Hollywood Costumes from the Golden Age to the present

Chances are, even if you haven’t seen the movies, you can picture the costumes.
September 22, 2014

Chances are, even if you haven’t seen the movies, you can picture the costumes.

Harrison Ford’s fedora and leather jacket in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” John Belushi’s “college” sweatshirt in “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” Eddie Murphy’s fur coats and lavish gold jewelry in “Coming to America.” And Michael Jackson’s red jacket in the music video for “Thriller.”

The designer for these and many other iconic costumes is Deborah Nadoolman Landis, founding director of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design. She’s also the curator of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ newest exhibition, “Hollywood Costume,” which runs from Oct. 2, to March 2 in the Academy’s new museum space in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art-owned historic Wilshire May Co. building, where Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap retrospective took place earlier this year.

“Hollywood Costume” is a traveling show that originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For the L.A. showing, 40 new costumes were added, for a total of more than 150 original costumes — from Darth Vader’s ominous mask and robe from “Star Wars” to Marilyn Monroe’s dress in “The Seven Year Itch.”

The exhibition begins with the Golden Age of cinema and reaches to the present, with such 2013 releases as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “American Hustle” and “The Great Gatsby.”

“Dallas Buyers Club,” 2013 Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing LLC

The exhibition also includes a section with specially commissioned interviews between directors and costume designer collaborators, such as Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis, who worked together on 2012’s “Django Unchained.” 

Many of the designers featured in the exhibit are Jewish, including Adrian (formerly Adrian Adolph Greenberg), who designed the costumes for 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz” and other Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films of the 1930s and ’40s. The “Hollywood Costume” exhibit features the original ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” along with Dorothy’s blue-and-white gingham pinafore dress.

Another is Edith Head, credited as costume designer of more than 400 films, nominated for 35 Academy Awards and winner of eight of them, starting with “The Heiress” (1949) and ending with “The Sting” (1974). Her Oscars will be on display in a special case. 

“I think it’ll be an incredible selfie moment,” Landis joked.

More recent examples of Jews in costume design are Judianna Makovsky (“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Hunger Games” and “Seabiscuit”), Jeffrey Kurland (“Inception,” “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Collateral”), Ellen Mirojnick (“Face/Off,” “Speed” and “Cloverfield”), Julie Weiss (“American Beauty,” “Twelve Monkeys” and “The Ring”), Michael Kaplan (“Blade Runner,” “Fight Club” and “Flashdance”) and Albert Wolsky (“Grease,” “Manhattan” and “All That Jazz”), among many others.

Landis is Jewish, too; she grew up among Yiddish speakers in the Bronx and the Catskills, where her parents had a summer camp for deaf children. Her father was chief pharmacist at Bellevue Hospital, and her mother was the principal of the Hebrew Institute for the Deaf in Brooklyn. Her grandfather was an upholsterer; Landis learned to sew from her grandmother, and her parents regularly brought her and her brother to the theater.

One theory Landis offered regarding the prominence of Jews in costume design is that thousands of European Jewish immigrants, beginning in the mid-19th century, passed through Ellis Island and found work in the needle trade. The connection to the garment industry goes back even further: Generations of czars and emperors in Europe stripped Jews of the ability to own land, forcing them to work as tailors or salesmen or bankers and relying on their skill in determining the needs and desires of the majority. Centuries of discrimination accidentally helped them develop the tools needed to advance from factory workers to trendsetters in the worlds of fashion and design.

But does their Jewishness inform their design? “If you read their interviews — as I have, in terms of costume scholarship — you can see their humanity, and their interest and passion for the human condition,” Landis said. “If that doesn’t define Judaism, or should, I don’t know what else does.” 

Designers such as Adrian and Edith Head, Landis said, “always considered the character first, always put story first, always were trying to discover who the people were in the screenplay. And that’s why those movies are so great.”

The exhibition is really about the role costume design plays in storytelling, Landis said, and the importance of substance over style and glamour. When Kate Winslet appears in a sparkling gown at the top of the stairs in “Titanic,” and Leonardo DiCaprio falls in love with her, “That’s the director telling the story. That is not the costume designer showing off the dress.” The exhibition’s real title, Landis joked, should be “Hollywood Costume: It’s Not About the Clothes.”

“Titanic,” 1997

“Costumes should never be seen out of the narrative and dramatic context of which they were originally designed,” Landis said with a laugh. “So maybe it’s a really bad idea.” But the show, she said, is meant to teach people about what makes costumes work — and to remember those outfits that captured our collective imagination.

If audiences can take one lesson home from the show, Landis said, it’s that story comes first. People wouldn’t dress as Indiana Jones or the Blues Brothers (another of her creations) on Halloween if the movies weren’t good. “Costume has to be woven into the narrative,” she said, “in a way that it disappears. Because all we care about, ultimately, is story.”

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