Hollywood Costume, V&A, London

The V&A shows why some costumes from the silver screen are celebrities in their own right

Kate Wills
Wednesday 24 October 2012 03:53 BST
Judy Garland's shoes get ready for their close-up
Judy Garland's shoes get ready for their close-up (Getty Images)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Creating memorable costumes for characters we connect with long after the film credits have rolled is about considerably more than merely dressing actors. "Other designers have to please the human eye," said MGM's chief costumier in 1937. "I have to satisfy the discerning eye of the camera."

The V&A's new exhibition, five years in the preparation, follows the design process from script to screen, illustrated with some of the most memorable outfits in cinema history. There's something thrilling about seeing famous togs up close – from Vivien Leigh's green dress from Gone with the Wind to Uma Thurman's yellow Kill Bill jumpsuit. I had my own Dorothy in Oz moment seeing Joan Crawford's beaded scarlet frock from The Bride Wore Red – much more dazzling in real life than on a black-and-white screen.

The show avoids the Madame Tussauds trap by using headless models and screens showing the character's face hovering above. But the best costumes are celebrities in their own right. You don't need to see John Travolta's head to recognise Tony Manero's white suit from Saturday Night Fever. Although it's almost impossible to capture a moving medium in a static display, the experience is as cinematic as it can be, from the dimmed lights and epic soundtrack through to popcorn in the gift shop.

Divided into three "acts", the first deconstructs some well-loved costumes, with annotated screenplays showing how the most sparse stage directions get developed into a piece of cultural iconography. We're shown how the note "he wears a leather jacket, a flapped holster and a brimmed felt hat" became Indiana Jones, via a doodle from Spielberg and some last-minute distressing of the jacket with Harrison Ford's pocket knife. Austin Powers' flamboyant suit was inspired by George Harrison, and Darth Vader's get-up came from randomly raiding the wardrobe department for a black motorcycle suit, Nazi helmet, gas mask and monk's cloak.

We're then allowed to eavesdrop on clips of Scorsese, Hitchcock et al "in conversation" with their costume designers. The transformative power of clothing is also explored, with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep talking about how it gets them into character. As designer Ann Roth puts it, when working with Streep in the fitting room, "we wait for the third person to arrive".

The final act – a tableau – is like walking into the best Hollywood party ever. There's Superman's Lycra flying overhead, Rocky's satin shorts squaring up to John McClane's bloodied vest and Holly Golightly's black Givenchy slipping through the crowd.

And then there are Dorothy's show-stopping ruby slippers, on limited loan until 18 November, having left the United States for the first time. In their glass case they're actually a dull burgundy, but it's not hard to imagine them skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. The gift shop sells a replica pair but they come in only one size. I had my Cinderella moment, but, alas, they didn't fit.

To 27 Jan (020-7942 2000)

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