Los Angeles: Dressed to thrill in the city of movie magic

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As a new exhibition brings Hollywood style to Britain, Harriet Walker travels to the home of screen glamour

Los Angeles may not be a fashion city from the same mould as Paris or Milan, but it has at its heart a stylish sensibility inseparable from the industry that it has grown up around.

To the north-west of LA's downtown district lies the spiritual heart of the international film industry. Hollywoodland, as it was first named by developers (the suffix fell out of use in 1949 after the area had become more populated; the sign was originally erected as an advertisement in 1923), has, after all, taught us how to look, how to live, how to dress and how to dream. Even now that the movie industry has dispersed west and north of Hollywood into Burbank, Santa Clarita and Westside, the district is still used as a figure of speech that embodies the epitome of glamour.

Hollywood costume, from the industry's golden age to its modern incarnation, is about to be celebrated in a new exhibition at the V&A, which brings together some of film history's most important pieces. Dorothy's red slippers from The Wizard of Oz, Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet dress from Gone with the Wind and the green silk one that Keira Knightley made famous in Atonement. From its roots in the sirens of the Forties and Fifties – when costumes were designed by luminaries such as Edith Head – to today, where the challenge is to evoke a sense of character without overwhelming the production's aesthetic, LA has become famed for fairy-tale fashion.

It was obvious as soon as I arrived: hallmarks of the silver screen and those who help to create its illusions are all over the city and the neighbouring Beverly Hills – basically, a city in its own right but tacked on to LA like Robin is to Batman. From the straggling and sometimes seedy Walk of Fame to the Scientology church; from the gleaming windows of the des-res duplexes on Mulholland Drive to the omnipresent sign itself, darting in and out of one's eyeline among the hills.

Of course, to the armchair tourist's eye, LA is filmic in the same way that all of the US appears lifted straight from celluloid. Whether it's steam billowing from manhole covers on a Manhattan sidewalk, red dust churning in the empty Midwest or the palm tree-lined Rodeo Drive (made famous in Pretty Woman's snooty shopping scene), American geography is one great backdrop to so many of us.

But it is in Los Angeles that most of those paradigms were created. Simply seeing the streets signs was enough for me to enter a movieland reverie, but taking a tour round any of the studio cities at Burbank (the creative industries hub that is slightly north-east of Hollywood itself) allows you a further peek behind the curtain. At Warner Brothers, downtown New York streets abut a small-town market square and a suburban street. There are subway stations to nowhere, doors that do not open, skylines less stable than even the most ambitious would-be starlet's career.

At Paramount, giant studio warehouses pepper the lots – here the one in which silent film Wings was filmed in 1927, there where Breakfast at Tiffany's was shot – each one a microcosm of imagination, painstakingly re-created to within an inch of reality behind industrial cladding. Golf buggies rolled past teeming with extras, including mortar-boarded teenagers from the finale of Glee; gaffers shouted instructions to each other; and catering staff rolled out temporary barbecues for hungry mouths.

All of this was in sight of Hitchcock's old office, the side gate through which Katharine Hepburn used to cycle, the main entrance – a monolithic arched gateway – where unemployed labourers, dancers, acrobats and wannabes waited to hear the roles available on any given day, and, finally, the car park flooded for Cecil B DeMille's The Ten Commandments, in which Moses parted the Red Sea. In LA, a car park is never just a car park. There is an element of metatheatre to the city that isn't easy to shake off.

The ubiquitous Star Tours, which wind through the most exclusive roads in the Laurel Canyon outcrop to show goggling fame-spotters the gates of Dan Aykroyd's house, the window of Christina Aguilera's present-wrapping room, a tile on Justin Timberlake's roof (there! through those trees!) and Posh Spice's TV aerial. If it sounds desperate, that's because it is. But that's what LA is built on: the idolatry of celebrity and the importance of being recognised.

The etiquette when one does stumble across a star – which happens often here – is more complex. In Hollywood, the actors whose house you have just driven past at 2mph in order to get a squizz through their kitchen window are just ordinary people. So when they're out and about, people tend not to react, whether it's Lindsay Lohan getting her nails done in the Sunset Plaza or Johnny Depp browsing in the intellectual hipster hangout Book Soup on West Sunset.

In fact, almost every restaurant or bar owner in LA will have his or her anecdotes to tell you about the famous faces they have once met or served, but they tell them like low-key neighbourhood gossip. It's this sort of feeling that the V&A's guest curator, the costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, has tried to re-create in the exhibition, which opens to the public on Saturday: a sense of conversation between characters, letting the clothes do the talking – be they Indiana Jones's fedora and bullwhip or Maggie Thatcher's suit from The Iron Lady.

Next door to Hollywood proper is the mini-city of West Hollywood (or WeHo), LA's epicentre of fashion and fun. It's young and varied, bohemian and brash. Punctuated with on-the-beaten-track music venues, such as the Viper Room (River Phoenix died outside in 1993) and Whisky A Go Go, which once boasted The Doors as its house band, it's also the site of some of the city's coolest new spots. The Soho House group has opened an outpost here, while a cluster of new hotels on Sunset Boulevard includes the luxurious and hip Mondrian, favoured by pop stars and models, as well as The Standard – a trendy New York import that took over the premises of a former retirement home and now hosts bright young things and fashion designers at its pool bar.

All have stunning hillside views over the city and are within walking distance (but who walks in LA?) from the infamous Chateau Marmont – backdrop to works by F Scott Fitzgerald, Jay McInerney and Sofia Coppola, and to the deaths of John Belushi and the photographer Helmut Newton.

On the same stretch is West Hollywood's most iconic hotel, the Sunset Tower. The Art Deco building was rescued from disrepair in the late Eighties and remains one of the city's finest architectural examples. Since its opening in 1931, it has played host to Howard Hughes (who kept several mistresses within its plush walls), Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn. Truman Capote once called it "posh"; to others, it was notorious for its call girls. These days, however, its Terrace bar is as respectable as you could wish – and was Scarlett Johansson's first port of call, during my visit, after a busy day inaugurating her Walk of Fame star.

Down the hill from Sunset Tower lies LA's latest fashion hot spot, the avant-garde boutique Opening Ceremony. It's worth a look even if you don't have an A-list budget, with its seven rooms of up-and-coming designers – some so niche that this is the only place their clothes are stocked. Because of that, it's a fertile hunting ground for personal stylists, as well as forward-thinking actresses such as Kristen Stewart and Cameron Diaz, and will reward as much time as you're prepared to spend there flicking through rails and poking through the separate (but just as well-stocked) shoe outhouse to the rear.

Los Angeles has much to offer the nosy: with its singular feeling of inclusivity as A-listers mix with civilians on a daily basis, it's like a theme park, a whirlwind trip through the lives of the rich and the famous. You're not so much pretending it's yours as trying it on for size. In that way, holidaying here is a bit like borrowing the dress of your dreams for an awards ceremony. It's pure Cinderella territory – although instead of a glass slipper, you're more likely to be wearing one of Dorothy's ruby-red court shoes.

Hollywood Costume , sponsored by Harry Winston, opens at the V&A on 20 October. For tickets, see vam.ac.uk

Glamour hot spots

Deborah Nadoolman Landis has worked as a costume designer in Hollywood for more than 20 years, with titles such as The Blues Brothers, Animal House and Raiders of the Lost Ark to her name. It was Landis who dressed Michael Jackson in his red leather jacket for the "Thriller" video, which was directed by husband John Landis. Here, she offers her top tips for searching for Hollywood glamour in and around LA.

Costumes and accessories

Golyester, 450 S La Brea Avenue (001 323 931 1339; golyester.com). A curated period selection of vintage clothing, with everything from art deco to haute hippie.

Palace Costumes, 835 North Fairfax Avenue (001 323 651 5458; palacecostume.com). A vast store of jewellery and accessories for hire.

Remix Vintage Shoes, 7605 Beverly Boulevard (001 323 936 6210; remixvintageshoes.com). A huge selection of authentic vintage footwear.

Santee Alley, 210 East Olympic Boulevard (001 213 746 6776; thesanteealley.com). LA's premier outdoor shopping destination: souk does Mexico.

Decades 2, 8214 Melrose Ave (001 323 655 1960; shopdecadesinc.com). Elegant vintage clothes.

Must-sees

Grauman's Chinese Theater, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard (001 323 465 4847; chinesetheaters.com). Don't miss the footprints.

Hollywood Bowl, 2301 North Highland Avenue (001 323 850 2000; hollywoodbowl.com for listings). Book a box with champagne and a picnic dinner.

Mulholland Drive, with its views of snow-covered mountains.

Santa Monica Pier, at sunset.

Eating out

800 Degrees Pizza, 10889 Lindbrook Drive (001 424 239 5010; 800degreespizza.com).

Polo Lounge Coffee Shop, 9641 Sunset Boulevard (001 310 887 2777; beverlyhillshotel.com). Go for the waffles.

Outdoor Grill, 12630 Washington Place (001 310 636 4745; theoutdoorgrill.com). For barbecued meat, while you're having your car washed.

Manpuku, 2125 Sawtelle Boulevard (001 310 473 0580; manpuku.us). For every kind of Japanese barbecue.

Umami, 850 S La Brea Avenue (001 323 931 3000; umami.com). The best truffle burgers.

Shopping

Empty Vase Florists, 9033 Santa Monica Boulevard (001 310 278 1988; emptyvase.com). The most creative and sophisticated floral designs.

Aristea Needlepoint, 200 26th Street, Santa Monica (001 310 260 6330; aristeaneedlepoint.com). An incredible selection – not for grandma.

Carl's Lamps, 8334 Beverly Boulevard (001 323 651 5825). For custom-made lights.

Mood Fabrics, 6151 West Pico Boulevard (001 323 653 6663; moodfabrics.com). The Tiffany's of fabric.

14 Karats Custom Jewelry, 2910 College Avenue, Berkeley (001 510 644 1640; 14karats.com). Beverly Hills smart shopping.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Harriet Walker flew to Los Angeles from Heathrow courtesy of American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk). LA is also served non-stop from Heathrow by Air New Zealand, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

Visiting there

Warner Brothers Studio Tour, 3400 West Riverside Drive, Burbank (001 877 492 8687; vipstudiotour.warnerbros.com). Tickets $49 (£31).

Paramount Studio Tour, 5555 Melrose Avenue, Hollywood (001 323 956 1777; paramountstudiotour.com). Tickets $40 (£25).

LA City Tours, 6806 Hollywood Boulevard (001 323 960 0300; lacitytours.com). Five-hour Star tours from $69 (£43).

Sunset Tower Hotel, 8358 West Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood (001 323 654 7100; sunsettowerhotel.com). Doubles start at $279 (£174), room only.

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