The undisputed high point of the week if not the year was filming a preview of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibition for an ITV This Morning feature next Thursday at noon so set your video. We filmed the opening links at the Gate cinema in Notting Hill: a magnificent Art Deco jewel of scarlet and gold with love seats in the back row. On arrival at the V&A, we were ushered into the vast locked exhibition halls. All dreams came true on walking through the double doors.
Curator Deborah Landis had spent five years as an Indiana Jones of Hollywood Costume tracking down the most iconic film costumes in cinema history. A costume designer herself – with credits including The Blues Brothers, Indiana Jones and Michael Jackson’s Thriller - Deborah is the perfect curator for such an historic exhibition. She is passionate and encyclopaedic about her subject and searched the four corners of the globe to find rare pieces in private collections, bank vaults and Hollywood studios.
As we drifted through the blacked-out halls where lighting was still being set, magic was revealed: Vivien Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara crinoline made from the green velvet curtains of Tara, Judy Garland’s Wizard of Oz blue and white gingham Dorothy Gale pinafore dress, Barbra Streisand’s Hello Dolly golden gown, Marlene Deitrich’s white tie and tails worn in the 1930 film Morocco and Marilyn’s Orry Kelly Some Like It Hot flapper dress with a heart cut out on the derriere.
The curation is intelligent and amusing: Marlene in male evening dress lighting the cigarette of a seated Sharon Stone from THAT scene, Norma Shearer’s 1930 Adrian-designed costumes for Marie Antoinette posed next to Kirsten Dunst’s court dresses made for the recent Sofia Coppola film and Glenn Close’s Dangerous Liaisons dress. The last major retrospective of Hollywood costume was mounted by former US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the 1970s. Vreeland’s exhibition was all about glamour and if she couldn’t find a costume she’d ask her team of seamstresses to make a copy.
Deborah tells me that every costume on display at the V&A was worn by the star in the film. The genius of this exhibition is the technology. Each mannequin’s head is replaced by a flat screen upon which the face of the star is projected and moves ever so slightly to bring these costumes to life. It is a trick that works a treat as do the fabulous edits of film clips showing a succession of actresses dressed for one role such as Bette Davis, Flora Robson, Judi Dench and Cayte Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I.
While Deborah whispered off camera a fondness for Barbara Streisand’s Irene-designed costumes for Funny Girl, I was most interested in verifying the pieces tailored by Savile Row. Sadly Marlene Dietrich’s Morocco white tie and tails was made by Austrian tailor Knize not Anderson & Sheppard as I had hoped. Similarly, Rex Harrison’s tweed Ascot Scene suit for My Fair Lady was studio made and not as believed by Savile Row firm Sullivan & Wooley. As Deborah said, when a film was set in present times the stars such as Fred Astaire, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper would indeed wear their own Savile Row suits tailored by A&S, Kilgour French & Stanbury, Huntsman and Hawes & Curtis. Period pieces were always made in-house.
I must admit to becoming quite overwhelmed when nose-to-hem with Judy’s Wizard of Oz gingham dress. Deborah told the story beautifully. She was summoned to Embankment station with her passport on a telephone tip off, led into the bowels of a Fleet Street bank and opened a tissue lined box to reveal the most famous Hollywood costume in history. Deborah examined the piece and shed a tear. Now bear in mind this dress was designed by Adrian in 1939: the most glamorous costumier in Hollywood who had just completed couture pieces for Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer in The Women.
The Dorothy dress was made from the cheapest, most weather-beaten gingham and stitched on an old treadle sewing machine with the petticoat hems finished with pinking shears. Deborah instantly understood that Adrian had asked his seamstresses to make Dorothy’s dress just as her Auntie Em would have: on a treadle machine none too expertly out of dime store gingham that had subsequently been scrubbed against a washing board and hung out to dry on the line in the Kansas desert. She has also reunited dress with the ruby slippers that Judy Garland danced in following the Yellow Brick Road. I predict Hollywood Costume at the V&A will break box office records before it embarks on a world tour. There’s more darling. There’s lots more.