Hollywood’s star wardrobe on show

The makers of studio-era costumes, designed only to last the duration of the shoot, couldn’t have foreseen them fetching vast sums in the future

How does a tatty tramp’s outfit or a cheap gingham pinafore, run up to resemble a badly-stitched depression-era garment, come to be worth thousands of pounds?

The answer, of course, is when they’ve been sprinkled with Hollywood stardust.

Yet the makers of studio-era costumes, designed only to last the duration of the shoot, couldn’t have foreseen them fetching vast sums in the future.

In the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition Hollywood Costumes, I’d have liked more on how otherwise unremarkable clothes came to be preserved and grow in value as the movies they graced became iconic.

However, among the 130 examples here there are undeniably gorgeous and valuable frocks such as Givenchy’s black column dress worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

A mink and sequin number created for Ginger Rogers’ 1944 movie Lady in the Dark was at $35,000 the most expensive costume of its day.

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Co-curated by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis and the V&A’s Keith Lodwick, this hugely entertaining show is rather sexily lit like a movie theatre – near darkness illuminated by the flicker of film screens – a sophisticated world away from its low-rent burger-chomping sister, Planet Hollywood.

It drags the often sidelined role of the costume designer into the spotlight, illuminating both the creative process and the way costume maketh the character.

Clothes, it seems, facilitate the actor slipping on the character’s skin as with Nadoolman’s own creation of movie icon Indiana Jones – from a stick man drawing by Stephen Spielberg.

Unhappy with Indy’s leather jacket, the night before filming started on Raiders of the Lost Ark, Nadoolman attacked it with a knife, steel brush and sandpaper until it looked as though it had seen as many adventures as its owner.

Star Harrison Ford credits the battered outfit with enabling him to inhabit the role.

In the case of the corsets and vast skirts of the Elizabeth Is or Marie Antoinettes on display, costume affects gait and posture. Cate Blanchett speaks of the Virgin Queen’s wide skirts rendering her literally untouchable.

But it can also indicate internal states, as with Hitchcock’s Vertigo in which Kim Novak’s psychologically disturbed Madeleine wears grey while her cheerful alter ego Judy dresses more colourfully.

Edith Head, who designed on 11 of Hitchcock’s films, features in a section where filmed ‘dialogues’ are set up between director and costume designer.

Alongside the black suit worn by Johnny Depp’s murderous Sweeney Todd, Belsize Park director Tim Burton talks of actors who like to “hide behind their costume”.

He said: “I have worked with actors who don’t discover their character until they get the costume on. A costume is what you are watching the whole film. It’s like a character itself.”

It will be those gasp-inducing samples of film iconography that will grab most attention.

Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet “curtain” dress for Gone With The Wind, Travolta’s white three-piece suit for Saturday Night Fever, Monroe’s white gown from The Seven-Year Itch, Charlie Chaplin’s tramp outfit and, of course, Dorothy’s Wizard of Oz frock. Alongside, a pair of battered ruby slippers, not silver as in L. Frank Baum’s original, because they contrasted better with the yellow brick road in the exciting new medium of Technicolor.

Hollywood Costumes runs until January 27.