Friday, April 19, 2019

Film-Worthy Fashion at FIDM

Costumes from the Oscar-winning "Black Panther"

They say clothes don’t make the man (or woman). But when it comes to movies, clothes DO make the character. Recently I was pleased to visit the galleries of FIDM, Downtown L.A.’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, to enjoy the 27th annual exhibit honoring the art of motion picture costume design. With the cooperation of some of Hollywood’s finest, including all five of this year’s Oscar nominees, the exhibit (which I saw in its closing weekend) turned out to be an impressive display of the costume designer’s craft.

The entryway to the exhibition was graced by a spectacular violet gown featured in the 2018 Oscar-winning film, Phantom Thread. Of course that strange, captivating film had a fashion designer as its central character, and so it made for a good place to start. Then the first exhibition hall (and probably its most spectacular) featured startlingly imaginative costumes from various fantasy films, like Aquaman and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Tights and capes for superheroes abounded. But the real stars of the hall were the wondrously crafted designs by Ruth Carter that combine sleek power images with authentic African materials and motifs. No wonder Carter won this year’s Oscar for costume design, the first-ever African-American to triumph in this category.

In a room dedicated to movies set in the present, a wall plaque explained the challenge of designing clothes that are stylishly up-to-date but not so tied to the fads of any one year that they’ll look outmoded when the film is released. Examples on display came from such modish movies as Oceans Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. A video showed urbane director Paul Feig instructing actress Blake Lively (who plays a sinister rich bitch) how to strut impressively with a walking stick that features in the plot of A Simple Favor. 

The show’s next room was devoted to costumes that reflect Americana: everything from the simple prairie dress and bonnet worn by Zoe Kazan in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to the authentic period spacesuit in which Ryan Gosling blasted off to the moon in First Man. Then of course there were the gowns of British queens and their courtiers in films like The Favourite (another Oscar nominee) and Mary Queen of Scots. A queen of a very different sort showed up in the flamboyant outfits designed for Rami Malek, playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. (I’m quite partial to the crown, cape, leather pants, and tennis shoes ensemble designed by Julian Day for this film.)

A final section highlighted the work of three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell, In addition to The Favourite (for whose three leading actresses she created eccentric black-and-white gowns and man-tailored coat-and-britches ensembles), this British designer was responsible for the vibrant clothing worn in Mary Poppins Returns. I was especially taken with the candy-colored stripes she gave Lin-Manuel Miranda in a scene wherein he and star Emily Blunt would be photographed against an animated fantasy backdrop. Powell has been honored with Oscar statuettes for her work on Shakespeare in Love, The Aviator, and The Young Victoria. She also has eleven other nominations. In a video about her work habits and achievements, Miranda quips that she herself is a kind of Mary Poppins, able to make humble materials into magic. 

While showing its love for Hollywood, FIDM is also dedicated to teaching its students about the history of fashion design. That explains its current project, which is on display in an adjacent gallery. There in fragmented form we see an elegant empire gown possibly worn by France’s Empress Josephine. The hope is to purchase it for the FIDM collection.

"Bohemian Rhapsody"

"Phantom Thread"

"Mary Poppins Returns"

"Black Panther"

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