Going behind the seams

Kassia St Clair | September/October 2012

Clothing maketh character. A guiding principle that led the costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis to spend five years researching "Hollywood Costume" for the V&A. The fruits of her labour? Over 100 costumes, including Indiana Jones's greige ensemble, Marilyn's sheer sequined slip from "Some Like it Hot", the Little Tramp's togs, the latest Batman carapace, and that emerald silk gown from "Atonement". The list goes on—a characterful Madame Tussauds.

"Audiences are asked to believe characters are real," says Landis, "that they had a life before the filming starts." Costumes need to flesh characters out and place them in context, which requires thought, whether it is the costume's business to go unnoticed ("The Bourne Identity") or steal the show ("My Fair Lady"). As well as unravelling creative processes, the exhibition will look at the careers of costume designers including the legendary Edith Head, Hitchcock's partner in crime and the winner of eight Academy Awards. 

The grand finale will be a gallery chock full of big-name costumes, but there's a danger of anticlimax as clothes never look their best on dummies. If the accompanying film clips and projections are handled with the finesse of last year's "Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes", we will be in for a treat. If not, the exhibition risks being just a tomb filled with the ghosts of characters past. ~ KASSIA ST CLAIR

Hollywood Costume V&A, London, Oct 20th to Jan 27th

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