This is the closest I’ll ever get to Marilyn Monroe. I am next to her shimmering, nude cocktail dress, made by the legendary John Orry-Kelly for Some Like It Hot — a costume expressly designed to showcase her breasts.
Marilyn wanted her dresses to be even more revealing, but the designer felt her character Sugar Kane was ‘the kind of girl who will go so far and no further’.
The shock, as I breathe in the gown’s smell, is that while in the film Monroe appears so voluptuous and meaty, seen up close the dress is tiny. It must have been her magic on screen that made it so sexy as to be almost obscene.
Seven-Year Itch: Designed by William Travilla, Marilyn’s pleated dress was made with the express purpose of making her look ‘clean, talcum-powdered and adorable’.
The Wizard of Oz: This is the first time Judy Garland’s ruby slippers have gone on display in Europe — and the first time ever that they have been reunited with Dorothy’s gingham pinafore.
I’m at the V&A’s new blockbuster exhibition Hollywood Costume. It’s the most exciting exhibition to hit London since the Treasures Of Tutankhamun in the Seventies, especially for a cinephile like me.
What could have been ‘dead dresses on dummies’, as the head of the Hollywood Costume Guild and the show’s curator Deborah Nadoolman Landis says, is a technically brilliant exploration of fashion.
In three dramatically-lit rooms with swelling soundtracks, each outfit is shown under a screen showing a moving image of the actor reciting the movie’s lines.
Alongside seminal outfits like Harrison Ford’s felt hat and leather jacket from Raiders Of The Lost Ark, are details of their fascinating back stories — for example his jacket was distressed using sandpaper and Ford’s own penknife.
Spider-Man, Catwoman and Christopher Reeve’s Superman costumes hover above our heads, while Nicole Kidman’s pink-feathered Moulin Rouge corset sits on a swing suspended from the ceiling.
Given that studios have only been preserving costumes for the past 20 years or so, it’s a miracle so many have survived, most of them rescued by collectors.
Breakfast at Tiffany's: Perhaps the most famous LBD of all time was created by Hubert de Givenchy. Audrey Hepburn said of her favourite designer: ‘His are the only clothes in which I am myself.’
Elizabeth: The Golden Age: The most spectacular piece is Cate Blanchett’s gown by Alexandra Byrne, amid a royal court of costumes from The Virgin Queen, Marie Antoinette and Shakespeare In Love.
I love Marilyn’s white halterneck from The Seven Year Itch, buffeted by hot air pumped from below.
Then there’s Scarlett O’Hara’s ‘curtain’ dress, slightly faded at the edges, Keira Knightley’s liquid-satin, backless dress from Atonement, Cate Blanchett’s amber gown from Elizabeth and Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy number from Breakfast At Tiffany’s.
Dorothy’s dress and red shoes from The Wizard Of Oz are here too for the first time, on loan from America’s Smithsonian Institution.
No wonder this exhibition of 131 costumes has been five years in the making, as museums, collectors and film studios have been cajoled into lending their prized possessions.
But my two favourite costume designers are the real stars here.
The first is Edith Head, whose green tweed suit worn by Tippi Hedren in The Birds is suspended as though in mid-flight. Edith was told by Alfred Hitchcock to use only green or blue, in the hope the audience would forget what Tippi was wearing and be engrossed in the action.
The second designer of note is Milena Canonero, whose Oscar-winning costumes for Out Of Africa, Marie Antoinette and Barry Lyndon are all here.
My favourite costumes, though, are from the late Thirties: here is Carole Lombard’s sheath of sequins from My Man Godfrey, created by Travis Banton — who found the star a ‘brassy blonde’ but transformed her into a classy beauty with his ‘less is more’ designs.
Katharine Hepburn’s Grecian dress from The Philadelphia Story is here, too, made by Adrian Greenberg,
The 1934 Hays Code — a censorship act meant to raise the ‘morality’ of what was shown in the cinema — meant every onscreen outfit had to pass a series of tests, including covering nipples and the navel.
Costume designers had to be sexy in an oblique, inventive way — witness the liquid bias cut and the use of satin and embroidery in Marilyn’s dress from Some Like It Hot. She looks almost naked in the film, which was entirely the point.
As I leave the exhibition, I spot the fur stole Marilyn wore for the final scene, when she runs along the jetty to join Tony Curtis — and Joe E. Brown delivers the immortal line: ‘Nobody’s perfect.’
This exhibition damn nearly is. The only let-down? I stood next to a virtual Daniel Craig as Bond, dressed impeccably in a suit designed by Lindy Hemming and made by Brioni Roma. In real life, he is worryingly short. Proof the camera does lie. But clothes never do …
Hollywood Costume, co-curated by Keith Lodwick and sponsored by Harry Winston, is at the V&A until January 27; vam.ac.uk, 020 7907 7073. Tickets £14, concessions available.
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