Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Clothes Make the Man: the “Hollywood Costume” Exhibit

A Most Violent Year garnered critical raves. I had admired Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis and Jessica Chastain in just about everything, so this gritty little drama about an ambitious young couple seemed worth a look. Alas, I found it grim, slow, and – frankly – rather dull. When, mercifully, the lights came up, what I remembered was the clothes. Though I’d love to have them in my own closet, I’m emphatically not tall enough and not rich enough to be worthy of the duds being sported by the  film’s lead actors. Isaac, playing a Latin American immigrant who rises quickly in the New York heating oil business, circa 1981, is resplendent in an elegant camel’s hair topcoat. Chastain, as his semi-scrupulous wife, looks sleek and dangerous in vintage Armani. Kudos to costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone for knowing how to use clothing to delineate character.

The idea that, as Martin Scorsese puts it, “costume is the character,” is at the center of a grand exhibit called, simply, “Hollywood Costume.” It’s housed through March 2 in L.A.’s art-deco May Company Wilshire building, the future home of the long-awaited museum of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Though an exhibit devoted to motion picture costumes seems like a natural fit for SoCal, this display got its start at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, where fans of Hollywood flocked to see Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch sundress and Dorothy’s blue gingham pinafore. One big thing I learned from the exhibit is that Hollywood costume collectors live all over the world. Thanks to the hard work of curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis, a costume designer herself, many spectacular ensembles have been gatheredfor us to enjoy. And the handling of the exhibit – which is full of both strong ideas and Hollywood pizazz -- is definitely part of its charm.

The exhibit includes a wonderful array of queenly garments drawn from various portrayals of Elizabeth I (by Bette Davis, Judi Dench and others), as well as the austere and lovely Queen Guenevere wedding gown designed for Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot. Nor does it overlook the raincoat, boots, and headscarf worn by Elizabeth II as she mucks about Scotland’s Balmoral Castle in The Queen. The point, of course, is to outfit the actors in garments that suggest an appropriate history. The film Milk, for instance, evokes the actual T-shirt-and-khakis look of Harvey Milk’s activist years. On the other hand, there are fabulous fantasy costumes, like those designed for The Addams Family and the live-action 101 Dalmatians. In passing, I learned something wholly unexpected about Deborah L. Scott’s work on Avatar. Though that film’s most memorable sections, which take place on the planet Pandora, make heavy use of motion capture and CGI to bring us the non-human Na’vi civilization, Scott was required to fashion actual samples of exotic jewelry to adorn Avatar’s CGI creations.

 I discovered that Charlie Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp characterization first sprang to life  when Chaplin began assembling existing wardrobe pieces (tight jacket, baggy pants, big shoes) and added a mustache. And a particularly enlightening section pairs successful designers with the directors who love them. There’s video of the late Mike Nichols, for instance, discussing his collaboration with Ann Roth, who chose cheap wigs and a ratty fake-fur jacket to establish Natalie Portman’s character in Closer. And Quentin Tarantino explains what he’d required of designer Sharen Davis on Django Unchained. To outfit the title character played by Jamie Foxx, he wanted a jacket and hat subliminally reflecting the wardrobe of Little Joe Cartwright (Michael Landon) on TV’s Bonanza. Who knew?     


  1. I hadn't noticed the Little Joe connection until just now - but, yeah, it's there. I don't pay a huge amount of attention to costumes, I must admit - but I certainly know the name Deborah Nadoolman - I've been seeing it in the credits of movies for decades. I'd love to see the exhibit - but I don't think I'll be heading out to Los Angeles in my raincoat, boots and headscarf anytime soon.

  2. It's closing March 2, so you'd better grab your headscarf and fly to the coast, Mr. C!