Why Hollywood Costume at the V&A made me cry (in a good way)

It’s impressive in scale, but it’s also intimate and surprisingly moving. This is one exhibition you don't want to miss.
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It’s impressive in scale, but it’s also intimate and surprisingly moving. This is one exhibition you don't want to miss.

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Yesterday I stepped out of South Kensington tube into the bright autumn sunshine and joined the excited throng of journalists queuing to get into the preview of the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition. In the past few years the V&A has staged some major blockbusters, including Art Deco, the Golden Age of Couture, Baroque and Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and I was curious to see how they would display clothes that, without the actors inside them, could look a little… flat. Could they pull it off?

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In short, YES. This has immediately become one of my favourite exhibitions of all time (nothing could beat the Couture one, but anyway) and I’m already planning a return visit so I can look at the costumes all over again. It’s impressive in scale – three huge, high-ceilinged rooms – and they make full use of the space with epic cinematic music, exhibits hanging from the ceiling and so on, but it’s also intimate and surprisingly moving. At one point, I cried a bit.

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In putting together this exhibition, the V&A have pulled off something quite incredible – they’ve got every single piece of clothing you can think of from the past 100 years of cinema, from Marilyn’s white halterneck dress (tiny by the way) to Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet gown made from the curtains, Superman’s costume, Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD and yes, those iconic ruby slippers.

A little shabby and faded now, but still the most iconic piece of clothing in cinematic history

A little shabby and faded now, but still the most iconic piece of clothing in cinematic history

Seeing so many instantly recognizable outfits gathered together in one place the message was clear – clothes are essential in building a character, helping an actor understand who they’re meant to be and silently explaining to an audience, through the tilt of a hat or the length of a sleeve, who this person really is, what moves and motivates them.

A sketch by Steven Spielberg showing what he wanted Indiana Jones' costume to look like - isn't it comforting to know he's rubbish at drawing?

A sketch by Steven Spielberg showing what he wanted Indiana Jones' costume to look like - isn't it comforting to know he's rubbish at drawing?

The technology is amazing – flat screens feature turning script pages and the faces of the actors are suspended above the costumes. Directors and costume designers appear in ‘conversation’ facing each other on screens, digital scrapbooks flicker and glow on tables. But it’s the clothes – those breathtaking examples of beading, or a humble pair of 501s – that really tell the story.

A sketch of Tippi Hendren's costume from The Birds and a digital scrapbook

A sketch of Tippi Hendren's costume from The Birds and a digital scrapbook

And why did I cry? Well it happened when I came across a mannequin standing at the back of a group and it was dressed in the gold beaded gown that Barbara Streisand wore in the famous scene when she sings with Louis Armstrong in Hello Dolly. I have watched that film countless times since I was a kid and seeing that dress right before my very eyes, so close I could touch it (I didn’t!) was like meeting an old friend after many years apart.

"Well well Hello Dolly!" SOB! (and that's Keira's dress from Atonement in the foreground)

"Well well Hello Dolly!" SOB! (and that's Keira's dress from Atonement in the foreground)

I’m sure if you see this exhibition (and I really urge you to, it's easily worth every penny of the £14 ticket price) you will have a moment like that too – whether it’s in front of Darth Vader (yes! Darth Vader!) or the costumes worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, or The Dude’s bathrobe from The Big Lebowski, you’ll find an old friend.

Yes, that is actually The Dude's bathrobe

Yes, that is actually The Dude's bathrobe

Hollywood Costume runs from the 20 October 2012 to 27 January 2013. Tickets cost £14. Visit vanda.ac.uk/hollywoodcostume or call 020 7907 7073 to book