Hollywood Costume. October 2012.

Dear Rowley,

Hollywood Costume at the V&A deserves another letter. I was fascinated by the hour and a half spent with the curator Deborah Landis at the private view of the exhibition. As you know, I curated a rather large Savile Row retrospective at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in 2007. The year spent working on the exhibit was one of the most gratifying in my life to date. Seeing Deborah working to complete a five-year odyssey such as Hollywood Costume brought back the thrill of working on a grand scale. It also reminded me of the tensions in striving to make theatrical magic with mannequins.

Hollywood Costumes exhibits over 130 of the movie industry’s most famous star pieces from Darth Vader and Indiana Jones to both Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra gowns. Many of the costumes were recovered from the auction of actress Debbie Reynolds’ important collection mostly saved from the MGM sale in the 1970s. Reynolds is the patron saint of the V&A exhibition who was forced to sell her stellar pieces last year due to financial difficulties for little more than $22 million. Why, one wonders, didn’t a Hollywood big hitter such as David Geffen, Stephen Spielberg or George Lucas buy the entire collection and establish a permanent museum of Hollywood costume in LA?

Deborah Landis is a heroine of Hollywood costume. What fascinated me about our interview was her approach to design. She is sent a script. She sits down with the director and beings to discover clues as to how the character would and should dress. As Deborah says, when we meet the character in the film we forget that they have a back story before the movie begins. Deborah, the director and the actor or actress tease out the history of the character and this is what drives the design. Spotting my grandmother’s diamond and ruby ring, Deborah finds out the story then says that’s the kind of detail she will share with an actor to help develop the character.

There is nothing quite like viewing an exhibition with the curator. The stories are quite enchanting. There’s a jewelled pant suit made for Susan Haywood in Valley of the Dolls on display that was originally made for Judy Garland who stole the costume on being fired from the picture. Ironic that one of the characters in Jackie Suzann’s Valley of the Dolls was based on Miss Garland. Deborah led my eye to one of the most beautiful gowns on display worn by Kiera Knightly in Atonement. It is a real Jean Harlow bias cut emerald green 1930s evening dress embellished with a filigree pattern that rendered it incredibly fragile. Deborah was not going to include the dress in the show until all the young curators at the V&A said that dress was their favourite piece in recent cinema history.

On some occasions the V&A costume curators become a little too conceptual and educational at the expense of entertainment. In the case of Hollywood Costume, Landis has vast knowledge but wears it lightly in the captions to each piece and is not afraid to appeal to the popular audience hence pieces from The Matrix, Harry Potter and Kill Bill. But she does not shy away from choosing masterpieces made for relatively forgotten stars such as Carole Lombard and Hedy Lamaar or ‘non costumes’ such as the anonymous street clothes made for Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity.

What unites all of these costumes is the magic they possess and the way they explain a character before he or she even opens her mouth. I was most excited when Deborah unwrapped the vast Edwardian hat that we discover Kate Winslet’s character Rose Dawson wearing in Titanic. It was a thrill to learn that most unsentimental actor Robert de Niro kept all of his costumes or that a genius such as Ann Roth worked so intensively with Meryl Street on so many seminal movies from The Iron Lady to Mama Mia.

Of course there will be the trainspotters who ask where Marilyn Monroe’s  Travilla-designed Seven Year Itch dress might be. As it happens it is in Florence at the Palazzo Ferragamo for a major Marilyn retrospective. We all have favourites. I adore the costumes in Barbra Streisand’s On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. The story concerns Streisand playing a kooky 60s chick who is a reincarnation of a Regency enchantress. The 60s costumes were designed by Arnold Scaasi and the Regency pieces by Cecil Beaton. I would urge any fashion designer to rent the video and be inspired by one or the other. But On A Clear Day is not Streisand’s most famous film and Deborah chose instead pieces from Funny Girl and Hello Dolly. Quite right too.

I find it hard to be thrilled by Audrey Hepburn. I know she and Givenchy – with the great Edith Head as midwife – created some of the most elegant models ever seen on screen. But as Deborah says, the cinema screen is not a catwalk and can you even describe how boring a fashion show actually is? Well, yes I could as it happens having spent many years sitting in the front row watching the damned things for the Financial Times (or F-Off as I call it), Independent  and International Herald Tribune. Still, lovely to see Givenchy’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s little black dress.

I must admit a preference for the work of Travis Banton who worked with Marlene Dietrich on her golden era pictures in the 1930s. There’s one exquisite jewelled costume Travis made for Marlene in the exhibition. There’s another made for Ginger Rogers for Lady in the Dark that is lined with mink that falls into a train. When the ITV film crew and I finally left the Hollywood Costume exhibition, it felt like Dorothy in reverse: going from glorious Technicolor to sepia again. Book your ticket for Hollywood Costume at the V&A now before it opens. I predict a stampede.