Hollywood at LACMA: When clothes are so much more than clothes

LIGHTS:  At LACMA West, costumes from iconic films are set  against a black background.

LIGHTS: At LACMA West, costumes from iconic films are set against a black background.

By Goldie Fields, Executive Editor

Anyone who loves fashion, movies or the glamour and glitz of Hollywood will appreciate Hollywood Costume, an exciting multi-media exhibit exploring the pivotal role of costume design in cinematic storytelling.

Featuring more than150 of the most iconic costumes dating from the earliest films, the exhibit opened last month at LACMA West, the former May Company department store building on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax – and perhaps not coincidentally, the future home of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Darth Vader’s oversized black robe, helmet and trench boots; Indiana Jones’ distinctively ragged leather bomber jacket and unforgettable whip; James Bond’s elegant Brioni tuxedo and Harry Potter’s robe and wand are all there. So is Elle Woods’ pink suit from Legally Blonde 2.  

Dramatically set off under spotlight against darkly painted walls, the costumes are paired with film clips and projected images of the movie’s scripts.  A tribute to Meryl Streep’s films and videos of costume designers explaining the vision behind their work round out the exhibit.

The reason we remember all these costumes is because they are inextricably linked to the stories they tell, and the feelings they recall.  Indiana Jones’ jacket means adventure and the sweet taste of success tinged with escape.  Elle Woods’ pink suit means the marrying of professionalism with in-your-face femininity.

Marilyn Monroe’s ivory pleated dress, soaring in a sudden wind over a subway grate, embodies the character’s abandon, femininity and playfulness.

“Costumes are so much more than clothes,” writes exhibit curator and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis in the Exhibition Guide. “Costumes embody the psychological, social and emotional condition of a character at a particular moment in the script.”

For these iconic films, from a wide variety of film genres, those moments belong deeply to us as well evoke indelible, magical moments shared by people of all ages and around the world.

Now that we know why we care, we can soak up the sights. Dorothy’s Ruby slippers encompass The Wizard of Oz’ message that there’s no place like home. They are there, along with many facts about them: made of silk faille hand-sewn with 2,300 sequins, the slippers were produced in three sizes, 5C, 5.5 and 6B, to accommodate the various shoe sizes of Judy Garland, her stand-in, and her stunt double.

Over 75 years the ruby slippers have lost their original luster, but a sparkling replica on display gives the viewer the feeling that the shoes could still magically transport Dorothy – or perhaps even himself — from Oz back to Kansas. The originals are there as well, displayed in a glass case to culminate the exhibit.

Other highlights stretch back as far as 1915.  The first of four galleries boasts the bowler hat, suit and cane worn by legendary silent film actor Charlie Chaplin in The Tramp, positioned alongside the strapless, sequined white gown worn by Beyonce in the 2006 production of Dreamgirls. Designers’ preliminary sketches, fabrics, and design inspirations, including clothing from the 1960’s television show Bonanza, are also on display.

There is also a gallery dedicated to creative collaborations between directors or actors and their design counterparts.  In a display celebrating the costume design in Django Unchained, director Quentin Tarantino and costume designer Sharen Davis, projected on separate video screens, discuss the Western-style green corduroy jacket and pants worn by actor Jamie Foxx. Davis explains that she had to go through several versions of the jacket until everyone could agree on the perfect coat to use.

Visitors enter the exhibit and immediately see the eight Oscars won by famed costume designer Edith Head, along with a brief history of the designer.  At the end appear the ruby slippers, complemented by Dorothy’s blue gingham dress.

The Meryl Streep display features costumes she wore in Mamma MiaIron Lady andJulie and Julia, accompanied by video commentary from the actress explaining the wardrobe selections and their relationship to each movie’s themes.

Majestic gowns sewn in silk, lace, tulle and metallic fabrics pay tribute to queens.  Costumes worn by superhero’s Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Iron Man, among others, are also on view

All told, the movies may be old, but the principle is as new as your visit to your closet this morning.  Just as a costumer helps define the character’s identity, so our own clothing choices reflect the way we feel at the moment we select our outfit, and also impact the way we act and the image we want to publicly project throughout the day.

Lasting sartorial images thus are not only created in the movies, but each day, in our own lives. With the easing of the dress code at school, Shalhevet students perhaps can draw inspiration from the clothing designs for their own style choices.

Hollywood Costume will be running all the way until March 2 of next year, so you have plenty of time to go see it. The items on display upon entry and exit alone are worth the $12 price of admission (for students with ID) — all just up the block from Shalhevet’s construction site.