Hollywood Costume – V&A Museum

Rakshita Patel
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I have chosen to write about my favourite exhibition of 2013, the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A). The Hollywood Costume exhibition explored the central role played by costume design in film storytelling.

“Clothes are never a frivolity, they always mean something”
– James Laver (1899–1975), first Keeper of the V&A Theatre Collections.

Costume designers are storytellers, historians, social commentators and anthropologists. Movies are about people, and costume design plays a pivotal role in bringing these people to life.

The Hollywood Costume exhibition explored the role of the costume designer in creating a character and transferring them from script to screen; examined the key collaborative role of the costume designer within the film’s creative team; and celebrated the most iconic characters in the history of Hollywood.

The exhibition brought together over 100 of the most iconic movie costumes from across a century of Hollywood filmmaking (1912 to 2012).

I was very excited about seeing the exhibition because I felt it was a great chance to see for myself first-hand some of the Hollywood costumes that I had grown-up with and that I knew and loved so well. The exhibition was superb and exceeded my sky-high expectations.

I got a real thrill from seeing some of the truly iconic costumes, like Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses. Gone With The Wind is one of my top three films of all time; I have watched it over and over again; and I adore the character of Scarlett O’Hara – her independence, her resilience, her inner strength, and her steadfast determination to fight on and win through at whatever cost. Her green dress in particular, the one that she has Mammy make-up from the curtains, to impress Rhett and hide the fact that she is living in poverty, is iconic. To see it is a real privilege. And when I did see it, it simply stopped my heart and quite took my breath away!


But the exhibition far exceeded my expectations because it did not just involve walking around the exhibition looking at iconic costumes. It used cutting edge technology to explain how a costume designer’s work is integral to creating a film “character”.

The exhibition explained the role of a costume designer – how films are essentially about people; how clothes reveal so much about a person; and how costume is therefore a critical part of building any film character because it is an outward expression of the person they are inside. This was an aspect of filmmaking that I had not really thought about before. I am very interested in film characters but I had never really stopped to analyse all the different components to building and developing a film character.


The exhibition illustrated how collaborations worked between a film director and a costume designer – the discussions that went on; the different stages of designing a costume; and how their creative choices were informed by the character, and even by the actor playing the role. In particular I liked the second gallery, where they had chosen four films and interviewed both the film director and the costume designer on how they had collaborated on creating the characters through the costume choices they had made.

To cite just one example of what I mean. One of my favourite sections looked at “Indiana Jones”, who is one of the most iconic film characters ever created. It looked at all the aspects of his costume – the hat, the shirt, the jacket, the trousers, the boots, the satchel and the whip – and explained how they had chosen what those items would be and what they said about the character. I found it very interesting to see how each small aspect of costume said something about the character’s personality and the type of person he was. One of the ways to tell when a film character becomes truly iconic is when they can be recognized by their silhouette. You can definitely do that with Indiana Jones!


In summary, the Hollywood Costume exhibition really opened my eyes to the important and critical role that costume designers play in building a film character and bringing that character to life on the screen so that he/she is a fully-rounded 3 dimensional human being. Superb.

The Hollywood Costume exhibition ran at the Victoria and Albert Museum (the V&A) from 20 October 2012 to 27 January 2013.

About Rakshita Patel

Raks was born and brought up in Birmingham but has lived in London for over 20 years. She works in the public sector but her real passions are campaigning and culture - specifically theatre, film and TV. Her interests are eclectic and diverse and include LGBT, race, equalities, theatre, film, TV, politics and current affairs. Twitter: @MycroftBrolly

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