, it's a career and it's HARD. The amount of research, thought and genuine hard work that goes into each and every aspect of every costume often gets overlooked. Often the sign of good costume design is that it's not noticeable when you watch the film, particularly with contemporary costume design. As a viewer in these circumstances it is easy to presume that the designer just went to the shops and picked a few outfits for each person but this exhibition does a fantastic job of showing how each and every item worn is carefully considered and discussed, as the audience must believe that this character existed before the film begins and therefore each item worn must have a story behind how it ended up on that person.

The exhibition was probably the best designed and thought out I have ever been too (and as it was based on my favourite subject actually just the flat out best exhibition I have ever been to!). It used a wide variety of methods and displays to communicate to the viewer the designer's process, not just written instruction which can often be glossed over in favour of things more attractive to look at! However, what was written was brilliantly informative, breaking down the exhibition into the various components considered when designing; character, location, date, weather, circumstance, character development, genre, collaboration with the director and actors, the list is endless. Each costume came with a little script cover style sheet indicating the film, date of release, director, designer, character and actor who wore it. Most also included a quote from either designer, director or actor about the importance of that costume in the movie or maybe a fascinating anecdote about how part of it came about (sitting with Harrison Ford and a pen knife and breaking down his Indiana Jones jacket the night before shooting just one!).

Out of all the installations I was particularly taken with the Ocean's Eleven display, where the costumes were 'sitting' around a large table. The table was made to look like the costume designer's desk during the design process by the use of a video projected down on it. The display changed to show the designer working through the script, then collating research and creating mood boards, taking a phone call from the director, making notes on characters, then meeting the actors before finally making a start sketching down some ideas. A genius way to quickly and easily show just how much work is involved before even getting to the ideas stage.

There were also little tables where 'director/designer meetings' were taking place, interviews with well known designer/director partnerships were projected on the chairs as if they were there; a brilliant idea which gave a real sense of how the first ideas are formed. I found these interviews, as well as the interviews with actors talking about the importance of costume when creating a character, particularly fascinating. I was in the exhibition 4 hours in all!

Putting the work aside though, there were some flippin' gorgeous costumes on display if your choice is just to go and ogle! The glamour of Hollywood is absolutely not overruled by the exploration of the designer's methods. I was completely awestruck standing in front of some of them. Some of the costumes were from films I have seen so many times and are so familiar to me on the screen that it was pretty surreal to see them up close (also worth a mention is the fact that with the exception of one costume, none were behind glass so you could really appreciate the texture, colour and reality of each item, fantastic). I don't want to completely spoil the surprise for you so I'm not going to go into any further detail, but let's just say pretty much every major Hollywood star, era and film genre is covered and the majority of the most iconic films you can think of make an appearance.

The attention to detail throughout the exhibition was outstanding, each mannequin was made specifically for the costume it held, showing them off to their best advantage and providing a sense of character with the pose and props. You could tell every aspect had been carefully considered (perhaps no surprise with a costume designer as curator!) and it all worked brilliantly together; layout, lighting, sound, the costume choices to illustrate each point. Most impressive of course was the sheer number and importance of the costumes that had been obtained, just amazing.

I feel really lucky to live in London and be able to see this exhibition, though if you live elsewhere I can definitely say it's worth the trip! There's something for everyone, so drag along partners, friends, family and children too. The insight into the mysterious world of behind the scenes Hollywood is well worth the pennies and I have a feeling I may not be able to resist a second visit before it closes at the end of January. Book your ticket here NOW!


  1. I completely agree on how well-thought out and presented this exhibit is. I was thoroughly impressed and wish I could go back. The price is a bit steep but definitely worth paying for once. What a great experience!


I love hearing from readers of my blog so please feel free to leave a comment letting me know what you thought about this post/make! Any hints or tips to improve my sewing are always much appreciated too!

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.