A Preview of Hollywood Costume


Forty years ago, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer held its first studio sale of props and costumes, actress Debbie Reynolds stepped in and bought whatever she could.  It was an effort to save for posterity irreplaceable artifacts that embodied the history of Hollywood.  Then, in 2008, Reynolds was approached by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis regarding plans for an exhibition displaying the art of the Hollywood costume, a celebration of the costume designer’s work spanning over one hundred years.

What was an idea became a reality.  The Hollywood Costume exhibit was first unveiled at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and has since circled the globe.  The valley is now the final stop of the international tour and the inspiring exhibit can soon be seen in all its glory at Phoenix Art Museum.  My advice, not only for movie buffs but for anyone who has ever bought a box-office ticket, is to stand in line.  The wait has been well worth it.

The magic of the movies begins even before you enter.  By the entrance you see a lighted marquee on display, reminiscent of the kind you might have seen spread across the entrance of any downtown movie theatre.  It reads simply: Now Showing: Hollywood Costume, and lists some of the characters you are about to see, including Dracula, Cleopatra, The Terminator, and Indiana Jones, among many others.  Then you enter what has been described as one of the most important and certainly one of the most complex exhibits Phoenix Art Museum has ever presented: Hollywood Costume.


Glance up and you’ll see Spider-Man clinging to the wall, then stand back and watch an opening montage of movie clips projected on a wide movie screen where Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp, James Bond,  the Wizard of Oz and many other iconic characters of Hollywood’s past and present are projected.  The short film runs on a loop and plays continually throughout the exhibits’ opening hours, greeting you and reminding you of what you have seen and hinting at what you are abut to see.

 What follows is something akin to walking through the manifestation of dreams you’ve shared with others; memories of past experiences and adventures that come alive, embodied in the sparkling and sometimes elaborate costumes worn by characters who played a pivotal role in bringing fantastical worlds to your doorstep in ways that other story-telling mediums – books, television, even theatre – are unable.  And the wonderful thing about the exhibit is that what you’re seeing are not reproductions; when you stand in front of the iconic dress that Marilyn Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch, or the polka-dotted pinafore that a young Judy Garland wore in The Wizard of Oz, you’re looking at the real thing. 


Besides the costumes, there is also a wide array of electronic, multi-media presentations where you can see and hear performers like Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro discuss the importance of a character’s development as illuminated by the designs of cinematic costume. 

At one point while walking through the exhibit I had the opportunity of talking with the exhibition’s curator, costume designer and historian, Dr. Deborah Nadoolman Landis.  Dr. Landis was standing in front of one of her own designs, the costume worn by Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones.  Talking with Dr. Landis was not an arranged interview, simply a chance meeting, and she was gracious enough to walk me through not only parts of the exhibition but to explain part of the process and development that eventually lead to the iconic look of the fictional Dr. Jones.  After we shared stories of London, where Dr. Landis received her Ph.D in the History of Design from the Royal College of Art, I remarked that seeing her designs for Raiders of the Lost Ark not only on the big screen but displayed for everyone to see on the famous movie poster must have been a proud moment in her career.  In a moment of customary modesty, Dr. Landis smiled and said, “Sometimes you get lucky.”


As you make your exit, the final stop on the tour is the gift shop.  I mention this not simply because a gift shop is something you might expect on the tail end of any exhibit, but here, where the subject is the movies, looking through the array of products on display for sale is something more than trinkets aimed at tourists; it’s a movie-buff’s delight.  Collectibles, such as posters, portraits, books, and actual frames from famous films of Hollywood’s Golden Age are available for collectors.  You might have as much fun looking through the shelves of the shop as you do the exhibit itself.  Allow me to recommend the book edited by Dr. Landis herself titled simply Hollywood Costume.  Not only is at a wonderfully illustrated memory of this outstanding exhibition, unlike many books of its kind, it’s also a great read.  Debbie Reynolds contributed to the preface where her passion for the Hollywood costume design, her desire to make sure we all remember the past by preserving the work of the designers, plus her involvement with Dr. Landis and the Hollywood Costume exhibit itself is on display.


Hollywood Costume is open to the public March 26 and continues at Phoenix Art Museum until July 6.  For more information, including times and tickets, CLICK HERE.

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