Hollywood Costume at ACMI

Looking for an escape on a cold winter’s day in Melbourne? (This green dress from Atonement isn’t exactly appropriate for chilly weather, but it certainly is gorgeous!) Well, you could go to a movie… or, even better, an exhibition about movies. 

 Costumes in movies, to be exact. Like this one worn by Keanu Reeves in The Matrix series… 

Or Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston’s get-ups for Addams Family Values

Or the poles-apart costumes worn by Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club

All these memorable costumes and many more are on view at the Hollywood Costume exhibition at ACMI right now until August 18. I went a few weeks ago and was blown away by how up close and personal you can get with these outfits which are such integral components of the films in which they featured. How on earth would Marilyn Monroe have managed that scene in The Seven Year Itch where she dances over the subway grate without this dress? 

 And could Dorothy Gale have got back to Kansas from Oz in anything other than gingham and her ruby slippers? No, I think not.

 And this green velvet number worn by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind is a stunner. In the film it was made from curtains, and has no doubt inspired countless generations of DIYers to snip into the upholstery for the benefit of their wardrobe (I wonder why the curtain outfits from The Sound of Music were not featured next to this dress? And I also wonder why curtain outfits seem destined to be green?).  

 Another costume that was green was this one worn by Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock thriller The Birds. Apparently Alfred Hitchcock gave designer Edith Head the brief that the costume would be worn for most of the film so Head came up with this “Eau de Nil” shade which was easy on the eye and didn’t distract the viewer from the scariness of the storyline. As much as needing characters to stand out, some storylines require them to be practically invisible, such as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum who was dressed in grey shades so he would be lost in a crowd. Using something like Photoshop, the exhibition shows just how ridiculous he would have looked if he were wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead… definitely one of the technological highlights!

There are lots of insights such as this throughout the exhibition from costume designers and actors too – I loved reading about how cowboys and ranch hands choose different brands of jeans and styles of hats depending on their roles and which state they are working/living in. John Wayne chose this kind of costume with the double breasted shirt and kerchief which he wore in so many of his films (this one is from The Searchers) because it was fairly true to what contemporary wild west residents would have worn.

One of the quotes in the exhibition summed it up – “When it’s well designed, costume embodies the psychological, social and emotional condition of the character at a particular moment in the story”. It’s great to see costume getting the recognition it deserves – it really plays such a huge role in films.
(Thanks to Mark Inducil and the ACMI team for all the images used in this post).