Oscar Museum’s “Hollywood Costume” Surprises


A love of film accumulates over a lifetime, propelling film buffs to see a show like Hollywood Costume, a colorful survey of what some of our favorite actors have worn in some of our favorite films over the years. We really like how the show weaves technology into the story of the costumes to explore behind-the-scenes filmmaking relationships.We were suprised how much we enjoyed Hollywood Costume, and are sure you will too.

Kids have a more limited appreciation for film lore, however. So to get them intrigued in the exhibit, you might try luring them with Edith Head. Who is Edith Head? Why, the role model for everyone’s favorite character from The Incredibles: Edna Mode!

Edna // The Incredibles

Ms. Head, who designed clothing for directors such as Alfred Hitchcock (think All About Eve, Roman Holiday, The Sting) should impress upon your kids that a Costume Director has superpowers! Which is just what this show sets out to prove. Hollywood Costume takes a fairly earnest topic — how something that takes place behind the scenes of a film affects our love for a character and a story — and treats it so that a modern audience can appreciate the unseen work. While these types of shows can be rather stilted, this show comes alive with technological tricks: prepare to be impressed with how the exhibit pulls you into the story of how costumes help make Hollywood’s characters come alive.

Edith Head Oscars

When you first enter the dark chambers of the old May Company building on Wilshire, (next to LACMA), Edith Head’s 8 Oscars are on full display – a golden harbinger of the splendor to come.  Hollywood Costume, open in LA under the guise of the Academy Museum, was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and is open here in LA until March 2, 2105.

The show is all about clothing and how an actor uses his or her costume to “get into” a role. Here, with the help of some excellent film stills, we get a sense of how Leo seduces Kate, in Titanic — and this is a nice example of how adding photographs of the actors faces can make the clothes come alive.

Hollywood Costume

Kids can relate to the importance of clothing and how different clothes make them feel differently. Meryl Streep has a great quote in the show that essentially says — “you know when you get up and put something on in the morning… you go downstairs and make breakfast but on the way out the door, glance at yourself in the mirror and say “I can’t wear this!”.  When you go back upstairs and put something else on before leaving the house — that’s costume design! You want to be wearing something that expresses who you are, that day.”

The show encompasses the range of Hollywood production and mixes them up sequentially — Charlie Chaplin’s The Little Tramp costume next to sumptuous Chinese silks from The Last Emperor. Outfits that hardly look like anything special (Jesse Eisenberg’s GAP sweatshirt from The Social Network or Ben Affleck’s suit in Argo).

Hollywood Costume

It may seem to kids that actors just throw things on before they go on camera. For a glimpse of the depth of the collaborative process of filmmaking, spend a moment listening to the interviews with Directors and Costume Designers as they discuss the process of deciding what a character can wear. Martin Scorcese, Alfred Hitchcock, Tim Burton, and Mike Nichols each discuss the decision-making process that goes on way before the cameras roll.

Hollywood Costume

Later (in what is probably the best part of the show) Meryl Streep discusses how she works with Costume Designers. This section of the exhibit devoted exclusively to costumes from films from the course of Streep’s extended career. It’s wonderful exploration of the way an actor gets into character. In fact, because her face in character is displayed atop the costume, we found it difficult to take our eyes away from Ms. Streep in character… perhaps proof that these costumes allowed a seamless merger with the characters she plays. (Ms. Streep reveals that she had studied Costume Design in college before she turned to acting — making her a particularly difficult actor for a Costumer to dress!).

Hollywood Costume

The costume drama section made us want to back and watch Elizabeth I – both the Bette Davis version and more recently, Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the virtuous queen. Behind the costumes, a film loop runs continuously with clips of the actresses moving about in the costumes, you could feel the weight of the jewels and the fabric – and history – on their shoulders. Most likely, you’ll go home with a list of films that you’d like to see (again).

Mary Poppins, 1964.

The show is divided into three rooms, and mixes genres and characters liberally — with plenty of action and comic heroes alongside the gorgeous dresses, the show delivers something for everyone. Of course, the show wouldn’t be complete without some of the most famous clothes in the cinema: Marilyn Monroe’s billowy dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” Dorothy’s ginger outfit and ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Mary Poppins’ bag, scarf and umbrella. Oh, and look for Spiderman high up on a wall in the final room!


photo credit: Richard Harbaugh / ©A.M.P.A.S.