Image: V & A Images
THE Victoria and Albert Museum, known locally as the V & A, is well worth a visit by the Australian tourist. Located on Exhibition Road in South Kensington, it is opposite the Natural History Museum and conveniently close to the nearby Science Museum.
The V & A wears its age well, not only in its grand Victorian faÃ§ade still bearing the scars of WWII, but also in its diverse and modern exhibitions. The most current, the Hollywood Costume Exhibition, draws on this interplay — showcasing 100 years of cinema within three large galleries.
Entering the exhibition, viewers are met by a mammoth projector screen casting frames from some of the most recognizable moments in film’s varied history. While slightly overbearing, the screen quickly sets the tone for the collection.
A movie geek through-and-through, I am here to indulge my fascination with film, costume design, and to find as many Australian references as possible. In the opening gallery, findings are scarce. Like any good competition between our neighbouring countries, our Kiwi friends represent well with a larger than life opening act. Sadly, it is shoved in a dark corner.
A video narration from Director James Cameron and Actor Andy Serkis explains the tools employed by Weta to perfect costume for films such as Avatar and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis’ motion capture suit is on display and the accompanying video gives geeks such as myself a fascinating look behind the scenes of filming.
Some of the costumes are displayed on headless mannequins accompanied by script excerpts from the films they made famous. Others are complete with LCD screens hosting the face of the actor that wore it, giving some life to what otherwise could have felt like a window display.
The Australian Influence
Lost in wonder at costumes from Fight Club and The Addams Family, I almost miss the Australian contributions that have begun to spring up everywhere. The first is found in the Indiana Jones’ ensemble.
According to costume designer Deborah Nadoolman, Indy’s costume would not have been complete without his iconic felt hat, the design of which was customized from the Australian Herbert Johnson Fedora.
The next, a dress worn by Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age stands out in a sea of taffeta and velvet, its bright orange contrasted against a white haloed dress worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love.
The exhibition is shrouded in darkness, a complaint mentioned in all reviews I have read about the exhibition. The low lighting aims to protect the garments, and it does add to the atmosphere of the showing in some areas. I imagine Darth Vader’s suit would have much less impact in a brightly lit room, however in some other areas I can appreciate the frustration.
Take time to smell the roses
Each costume displayed is accompanied by an explanation from the director of the film it is featured in, the costume designer who made it or the actor who wore it. While at times the comments are quite generic there are some unique tidbits hiding in there.
Nicole Kidman says of her sequined costume worn as Satine in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge that corsets are great for Victorian activities “like drinking tea,” but high kicks? “Forget it.”
If you don’t take the time to look up as you wander through this exhibition, you may miss this costume. It is placed on a mannequin in the same pose Kidman holds while singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” on her trapeze swing.
The costume worn by Australian Russell Crowe in Gladiator is harder to miss. Designed by Janty Yates, she explains that it was important to turn the usually flowing Roman tunic into something “manly” at the request of Ridley Scott.
Errol Flynn, the Australian actor known as much for his leading roles in films such as Robin Hood as his playboy lifestyle, starred in The Adventures of Don Juan in 1948. His costume sets the tone for the leading men and is in good company amongst Dick Tracy’s yellow suit and Christopher Reeves’ Superman.
The magic of the Matrix
Kym Barrett, is an Australian costume designer born in Brisbane known for her work with the Cirque Du Soleil and on Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Her best work, in my opinion, is on display at the V & A in Neo’s coat from The Matrix.
Unfortunately, this is one of the key costumes almost impossible to see from the front close up. It is possible to admire the fabric from the back provided you lean in closely.
This became a running theme throughout the exhibit. Costumes such as Jack’s ragged clothes and Rose’s high-collared suit and hat from the opening scenes of Titanic became lost in the background. Others were so high up in the dark they could barely be seen.
Fashion lovers rejoice
For fashion lovers, visit for Marilyn Monroe’s signature white dress from Some Like It Hot, Holly Golightly’s black dress and necklace seen reflected in the window at Tiffanys from Breakfast at Tiffanys, the Yellow Dress and the Harry Winston “Isadora” necklace from How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days and ‘that’ green dress from Atonement.
Classic film buffs will rejoice in Dorothy’s dress and Ruby Slippers highlighting the early novelty of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz and the size of Scarlet O’Hara’s green velvet layered gown from Gone With The Wind will amaze. With Rocky squared up against Die Hard’s John McClane, Harry Potter’s first robes, and Eliza Doolittle’s tattered dress, every visitor is likely find a favourite costume on display.
For those interested in the history and process of costume design this exhibition is the one for you.
The exhibition will run from 20 October 2012—27 January 2013. Tickets are available from www.vam.ac.uk.