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30 November 2012

Sequins, Satin, and Silk: Hollywood Costumes at the V&A

Earlier this week I had the most amazing opportunity to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London to see their Hollywood Costume exhibit. The exhibit showcases more than 100 iconic film costumes from the last 100 years of cinema. About thirty of the costumes were from what I consider the "Golden Age of Hollywood," from the earliest silents through the 1960s. The designers featured included those familiar names we've seen so often in the opening credits: Edith HeadAdrian, Walter Plunkett, Travis Banton, Travilla, and Irene Sharaff, among many others.
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.

Katharine Hepburn: MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)
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.

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. 

CLEOPATRA (1934) and CLEOPATRA (1963)
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.

Marlene Dietrich: ANGEL (1937) and MOROCCO (1930)
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.

Hitchcock and Head: VERTIGO (1958) and THE BIRDS (1963)

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)
God Save the Queens!

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)

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.



  1. I went to see this the other week too!!!! Oh my goodness, being right up close to the KHep's Philadelphia Story dress and Vivien Leigh' Gone With The Wind dresses... I may or may not have cried. glad you loved it as much as I did!

    1. I just stood there like an idiot and gaped. i couldn't stop smiling!

  2. I saw this too, just a couple of weeks ago. I loved it! I have to admit I kind of rushed past the modern costumes (the tracksuit from "Kill Bill" and the suit from "Twilight") and spent most of my time in the 'classic' part, just staring. In fact, at the end, I retraced my steps and did it all again - which, because of the timed-ticket system, was less crowded the second time around!

    I couldn't believe how many iconic costumes they had packed into that exhibition and have been replaying the DVD's since then, looking out for them. Glad to hear you enjoyed it too, but I don't think any classic film fan would be disappointed.

    1. I wasso pleasantly surprised by how many classic flm costumes there were. i pretty much bypassed the more recent ones too, but i simply couldn't ignore the Darth Vader costume. That was epic. And it was really cool how they had Jack Sparrow and Eroll Flynn sword fighting!

  3. How amazing to see all those wonderful costumes in person, you lucky things!

  4. Oh, I'd love to see an exposition like this one! Seeing in color the costums we could only see in black and white must be an amazing experience. My most wanted to see would be the Marie Antoinette dress, since the film was supposed to be in color.

    1. I was really surprised to see how colorful the costumes form black and white films were. sometimes i had imagined them in a completely different color! but one could totally understand why they used so much glitter and sequins, because that shows up so well on the screen, especially ion B&W. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. What a thrill to see all those beautiful gowns! My mother worked in Hollywood with many of the designers, and as child she'd have me go to bed real early so she could wake me to watch the late, late, LATE movies that she had worked on. She'd sit there with her sketch pad and color pencils and draw the gowns and accesories and tell me the stories..who had a long waist, who needed special treatments, etc. I still have the pearl bracelet with the engraved heart charm on it that reads, 'Love always, Adrian' I still have some of her sketches...

  6. The classic movie costumes given in this page is really helpful for me to understand the costumes and it's design since the 1930s. The description given in this page is helpful to understand the color selections. Thanks for sharing this information to us.


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!