Laura’s London: A Look at the New Hollywood Costume Exhibition at The V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington has an incredible new blockbuster exhibition: Hollywood Costume. The costume designer can often be overlooked with all the other more high profile names involved with a movie but if the costumes are right then you truly believe that actor is the film character and then the costume designer has done their job well.

The Birds (1963) © Universal Pictures/Photofest/The Kobal Collection

There are many iconic costumes that have started worldwide fashion trends and influenced global culture. But fashion and costume design are not the same thing. Costume design is a distinct art form creating what is to be worn by a particular person, in a particular story, at a particular moment and this exhibition celebrates the costume designer’s work.

Hollywood Costume has been in planning for five years. The V&A have brought together over 100 of the most beloved and iconic costumes that have never been seen together before, from over 100 years of cinematic history including the Silent era, the Golden Age of Hollywood, and modern digital productions. Not only have these costumes never been seen together but many have never been on public display ever!

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)
© Universal/Working Title/The Kobal Collection/Greg Williams

This is the first time the V&A has devoted an exhibition to film design and they didn’t want to show “frocks on dummies”. We will hopefully have more exhibitions like this in the future as the night before the Press View, the BFI (British Film Institute) donated 700 costumes to the V&A so they now hold the national collection of film costumes.

Hollywood Costume explores the most beloved characters in Hollywood history and gives an insight to the role of the costume designer and their vital contribution to cinema storytelling. The exhibition includes costumes from many of the greatest films of all time including The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, Vertigo, Taxi Driver, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, plus recent releases including Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes and The Iron Lady.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007) © Walt Disney Pictures/The Kobal Collection

Major Sponsor

The major sponsor is Harry Winston, who the V&A asked everyone to thank as without their support we wouldn’t have this exhibition to enjoy. Harry Winston chose to be involved to “pay homage to the legacy of our founder, Mr Harry Winston, who was the first jeweller to loan diamonds to a celebrity on the red carpet.” This was Jennifer Jones in 1944, and they have since worked with huge names from Marilyn Monroe to Madonna.

Titanic (1997) © 20th Century Fox/Paramount/The Kobal Collection

The Exhibition

This is a three-gallery journey of the costume designer’s role and their vital contribution to cinema storytelling. The three rooms are very dark but house a staggering collection. There are film scores playing in each room to help to heighten your emotions. (There was an enormous turn out for the Press View and, this usually cynical bunch, were smiling for once.)

You enter to see a big screen showing excerpts of films. Stay a while to get acclimatised to the low lighting as it’s dark throughout the three rooms.

© Laura Porter

Act 1: Deconstruction

Costume designers are storytellers, historians, social commentators and anthropologists. Movies are about people, and costume design plays a pivotal role creating characters and in bringing these people to life. In every movie the audience is asked to believe that the people in the film are real and that they had a life prior to the start of the movie and authenticity is key.

This room helps us to understand how a costume designer works so case studies such as Fight Club (Costume Designer Michael Kaplan, 1999) show costumes hanging as individual items, with sketches and explanations, and we soon discover every item of clothing is deliberate.

Raider’s of the Lost Ark gets a lot of attention in Act I but as the film’s costume designer was Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the Senior Guest Curator of the exhibition it makes sense. She has an incredible resume including costume credits for The Blues Brothers and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Even so, to give it as much space as twelve period drama costumes seemed an imbalance.

Act 2: Dialogue

To show the creative collaboration, there are four pairs of especially commissioned on-camera interviews with great filmmakers and their costume designers. There are also two case studies with Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep celebrated for their transformative skills. You can see interviews and five costumes chosen from their most memorable roles. Meryl Streep’s costume designer, Ann Roth, said “we wait for the third person to arrive” in the fitting room.

© Laura Porter

Act 3: Finale

Billed as “the most glamorous Hollywood nightclub in the world” this room offers an overwhelming number of iconic costumes shown on dummies but brought to life with screens for the actors’ faces. Some are stills but some are videos so really do come to life!

Exhibition Highlights

The red beaded dress worn by Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red was never seen in colour as it was a black and white movie.

© Laura Porter

The floor length black dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is just as striking today as it was when the film was released in 1961. Designed by the French couturier Hubert De Givenchy it is displayed with the pearls, tiara, and yes, that cigarette holder.

Saturday Night Fever (1977) © 2012 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved

The iconic white three-piece suit worn by John Travolta, as Tony Manero on the disco dance floor in the classic 1977 film Saturday Night Fever, was discovered in London after an international search to bring it to this exhibition. The London owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, bought the white polyester two-button single-breasted suit with wide jacket lapels, matching waistcoat, and 28-inch waist white flared trousers to accompany the original black single-cuff shirt with pointed collar at a 1995 Christie’s auction. I wish this costume had more prominence but we will all have our favourites.

You’ll also see Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from Seven Year Itch, Borat’s suit, and costumes from Austin Powers, Kill Bill, and Terminator III. There’s Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale, and Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) from My Fair Lady.

Don’t forget to look up and you’ll see Batman, Spiderman, Superman and Cat Woman.

The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939) © MGM/The Kobal Collection

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Dorothy’s blue and white gingham pinafore from The Wizard of Oz is faded but, in my eyes, still utterly wonderful. I had no idea that the cotton dress had been made on a treadle sewing machine in the MGM costume workroom to give the impression it had been sewn by “Auntie Em”. I’ve loved the story all of my life and the dress has never been on display in the UK before.

© Laura Porter

Nor have the ruby slippers! You need to be quick as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington DC have given a four-week loan only as they need the shoes back on display before the film is shown, as it always is, at Thanksgiving. These slippers alone attract millions of visitors every year so this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see them outside of the US so make sure you get to this exhibition by 18 November.

Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis said, “The Ruby Slippers transcend Hollywood costume design and have the power to transport us to the limits of our imagination. These precious shoes exemplify the best of cinema storytelling because they evoke memory and emotion.” And boy, is she right.


Seriously wow. I left with crazy adrenalin and wild emotions as if I’d just seen all of my favourite movies on the same day. Hollywood Costume really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the clothes worn by our heroes and idols.

Key Info about the Hollywood Costume Exhibition


Dates: 20 October 2012–27 January 2013

Time: Daily 10.00–17.30 / Friday 10.00–21.30
N.B. The Museum will be closed from 24–26 December 2012

Costs: £14. Concessions available.

Getting there: South Kensington tube station

Photo Gallery

You can’t take photographs in the Hollywood Costume exhibition so I took as many as  I could to show you what to expect.

That’s all folks!

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