The Phoenix Art Museum premieres the Hollywood Costume exhibition until July 6, 2014, its only west coast showing. The Phoenix show explores the most iconic film costumes from 1912 through 2012 and traces the costume designer’s process from concept and character to the script and the big screen. It reveals the changing technical and societal context in which they worked over the last century. The Hollywood Costume exhibit features film clips on the costume design process, interviews with actors such as Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep, props and “research bibles.”
On loan from private and archival collections, the costumes on show are characters that convey a lasting impression even after the public has left the theater. Hollywood costumes on view include Indiana Jones, Jack Sparrow, Darth Vader and the Wizard of Oz’s, Dorothy Gale’s magical ruby slippers created by MGM Studio’s chief costume designer, Gilbert Adrian, among other favorites.
The Hollywood Costume exhibition is staged in three acts. Visitors begin their journey with Act 1: Deconstruction. In this gallery, visitors develop an understanding of the costume designer, and the method of creating a character from a script to the screen.
In filmmaking, the costume designers take on a pivotal role to the storyline. They are the historians and the storytellers with their foresight of how the character appears throughout the film.
Creating character costumes is vital to the film as it holds the audience’s attention just as much as the emotional aspect of that individual. Therefore, the costume designer must know the character, inside and out, before they can create a costume.
They start the process with research. It does not matter if the character is from the 18th century or the 24th century, the designer needs the audience to believe that the character proves true in their attire.
In Act 2: Dialogue, the Hollywood costume exhibit studies the essential function of the costume designer, and their collaboration with the creative team. This gallery explores the relationship between filmmakers and costume designers. Over the last century, designers had to work with an ever-changing progression of advancement in technology, from silent to talking pictures, black and white to Technicolor to HD and 3D. The costumer designer had to transition from the Golden Age to art house “indies.” They have gone from the black and white world of Dorothy Gale to the Technicolor realm of Oz. They have incorporated the cartoon bombshell of Jessica Rabbit to the enchanting state-of-the-art Avatar characters in Pandora.
The last gallery, Act 3: Finale, commemorates the most familiar and favorite characters in Hollywood history, and on the screen. Edith Head once commented that if the costume designer is able to transform an actor into such a believable character that the audience believes in them, then they have done their job.
This section queues up with unforgettable film characters that have stood the test of time, and become almost immortalized in pop culture. Among the familiar Hollywood costumes are heroes and villains, vixens and femme fatales. Visitors can view onscreen sirens such as Marilyn Monroe’s, Sugar Kane Kowalczyk from Some Like It Hot and Roxie Hart from Chicago. They can observe superheroes like Spider-man and Batman in Dark Knight Rises, and action heroes like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of Caribbean.
The Hollywood Costume exhibit, gives visitors the opportunity to study the transformation of the written page to the “reality” of a character that a costume designer brings to life in order to tell their story. From Charlie Chaplin to Austin Powers’ velvet suit and costume designer, John Mollo’s Darth Vader, these costumes are what make a character so memorable.
To enhance the exhibit, Dennita Sewell, the fashion design curator of the Phoenix Art Museum has organized an accompaniment to the show, Hollywood Red Carpet, featuring Oscar gowns that are juxtaposed with the costumes to provide context “about the fashion designer’s inspirations” in contrast with the costume designers. Sewell noted that she wanted to illustrate the emerging influence of the red carpet with the talent of the costume designer, actor and fashion designer in collaboration.
Costume design is a vital element of motion picture storytelling. If the costume designer can work with the director’s vision, and capture the public’s imagination so that they accept the character as true, then the costume designer has done her work well.
When envisioning their project, the costume designer also studies current trends and influences in their interpretation. According to Hollywood and History, Costume Design in Film, while costumes give the impression that they are “authentic re-creations” of a particular time, viewers do not realize that the Hollywood costume also suggests “their own standards of style and beauty.” When creating suitable yet memorable costumes for the film (past, present or future), there is a complex method to a costume designer’s “madness” that can be appreciated in Phoenix’s Hollywood Costume exhibit.
By: Dawn Levesque