Costume designers don’t make clothes – they create characters.
So suggested Deborah Nadoolman Landis, curator of the elaborate Hollywood Costume exhibition which is entering the final four days of its stay at the Wilshire May Company building in Los Angeles as part of a costume program that has run since early October in conjunction with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Nadoolman Landis has worked as a professional costume designer for 40 years and spent over seven years organizing, collecting and creating multiple media for the Hollywood Costume Exhibit. “I got my office at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2007,” she said of the London facility. “The show opened on Oct. 20, 2012. It was the biggest show in the history of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and it was the biggest show in the history of The Australian Centre for the Moving Image.”
After a worldwide tour, the Hollywood Costume exhibition arrived in Los Angeles in 2014, appropriately enough a final location for the show as many of the costumes were designed for the various local studio films, from the early 20th century silents through the most recent of major productions. As is evident in the staggering exhibit, costume designers vitally contribute to the filmmaking world, though this level of presentation of their work has been a long time coming. “The Academy Awards were founded in 1929,” Nadoolman Landis explained, “but there wasn’t an Oscar for costume design until 1948. And there wasn’t a costume design branch until 2013.”
Immediately upon entering the meticulously arranged rooms which house Hollywood Costume, one can feel the passion and dedication that its curator has for her chosen field, eventually bringing her to the attention of the Academy. “I became an Academy Governor because I felt it was historic and an important thing to do,” said Nadoolman Landis who is also founding director of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design. “This exhibition is actually expanded from its original V&A debut in 2013.”
Visitors to the Hollywood Costume exhibit have an unprecedented experience, not only in the close-up perspective of historic screen costumes, but also in the full sensory experience, including dramatic settings, detailed text panels, original costume designers’ sketches, subtle lighting and even music. “This exhibition has a score by Julian Scott,” explained Nadoolman Landis. “60 minutes of original music — everything inside the exhibition is synchronized to the score.”
In her directive to Scott, Nadoolman was specific as to what she wished to accompany her 150+ costumes. “Make it feel like a big picture, have it be emotional, so that it can provide our visitors with a journey,” she said, “a cinematic journey.”
One of the first displays one sees in the exhibit is dedicated to Edith Head, an eight-time Oscar winner with 35 nominations spanning a 60-year career. Head designed for over 500 feature films. Indeed, one feels as though one is walking into a theater inside the first room before turning a corner to witness, in four separate rooms, a phantasmagoria of movie history. From Charlie Chaplin’s original costume loaned by his family in Switzerland, to Judy Garland’s famous dress and shoes from The Wizard of Oz, to an array of various Queen Elizabeth costumes, to Superman’s full suit, to 10 of Meryl Streep’s costumes, to Rocky’s boxing trunks, Nadoolman Landis, who has a PhD in the history of design from the Royal College of Art in London, has explored every facet of cinema in collecting the included pieces.
Honoring the visual trajectory a film travels from screenplay descriptions to a costume designer’s conceptions to final film appearance, the displays pay homage to the artists who endeavored to bring these pieces to bear. Even animation is included: Jessica Rabbit was designed by the same woman who designed Mary Todd Lincoln’s costume in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln – Joanna Johnston.
Certainly, with 120 years of film history, one is baffled at the sheer amount of effort it must have taken for Nadoolman Landis to curate this exhibit, and she explained her methodical approach.
“Every single costume in the exhibition has its own story of how it got here,” she described. “I asked my mother, my mother in law, my children, and my friends, my colleagues, my husband, ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ I made the list from favorite movies. Then, I started looking at box office. But then in the end, it’s hard to find costumes. They are the great recyclables. And there’s not a lot around, and what is around is really in these four galleries.”
Going to contemporary costume designers themselves was a pointless task in creating this exhibit, for a reason which may sound odd to some readers. “Designers own nothing,” said Nadoolman Landis who herself was nominated for an Oscar for designing costumes in her husband John Landis’ 1988 film, Coming to America. “We all work for hire. We don’t even own our sketches. Designers are incredibly generous, but it’s not about designers for this. Really it’s about private collectors and museums. What this represents is my life’s work.”
In retrospect, echoing her aforementioned opinion about the cinematic impact of costume design, Nadoolman Landis had a summative perspective about the craft. “The take-away from this exhibition is that it’s not about the clothes,” she said. “Our job is to help the director bring the people in the movie to life. This is the opportunity to see a once in a generation show. This may never happen again. We are here with gods and goddesses of modern mythology.”
Extended Hours For Final Days:
Friday, Feb. 27, 11 a.m.–8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 28, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Sunday, March 1, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Monday, March 2, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.