“Hollywood Costume” – The Dramatic Role of Style in Cinema

Showcasing some of the most loved costumes in cinematic history, the latest exhibition of V&A is a true celebration of cinema and style. Selected from some of the most loved films in history, the costumes displayed remind us of the precious stories and the wonderful characters within them. Although many may flock to see the famous outfits in the flesh, “Hollywood Costume” offers to tell an alternative story; the link between cinematic style and personal identity, illustrated by the outfits that have preserved the integrity of characters for decades.

A film is a lengthy segment of a character’s life and thus “everything about them must resonate true, including their clothes”. With a script accompanying every outfit, the key focus of the character’s wardrobe was revealed to make it consistent with the plot and to shape the events in accordance with the character’s fate. With groups of characters and clashing personalities, such as those in Ocean’s Eleven and Fight Club, the designer’s journey began with research into their personality and professional career, focusing on “getting to know the characters” before they dressed them.

The classical tailoring of Danny Ocean is more formal and serious than the quirky, 1907’s inspired dress of Rusty Ryan, making them work as a team, but clashing in their personal style. As a result, the clashing outfits make each character unique but relatable as a team.

Once the character is created, they must be memorable by their words as much as their attire. When isolated, the costumes tell a story themselves, now untainted by the pressures of the plot. The sumptuous red gown worn by Keira Knightly for Anna Karenina is exquisitely made but also encompasses the issues faced by the protagonist. The impossibly tight corset, hidden under layers of luscious silk and raffia personifies Anna’s struggle against social order and her lavish life. Comparably, Marilyn Monroe’s white dress as The Girl in Some Like It Hot is classically stylish, replicated today ,but also tainted with the reminder of her role as the tempting siren of seduction and flirtatious innocence, a bitter sense of irony for the life of Monroe.

Whilst being interviewed for the exhibition, director Tim Burton notes how discussing how costumes are “the visual representation of the internal side of people”, capturing what the dialogue does not. As the plot unfolds, some costumes are revealed to be amour for the character, hiding heir true identity from their fictional peers. Whilst the suits from Batman Begins and Spiderman were obvious in their choice, the costumes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Titanic reveal more about the character than the script itself.

The regal elegance of the Givenchy black dress worn by Hepburn constructs the illusion of wealth and glamour for the phony character of Holly Golightly, whilst the tailored dress and elaborate hat of Rose DeWitt traps her in a world of glamour she’d rather break free of. The costumes are completely different in cinematic terms but the connections that lie underneath make it all the more rewarding.

Despite the delight of seeing cinematic style in the flesh, there is great exploration into the technological advances that have been made within costume and cinema. Small filmed sequences explained how every piece of clothing the Na’vi tribe wear in the fantasy hit Avatar had to be handmade to be transferred into digital animation, computers having a large influence in what is styled to a character. On more fashionable ground, the infamous dress worn by Jessica Rabbit was dubbed “impossible for a human to wear” but hugely appropriate for such a memorable bombshell. Plus, who can blame her for such an iconic, yet revealing outfit; she was drawn that way.

In the finale of the show, the costumes displayed were truly iconic outfits. The strong memorable characters of James Bond, The Bride from Kill Bill, Jack Sparrow, and Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra stand in their rows, creased and a little shabbier than when seen on screen. Although the costumes here are reduced to nothing but a filmy memory of the film, the character who wore them lives on in our minds.

Overall, it’s both satisfying and unsurprising to see how much of a role style plays within characterisation. The final piece of the exhibition, Dorothy’s ruby slippers, are a reminder of how, with the right outfit, one character’s memory can be frozen in time. Forever. Although style may not be the pivotal point for every character’s identity, what they do wear will always serve a purpose in remembering the journey they took and their repeated fate that we watch, over and over again.

Rosie Feenstra

2 Comments on this post.
  • Phee
    1 December 2012 at 23:20
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    Brilliant article! So glad ‘Some Like It Hot’ got a mention and oh Anna Karenina. It made me want to wearing nothing but silk, fur and diamonds and has changed winter dressing forever

  • Ibtisam Ahmed
    2 December 2012 at 03:32
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    I was already excited for this exhibition but this article has definitely made it my number one priority for the upcoming holidays! Very well-written!

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