There were costumes from all our favourite classic films, from Charlie Chaplin's Tramp costume in the THE CIRCUS (1928) to GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) to the Darth Vader get-up from STAR WARS (1977). The greatest film stars were also celebrated: both Katharine and Audrey Hepburn, Barbara Streisand, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford, John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn - you name it! Below is a list of the costumes that struck my fancy, along with images from the original films.
Compared to the elaborate Queen Elizabeth I costumes which surrounded it, Hepburn's Mary of Scotland gown looked delicately petite. Walter Plunkett's frock is a crimson silk velevet with a gold leaf thistle pattern. Punkett remembers that after filming MARY OF SCOTLAND:
"all of the Elizabethan ruffs were missing from the wardrobe department. The wardrobe girls and actresses had taken them home to wear with black dresses because of their flattering effect to the face. A manufacturer has made ruffs like those in the movie and they are now being sold to be worn with plain dresses."
I don't know if Katharine Hepburn would have been one of those to "borrow" part of her costume from this film because she never took to Mary's style of things, but the fact that the public reacted in this way just goes to show what effect Hepburn's characters had on her audiences.
Katharine Hepburn's famous THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940) dress is one of the first you see upon entering the third and final room of the exhibit. It is positioned next to a couple of Audrey's dresses, which miffed me a bit at first until I realised that my fellow visitors, upon being forced to compare the two actresses in this way, ultimately concluded in favour of Katharine. When seen up close, this dress really shows how tall and slim Katharine Hepburn really was. The dress is a comfortable creamy white fabric, embellished with beautiful mettalic braid, beads, and paillettes. I can honestly say it is even more stunning "in the flesh" as it is on the screen. The dress was designed by the head of MGM's costume design at the time, Adrian:
"Adrian was my favourite designer. He and I had the same sense of "smell" about what clothes should do and what they should say." (Katharine Hepburn)
Audrey's flower girl costume for MY FAIR LADY was designed by the film's art director Cecil Beaton. Apparently the actress was so touched by the simple faded outfit that it brought a lump to her throat. On the other side of the spectrum we have Holly Golightly's glamorous black frock designed by Hubert de Givenchy. In real life, this dress is really so simple it looks quite plain. There is no doubt that Audrey Hepburn herself brought the character to the costume in this case, not the other way around.
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Two of Scarlett O'Hara's (Vivien Leigh) infamous dresses were on display at the exhibit: the greet "curtain dress" and the vibrant, figure-hugging, cranberry red silk velvet and taffeta frock. Designer Walter Plunkett worked closely with author Margaret Mitchell when planning the costumes for the film:
"[Mitchell] was very amused when I showed her that she had described almost every dress of Scarlett's as green." Mitchell kindly arranged meetings with Confederate families. "One woman sent her children to gather thorns from a native tree, because during the blockade of the war, clothing was held together by these thorns."
The feathers on the red dress still had a little bit of life in them, even when hanging on a dummy in an old London museum. The green curtain dress looked as sumptuous as ever, with its subtle shading where the sun would have faded the drapes. Both dresses show how petite and skinny Vivien Leigh was.
Claudette Colbert's vibrant sage green fishtail mermaid-cut Cleopatra costume is absolutely stunning. This light, graceful, drapey frock was designed by Travis Banton and is made of satin-woven viscose with a brass brooch. Elizabeth Taylor's costume from Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1963 version of the film is made up of a very pale pinkish shift covered by a sheer dark brown robe embroidered with orange and beige snakes on the front, sleeves and back. The cuffs and hemline are embroidered with the same colours in a chequered pattern.
Both of Dietrich's costumes on show at the V&A were designed by Travis Banton. The costume from ANGEL (above) is one of the first dresses of the entire exhibit and it is absolutely encrusted with jewels and beading. The second costume is her jaunty tuxedo from the nightclub scene in MOROCCO:
"I planned to have her dress like a man, sing in French, and, circulating among the audience, favour another woman with a kiss." (director Josef von Sternberg)
This androgynous get-up is made from materials traditionally associated with maleness: leather, cotton, wool, and suede. I was a bit disappointed to find that the glorious silk top-hat was not included in the display.
Alfred Hitchock and Edith Head worked together on a number of pictures. For Kim Novak in VERTIGO (right), Head designed a simple green suit, with white polka dots on the collar and cuffs.
"Hitch paints a picture and colour is as important to him as it is to any artist... The character [Madeleine] would go through a psychological change in the second half and would wear more colourful clothes to reflect the change." (Edith Head)Head's costume for Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS (left) was a very plain, though tasteful, sage greed wool suit with simple hemlines and no embellishments whatsoever.
"[Hitch] 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)THE VIRGIN QUEEN (1955)
Bette Davis's costume, designed by Mary Wills, is made of silk, cotoon, and velvet, and is embroidered with gold and tons of pearls. The white ruff is huge and the black velvet cape is lined with a stunning pink satin.
"I felt a great propinquity to Elizabeth. In many ways we were very alike. But the power to roll heads she had over me." (Bette Davis)
MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938)
Adrian's design for Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette dress is a soft pink, very delicate, feminine design. The dress is large and grand, but it is not a caricature of the style of the time. Portraits of Marie Antoinette by the Versailles court painter, Madame Vigee Le Brun, were carefully examined so that exact reproductions of the dresses could be made for the film. Microscopes were used over areas that indicated embroidery. In many cases fabric patterns had to be especially woven for this picture.
TO BE CONTINUED...