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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.

Conservation work completed on "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”

A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.