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troublemag | February 19, 2017

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Dressing the Movies Part One by Inga Walton

In another coup for the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces program, Hollywood Costume is at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 18 August, 2013. An initiative of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, its season there (20 October, 2012-27 January, 2013) was the culmination of five years of planning.

The exhibition was Guest Curated by cultural historian, broadcaster, and critic Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, and the incumbent David C. Copley Chair for the Study of Costume Design at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Professor Deborah Nadoolman Landis, assisted by the Curator of the V&A Theatre and Performance Department, Keith Lodwick. Featuring 100 costumes by over fifty designers, it ranks as the most comprehensive exhibition about costume design ever mounted, with many items never previously shown in public.

Nonetheless, the current exhibition did not come as a ‘package’ and certain items in the London show did not make it to Melbourne for various reasons, including loan agreements, insurance fees, and availability issues, which ACMI had to negotiate separately with institutions and private lenders. For example, the V&A were only granted a short-term loan by the Smithsonian Institution for the original ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939) during the first weeks of their run, after which they resorted to replicas made by Mauricio Osorio at Western Costume in North Hollywood, which are the pair seen here. Judy Garland’s gingham check pinafore from that film, designed by Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenberg, 1903-59), and Marilyn Monroe’s iconic billowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch (1955), designed by (William Jack) Travilla (1920-1990) are key features of the exhibition. There were curatorial headaches aplenty when both items were sold at auction between the exhibition stagings, but fortunately their respective new owners agreed to continue with the loans.

Senior curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis travelled to Melbourne for the exhibition launch in April. She has served as the costume designer for some twenty-one films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Louis Malle’s Crackers (1984), Dan Aykroyd’s directorial début Nothing But Trouble (1991) and Costa-Gavras’ Mad City (1997). Nadoolman Landis worked with her husband, director John Landis, on sixteen of his films including The Blues Brothers (1980),
An American Werewolf In London (1981), Trading Places (1983), Three Amigos! (1986), and Coming To America (1988), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Costume Design. Nadoolman Landis worked closely with the late ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson for the costuming of his ground-breaking music videos Thriller (1983) and Black or White (1991), also directed by her husband.

“Costume design is not about the clothes…the real truth about costume design is that all it needs to be is appropriate for the story, and in fact the best costumes disappear and you’re not aware of them at all”, Nadoolman Landis asserts. “What we aspire to do as costume designers is to help the actor transform into a completely other person. A costume designer has to know who that person is before we ever even think about trying to coordinate the clothes for that individual. It is about the creation of a new person in a story, everything about them must resonate true, including their clothes”. Two case-studies, featuring the renowned actors Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, illustrate this point through a series of specially commissioned interviews, supported by five costumes each from some of their most famous roles. Examples of the costume designer’s research process are explored in relation to Theoni V. Aldrege’s work on the highly theatrical and prescribed aesthetic of Addams Family Values (1993), and Michael Kaplan’s take on the more contemporary urban look of Fight Club (1999).

ACMI curator Sarah Tutton has secured content exclusive to Australia, and which has been displayed separately in the public areas, accompanied by screened interview footage. Located on the Galleries level is a dark pink coloured overcoat, dress, and hat worn by Abbie Cornish in Bright Star (2009), for which Australian costume and production designer Janet Patterson received her fourth Academy Award nomination for Costume Design. Recently unveiled (on level one) ahead of the national première, are three outfits from Baz Luhrmann’s much-hyped new version of The Great Gatsby (2013), worn by stars Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio and Toby Maguire. Designed by Catherine Martin and Miuccia Prada, they join Martin’s gold embroidered shell-pink corset costume with an ostrich feather train from Moulin Rouge! (2001), for which she and Angus Strathie won the Oscar.

Positioned at the entrance to the exhibition, the glittering ensemble hangs high in the air from a trapeze-like seat, referencing its appearance during the song Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend performed by Satine (Nicole Kidman) at the start of the film.

Indeed, it was not until 1948 that the film industry’s peak body, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), recognised the contribution of costume designers with its highest accolade, the Academy Award. Initially, separate award categories were established for black-and-white films and for colour films, until the categories were merged for the last time in 1967. Across the pond, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) was even slower to acknowledge these dedicated artists whose work is so integral to a film’s success. The first BAFTA for Costume Design was not presented until 1965, and a single award combining both colour and black-and-white films was not formalised until 1969.

The exhibition includes an impressive nineteen Academy Award winning costume designs, and a further sixteen nominees. A dress from Anna Karenina (2012) by the most recent Oscar winner, Jacqueline Durran, is on view, along with her (now iconic) green silk dress from Atonement (2007), both of which were worn by Keira Knightley.  James Acheson, a three time Academy Award recipient, is represented by his winning costumes for The Last Emperor (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

Eiko Ishioka (1938-2012), one of Japan’s most acclaimed creative talents, is best remembered for her flamboyant and unsettling work in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), taking home the Oscar for only her second job as a film costume designer. Two sword-and-sandal Best Picture winners also picked up the award for their respective costumes: Elizabeth Haffenden (1906-76) for Ben-Hur (1959), and Janty Yates for Gladiator (2000).

Other Australians to have won the Academy Award for their costume designs are also featured, including Melbourne’s own John Truscott, AO (1936-93) for his work on Camelot (1967), and Orry (George) Kelly (1897-1964) for Some Like It Hot (1959). Born in Kiama, Orry-Kelly, as he became known, went to Hollywood in 1932 where he worked for all the major studios. His prolific output saw Orry-Kelly’s credits swell to over 300 films, many of them now considered to be ‘classics’, such as Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and Oklahoma! (1955). He was sought by many of the leading actresses of the day, including Bette Davis, Merle Oberon, Olivia de Havilland, and Kay Francis, whose wardrobes he often designed exclusively for a film. Orry-Kelly was a three-time Oscar honouree, winning also for An American In Paris (1951), shared with Walter Plunkett and Irene Sharaff (1910-93), Les Girls (1957), and nominated for Gypsy (1952). His last completed film was Irma la Douce (1963) starring Shirley MacLaine.

Among the most heavily represented designers is Edith Head (1897-1981) who holds the record for the most Oscar nominations in the category with thirty-five (1948-77). She would win eight awards (1949-73), making her the most honoured woman in Academy history. Head started out as a sketch artist at Paramount Pictures in 1924, and progressed to costuming the following year. She worked under Paramount’s head designers Howard Greer (1896-1974) and then Travis Banton, before achieving success in her own right after Banton’s resignation in 1938. Head remained at the studio for forty-three years until she went to Universal Pictures in 1967. With credits on over 500 film and television titles, Head is often referred to as ‘Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer’. At the peak of her profession, Head was able to define her role in the film process succinctly, “What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen he’s become a different person”.

The outrageous pink sequined creation with mink trim Head created for Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944) was considered the most expensive costume in Hollywood history for its time, and gained some notoriety for being counter to the subdued mood of wartime austerity. Also on view is Hedy Lamarr’s ‘Peacock dress’ from Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), which received some personal input from the director. “Why not use real peacock feathers?’ asked Mr. DeMille. A few days later, a station wagon arrived with Mr. DeMille at the wheel. “I have a ranch, we raise peacocks. I spent the weekend picking up feathers’”, Head was to recall. She was, however, ambivalent about her work on DeMille’s epics including The Greatest Show On Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956), later making the caustic remark, “I always had to do what that conceited old goat wanted, whether it was correct or not”.

Head worked more amicably with Sir Alfred Hitchcock on eleven of his films beginning with Notorious (1946), where she did the costumes for Ingrid Bergman; they reconvened for Rear Window (1954). One of Kim Novak’s outfits from Vertigo (1958), and Tippi Hedren’s wool suit and hat from The Birds (1963) are included. Of the latter, Head commented, “We established the girl [Melanie Daniels] as well dressed with taste and money. Later, Hitchcock preferred that the audience not notice her clothes. He didn’t want any distractions from the terror and virtually restricted me to two colours, blue and green … I was aware that he didn’t like anything bright unless it made a story point”.

Edith Head’s former supervisor at Paramount Pictures, Travis Banton (1894-1958), created daring and sophisticated designs for many of the studio’s biggest stars during his tenure (1924-38), often coaching them on posture and demeanour in order to carry off ‘the look’. Banton formed a creative unit with director Josef von Sternberg, cinematographer Lee Garmes, and art director Hans Dreier,credited with advancing a distinctive visual style which became known as ‘Hollywood baroque’. Following her arrival in America as von Sternberg’s protégée and muse, Banton worked with Marlene Dietrich on six of her Paramount films beginning with her English-language début “Morocco” (1930). Dietrich portrays disillusioned cabaret singer, Amy Jolly, who works at Lo Tinto’s nightclub in Marrakesh and falls in love with Légionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper).

For a pivotal performance scene, Banton dressed Dietrich in a man’s black tailcoat and top hat, reinforcing the idea of her as a mysterious, seductive, and somewhat louche ‘European’. This somewhat shocking spectacle was designed to leave American audiences agreeably titillated, “I planned to have her dress like a man, sing in French and, circulating among the audience, favour another woman with a kiss”, von Sternberg declared. Banton would repeat this look in white tie for Blonde Venus (1932), and Dietrich toyed with the erotic possibilities of such androgynous forays throughout her career. The exhibition also contains one of Banton’s last costumes for Dietrich in Angel (1937) where she plays Lady Maria Barker, the neglected and adulterous wife a top-level British diplomat. The beaded yellow silk dress and wide sable-trimmed stole, which Banton intended should look “like a piece of woven jewellery”, is heavily embroidered in a ‘Persian’-inspired pattern. It took the studio’s in-house team two and a half weeks to complete, and was the most expensive costume Banton had ever designed, costing $8,000 (over $126,000 today).

One of the big box-office hits of 1936, receiving six Oscar nominations, was the ‘screwball’ comedy My Man Godfrey starring Carole Lombard as dizzy socialite Irene Bullock. Banton’s shimmering gold beaded gown and matching evening coat are seen at the start of the film when Irene first encounters Godfrey Park (William Powell), someone she erroneously thinks is a ‘forgotten man’ and hires to be the family’s butler. Cleopatra (1934), another extravagant DeMille production, received the ‘Banton treatment’ when its star Claudette Colbert refused to wear the original wardrobe. Despite the short notice, Banton produced one of his most lavish selections, including a vivid green draped and pleated décolleté gown, the impact of which is rather muted on camera since the film was black-and-white. Banton also worked for Twentieth Century Fox (1939-41) and Universal Studios (1945-48), becoming one of Hollywood’s most significant talents never to be nominated for the Oscar.

Dressing the Movies continues in next month’s issue of Trouble. Hollywood Costumes is showing at Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), Federation Square, Melbourne,(VIC) until 18 August 2013 – www.acmi.net.au

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