“It isn’t frocks on dummies, I’m pleased to say” commented guest curator Sir Christopher Frayling when describing the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, now showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.
I have to admit, I was sceptical. Every fashion and textiles exhibition I had previously seen convinced me it is the wearer who brings clothing to life rather than vice versa, and that, out of context, even the most glamorous gown can appear faded and frumpy. However, Hollywood Costume makes a strong argument for precisely the opposite, with each garment holding its own, despite the absence of the actors who made them famous.
Playfully displayed (Spiderman climbs a gallery wall and Satine from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, 2001, is perched atop a swing) and adorning animatedly posed mannequins, the garments evoke their characters wonderfully well. Screens showing projected faces and full-length photographs contextualise the costumes, allowing the viewer to simply look without referring to didactic material, of which there is no shortage.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the exhibition’s curator, aims to illuminate the often invisible yet fundamental role of the costume designer, and the show highlights the integral role that costume plays in the construction of a convincing character.
I found this most evident in the less instantly recognisable pieces and two in particular stood out. The clothing worn by Helen Mirren as The Queen (from Stephen Frears’ 2006 film), dressed down, out walking her corgis at Balmoral, was one of them. The positioning of the glasses and knotted headscarf alone managed to conjure the tired and forlorn royal in this scene.
Similarly, the faux-fur lined jacket, short skirt and high heeled boots of Natalie Portman’s Alice Ayers from Closer (2004), combined with the self-assured pose of the mannequin (cross legged, shoulders slightly shrugged), captured the essence of sassy Alice perfectly.
Less visually striking than other, more iconic pieces (the slippery green of Jacqueline Durran’s Atonement dress, to name just one), these two ensembles reminded me that each item of clothing and every accessory in a film is deliberate: all aspects of attire contribute to the character’s fictive identity.
Visiting the exhibition with my three-month old daughter, I was delighted to discover a nappy change area down the far end of the exhibition. Re-entering the gallery, post-change, gave us a different perspective of the displays.
From this angle, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was particularly striking, his bright red cloak (by costume designer Eiko Ishioka) standing out from the more muted surrounding exhibits. Poised to bite his victim, the image reminded me of Yinka Shonibare’s Reverend on Ice, 2005, in the collection of the NGV – another headless mannequin adorned in bright fabric.
Theatrical lighting and open displays did justice to the many vivid colours and textures on show. The rich red and gold of James Acheson’s designs for Pu Yi and Wan Jung in The Last Emperor (1987), the deep green velvet of Walter Plunkett’s ‘curtain’ dress for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), and the turquoise and peacock feathered gown worn by Hedy Lamarr in Samson and Delilah (1949) were all stunning.
While fabulous for the gallery viewer, this was less so for my daughter, who lasted about halfway around the exhibition before protesting. Her escalating tears (thankfully drowned out by the music) necessitated my rapid departure. And after a somewhat screamy train ride home, all my senses were well and truly worn out.
– Miri Hirschfeld, Arts Writer
Hollywood Costume is open daily until Sunday 18 Aug 2013.