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Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Web exhibition explores costume designs for stage and screen by B. J. Simmons & Co.

By Alicia Dietrich

The web exhibition A Tonic to the Imagination: Costume Designs for Stage and Screen by B. J. Simmons & Co., which highlights the work of the British theatrical costumier company from 1889 to 1959, is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. Founded in 1857, Simmons & Co. dominated costume preparation in London for more than 100 years.

The web exhibition highlights the immense scope of the Simmons & Co. archive and is intended to encourage research in the collection. The exhibition is organized into 10 categories of costume design and showcases 228 selected images drawn from 60 film and theater productions. The Web exhibition was funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The Ransom Center acquired the voluminous archive of B. J. Simmons & Co. in two separate installments in 1983 and 1987. Comprising more than 500 boxes, the collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From its founding in 1857 to its demise in 1964, Simmons & Co. created stage costumes for hundreds of theater productions in London, the provinces and overseas, ranging from Victorian pantomime to the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960s. Simmons & Co. also provided costumes for more than 100 films, including features directed by Alexander Korda and Laurence Olivier.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Costume: "Tom Sawyer" hat proves too much of a distraction

By Alicia Dietrich

Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
Magazine photograph from 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' 1938, with Tom wearing a hat in a scene that was later cut from the film.
The choices made by a costume designer can reveal much about a film character through costume. A character’s social and economic class, for example, can be represented through the style and quality of her or his clothes, shoes, and jewelry, and whether those clothes are clean and fresh or tattered and soiled. Clothing can also expose a character’s unique personality traits and self-image.

Naturally, the costume designer works closely with the actor, director, production designer, cinematographer, and others on the production team. Not only must the costume support and enhance the actor’s and director’s interpretation of the character, but it must also allow the actor’s movement and withstand the rigors of shooting. Furthermore, costume design must be coordinated across all the film’s characters, while color and texture must integrate into the overall design.

Costume designer Walter Plunkett’s rationale for his costume decisions are in keeping with the classical Hollywood tradition and show why he is now regarded as one of the great designers from Hollywood’s golden age.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
Click image to enlarge. Memo from Walter Plunkett to David O. Selznick regarding costumes for 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' December 17, 1937
In this memo to David O. Selznick about the film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), Plunkett shares his philosophy that costumes shouldn’t be a distraction but should blend in with the character and scene: “I feel Tom’s costume would be all right if it were not for the hat. If he didn’t wear that, I feel he would blend nicely with the costume scheme of the sequence, and would be as un-noticeable as are the rest of the costumes. I hope you agree with me that the un-noticeable costumes are correct in this picture.”

In an advance publicity still, published in an unidentified fan magazine, Tom Sawyer is wearing the hat that Plunkett objected to. This portion of the final scene was cut from the film before the original release.

These are just two items from the “Costume Design” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which opens February 9 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.