Sam McManis

Discoveries: ‘Hollywood Costume’ exhibit in Los Angeles

The "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes worn in films by Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, superheroes and others.
The "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes worn in films by Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, superheroes and others. The Associated Press

I’d like to thank the academy for … Wait, wait! I’m getting played off? Already?

I have just entered the exhibition “Hollywood Costume,” the first show curated by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in the old May Co. building on the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, barely had time to ogle Edith Head’s eight Oscars, when the overture from an unseen orchestra greets me, getting louder the farther I walk.

After a few jarring minutes, I figured out this was simply the soundtrack for the exhibition of more than 150 wardrobes from a century of Hollywood filmmaking. It wasn’t going away, and neither was I, though the swelling strings and haughty horns made me feel as if I needed to hurry through the multimedia displays showing costumes worn by characters ranging from The Little Tramp to Django, Mary Poppins to Katniss Everdeen.

But that’s the lone sour note in what is a thoroughly enjoyable and edifying display of mere textiles elevated to art.

Again, I’d like to thank the academy for providing an exhibit that not only will please casual moviegoers, who’ll gawk at such artifacts as Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Marilyn’s subway-grate dress and Darth Vader’s mask, but satisfy hard-core cineastes who’ll revel in the thinking behind the clothing, the often-fascinating backstories and infighting behind the garments worn on the backs of actors.

Such thoroughness is to be expected, since the Oscar folks tapped Deborah Nadoolman Landis, both an Academy Award-nominated designer and founding director of UCLA’s David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design, to curate.

My worry that the exhibit would just be a gussied-up trip to the wax museums across town in Hollywood was almost immediately put to rest. These were far more than just costumes on mannequins. The exhibit, heavy on the video and audio, includes interviews with directors, stars and designers, explaining the often prickly collaboration on costumes, described as “an essential tool of cinematic storytelling.”

Your eye, of course, is first drawn to the garment, but the line and cut of fabric alone don’t do it justice. Take Melanie Daniels’ (Tippi Hedren) pale green dress suit that she wore during most of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 thriller, “The Birds.” It looks rather, well, ordinary, especially coming from the mind and scissors of the legendary Head. Elegant and Chanel-like in its simplicity, yes, a pure wool, knee-length outfit that sets her apart from the earthier Bodega Bay inhabitants. Peruse the sketches flashed on a table and listen to Head reminisce about dealing with Hitchcock’s demands and you get a greater appreciation for the task at hand.

“(Hitchcock) didn’t want any distractions from the terror and virtually restricted me to two colors, blue and green,” Head said on video, adding that Hitchcock wanted the characters to blend into the natural Northern California setting. “We, as designers, have the magical (ability) to get the public to believe that the same actor or actress is a different person every time you see a film they are in.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the outrageousness of the outfits in Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 “Django Unchained.” Pity poor designer Sharen Davis, who had to make real Tarantino’s wild “vision” of a Civil War-era spaghetti Western. A video of the manic Tarantino gives a hint of what Davis had to endure: “I need Django to look like Little Joe on ‘Bonanza.’ I need him in that green corduroy jacket … !” Interview with Davis: “How can I give him what he wants and still make it palatable to the people watching the movie? I must’ve gone through 15 different fabrics for that jacket.”

Stories like that abound in the exhibition. Mary Zophres, costume designer for the Coen Brothers’ cult classic “The Big Lebowski,” relates the origin story of The Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) bathrobe — which, by the way, was made of cotton, synthetic fibers, wool and metal. (All exhibits come with detailed fabric information.)

“The bathrobe actually came from Marshall’s,” she said. “We needed four because his head kept getting shoved in the toilet.”

Other anecdotal nuggets you’ll gobble up at the exhibition:

▪ Did you know that the green cotton house dress worn by Joan Crawford’s title character in 1945’s “Mildred Pierce” was bought at Sears by designer Milo Anderson, but director Michael Curtiz hated it so much he ripped it in half to shed its bulky shoulders. Said Anderson: “I burst into tears and he strode off the set.”

▪ Did you know that Jacqueline West, designer for 2010’s “The Social Network,” had to sew on the “GAP” lettering on Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) gray hoodie backwards because director David Fincher “shot the scene through mirrors to replicate the actual location in Cambridge (Mass.) that we couldn’t secure, (so we had to re-create the location)”?

▪ Did you know that designer Tony Walton’s workers needed “needles the size of drain pipes” to make the loose-knit mohair muffler worn by Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins?

▪ And did you know that Nadoolman Landis and Harrison Ford used Ford’s “Swiss army knife, a steel brush and sand paper” to “age Indiana’s leather jacket” in 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”?

There’s almost too much to take in in an hourlong visit. You could spend all your time, for instance, at the Meryl Streep wing; they don’t call her the queen of period pieces for nothing. You are so overwhelmed with famous costumes – Dorothy’s blue checked pinafore from “The Wizard of Oz”; Monroe’s ivory rayon-acetate halter dress from “The Seven Year Itch”; Susan Hayward’s outrageous red cotton crepe, sequined and beaded pants suit from “The Valley of the Dolls” – that they almost lose their ability to amaze.

Almost.

What stuck with me was the lamé and silk velvet, peacock-feathered gown worn by actress Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 epic, “Samson and Delilah.” Head wasn’t sure that peacock feathers were appropriate to the period and landscape of biblical times, but relented. When Head came back with the dress, using fake feathers, DeMille exploded and asked, “Why not use real peacock feathers?” A few days later, DeMille took Head in a limo out to his ranch, where he raised peacocks. “We spent an afternoon picking feathers,” she said.

That, folks, is one reason why Head won eight Oscars. And no one ever, ever played her off the stage.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

HOLLYWOOD COSTUME

Where: Wilshire May Co. Building, 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Through March 2 (closed Wednesdays)

Cost: $10-$20

Information: www.oscars.org/hollywoodcostume; (310) 247-3049

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