Review: Hollywood Costume at the V&A spans the history of the silver screen

By Ruth Hazard | 29 October 2012
a photo of two women looking at a costume display
© Photo courtesy Mastercard

Exhibition review: Hollywood Costume, V&A Museum, London, until 27 January 2013


As might be expected of a display starring the finest costumes to have ever emerged out of Hollywood, the V&A is currently playing host to some seriously glamorous threads.

The curators have managed to pull together an incredible collection spanning the complete history of film. Among the haul they’ve acquired are Charlie Chaplin’s bowler and baggy trousers, Marilyn Monroe’s little white dress and the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz.

There are significant loans from both Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro’s personal archives, providing a kind of ‘career in clothes’ for these two top-class actors and recent additions include the Bat Suit worn by Christian Bale in the Dark Knight Rises and Daniel Craig’s suave Bond tux. In fact, the line-up is so impressive, even a respected Hollywood casting director would find it hard not to be jealous.

While the display finds appeal by offering visitors the chance to gawp at the costumes that have graced such renowned celebrity skin, and this evening viewing courtesy of Mastercard Priceless London certainly has the air of exclusivity and occasion, it’s more than just a frivolous guilty pleasure.

The V&A has consciously attempted to inject some depth by looking at how costume is envisaged, designed and created and how it radically alters the way we enjoy and understand film.

Of course, on-screen outfits, however ordinary, are never just an afterthought. Entire teams of designers carefully craft these looks to shape the character’s history and give them an authentic and believable personality.

Clothes can be one of the first indicators that we use to make judgements about another person and in film it is no different. Directors and script writers have only a limited time in which to tell a story and costume is vital in aiding that process.

The Dude wandering the supermarket in his dressing gown, Indiana Jones wielding his leather whip, Rose’s elegant pin stripe suit as she boards the first class cabin of the Titanic; costumes tell a story in themselves.

A good one can spawn high street copy cats, change the way an entire generation will dress and become part of our cultural iconography. Each visitor is likely to find a costume that they make a connection with because of how it played out on screen.

When an exhibition tries to tackle such a huge subject, there are usually some notable omissions. This is not so at the V&A; think of any high grossing Hollywood film from throughout history and there seems to be a costume somewhere in the display. 

Whether it’s old favourites like Gone With the Wind or Breakfast at Tiffany’s to modern classics like Kill Bill, Harry Potter, Twilight, Moulin Rouge or Brokeback Mountain - it’s all here. Even the digitally created characters from Avatar had hand stitched real-life garments for animators to work with and of course, they feature too.

Walking through the display is like rediscovering all your favourite moments from cinema, and that alone says a lot about the power of Hollywood costume.

Open: daily 10am-5.30pm (9.30pm Fridays) Admission: £14 (£9-£11 concessions)

Ruth Hazard visited Hollywood Costume courtesy of MasterCard Priceless London 


More pictures:

a photo of a display of costumes
© V&A images
a photo of two people dressed as Dorothy and the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz
Evening visitors to the V&A are entertained by Dorothy and the Scarecrow from MGM's Wizard of Oz.© Photo courtesy Mastercard
a wide angled shot of costumes in a gallery
© V&A images
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
Related listings (47)
See all related listings »
Related resources (90)