From the Back of the Wardrobe: Ten Costumes and Their Backstories

ACMI curator Ulanda Blair reveals ten surprising behind-the-scenes stories from Hollywood Costume – the unexpected sources of inspiration, the on-set challenges and the shortcuts undertaken by costume designers:

Vivien Leigh's 'curtain dress' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Vivien Leigh’s ‘curtain dress’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

1. For Gone with the Wind (1939), costume designer Walter Plunket closely followed Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel by dressing actress Vivien Leigh almost entirely in green. Plunket’s famous emerald ball gown had to look glamorous but also as though it was made from old curtains. Plunket hung the fabric in sunlit windows to deliberately fade the material.

 

Costumes from 'The Last Emperor' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Costumes from ‘The Last Emperor’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

2. For The Last Emperor (1987), costume designer James Acheson carefully studied Ch’ing Dynasty costumes and artefacts at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Motifs of swirling dragons were sculpted and then cast in a flexible glue, gold-plated and adhered to rayon fabrics. Gold ‘puffer paint’, popular in the 1980s to give motifs on t-shirts a textured look, convincingly passed as silk embroidery.

 

Marlene Dietrich's dress from 'Angel' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Marlene Dietrich’s dress from ‘Angel’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

3. The rhinestone-encrusted gown designed by Travis Banton for Marlene Dietrich in Angel (1937) was the most expensive costume that the Paramount Studios chief costume designer ever created. It is not known exactly how many times the Dietrich gown was remodeled and reused, but it appeared in a number of successive films, undergoing numerous alterations in the process.

 

Dress from 'Marie Antoinette' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Dress from ‘Marie Antoinette’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

4. Director Sofia Coppola wanted Marie Antoinette (2006) to appeal specifically to teenagers and twenty-something women. To appease the taste of modern audiences, costume designer Milena Canonero restricted her colour palette to the pastel shades of macarons.  This, combined with dresses made from feather-light silk tissue taffeta, successfully established an aura of youthful frivolity.

 

Tippi Hendren's green suit from 'The Birds' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Tippi Hendren’s green suit from ‘The Birds’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

5. Alfred Hitchcock worked with celebrated costume designer Edith Head on eleven films between 1946 and 1976. Hitchcock had an aversion to what he called ‘eye-catchers’ – costumes which distract the eye and detract from the film’s action and dialogue. For this reason Head often dressed Hitchcock’s leading ladies in muted block colours, such as the pale green suit worn by Tippi Hedren in The Birds (1963).

 

Costumes from 'Gladiator' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Costumes from ‘Gladiator’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

6. When undertaking research for Gladiator (2000), costume designer Janty Yates travelled to Rome to study the triumphal architectural monument Trajan’s Column. Russell Crowe wore ten different sets of armour in the film to represent the passage of time – Maximus’ armour became more and more embellished with medallions as he won successive battles.

 

Costume from 'Superman' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Costume from ‘Superman’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

7. Yvonne Blake designed the costumes for the original Superman (1978) movie. Twenty capes were made of different fabrics and weights. A mechanised cape with a motor underneath was used when Superman was flying in front of a green-screen. Slits in the sides of the cape made room for cables to be woven through to his flying harness, while weights were added to the hem to give the appearance of gravity pulling down as he flew in the breeze.

 

Dorothy's dress and ruby slippers from 'The Wizard of Oz' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Dorothy’s dress and ruby slippers from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

8. In L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of OzDorothy’s magic shoes were silver. They were changed to ruby slippers for The Wizard of Oz (1939), as red contrasted nicely with the Yellow Brick Road. There are four pairs of ruby red slippers in circulation. The Smithsonian in Washington has one pair, as does the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Another pair is privately owned and the fourth pair were stolen from the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota in 2005.

 

Marilyn Monroe's dress from 'Some Like It Hot' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Marilyn Monroe’s dress from ‘Some Like It Hot’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

9. In Some Like It Hot (1959) Marilyn Monroe wears a series of sheer and sexy cocktail dresses designed by three-time Oscar winner Orry-Kelly. These dresses were designed to circumvent the strict censorship laws of the day – so long as there was a covering, however thin, the studio could claim that the actress was fully clothed.

 

Suits from 'The Blues Brothers' in 'Hollywood Costume'. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

Suits from ‘The Blues Brothers’ in ‘Hollywood Costume’. Photographer: Mark Ashkanasy.

10. Ray-ban had stopped manufacturing Wayfarer sunglasses at the time of The Blues Brothers (1980) filming, however they were popular in the African American community in New York City. Designer Deborah Nadoolman combed the pharmacies of Harlem to find as many remaining pairs as she could. After the film wrapped the sunglasses were gifted to the Risky Business (1983) film production, which spurred Ray-ban to start manufacturing them again.

-Ulanda Blair, Assistant Curator, ACMI

Hollywood Costume is open daily until August 18 2013.

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