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Gilbey on Film: Dressing to impress

Hollywood Costume - review.

Hollywood Costume
Exhibits from the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V&A (Photo: V&A)

Top of most cinemagoers’ to-do list over the coming months should be to catch the V&A’s Hollywood Costume exhibition, which opens on Saturday and runs until 27 January next year. (Get there before 18 November if you consider yourself any sort of friend of Dorothy’s: that’s the day her ruby slippers will be spiriting themselves back to the Smithsonian in time for Thanksgiving.) This collection of more than 100 costumes from cinema history incorporates the work of the most visionary practitioners in their field, from Edith Head (All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Rear Window, Vertigo) to Sandy Powell (Orlando, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York, Far From Heaven).

I’m especially glad that the great Eiko Ishioka, who died last year aged 73, is represented. It was said during an item about the exhibition on Front Row this week that the work of a costume designer should be invisible - that if the viewer notices it, then it probably isn’t serving its function. Ishioka’s costumes, in their chilled flamboyance and geometric opulence, were always eye-catching, but then the films to which she contributed were hardly kitchen-sink dramas; her work was an expression in fabric of the themes and ideas that permeated on every level the films in question. She collaborated four times with Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall, Immortals and Mirror, Mirror) and also did extraordinary work on Paul Schrader’s Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters; she won an Oscar for Francis Ford Coppola’s film of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, two costumes from which are included in the exhibition. You can read an interview with her here, and see a brief slideshow of some of her work here.

I had occasion recently to interview the brilliant costume designer Mary Zophres, whose credits include everything from glossy superhero blockbusters (Iron Man 2) to elegant period pieces (such as Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can and the forthcoming Gangster Squad). She has also worked regularly with the Coen brothers since The Hudsucker Proxy in 1994; a friend reports enthusiastically that the V&A exhibition features the distinctive dressing gown which Zophres came up with for the Dude (played by Jeff Bridges) in the Coen brothers’ finest film, The Bjg Lebowski. Below she explains to me her working process, and specifically her collaborations with Bridges and the Coens on The Big Lebowski and the 2010 version of True Grit.

The first thing I did for The Big Lebowski was talk to Joel and Ethan [Coen] and to do sketches and research, then to talk with Jeff. The first fitting was at his house in Santa Barbara. For a contemporary movie like that, we did a lot of pulling stuff in, thrift store shopping, shopping in surf stores and vintage stores in Venice Beach and Santa Monica, looking for different things; I felt the Dude’s clothes should be things he’d owned for at least 10 years.

Jeff tried on a lot of different clothes until we felt we’d nailed some really good looks, we took some 35mm photos and showed those to Joel and Ethan, and we plotted out the arc of the character in costume changes. There’s a line of description in the script which says that the Dude had made a whole career out of being relaxed; those kinds of cues really help me. The fact that he lives in Venice Beach, doesn’t have a job, likes White Russians—all that gives a strong idea of how he might dress.

Over the years, there’s been quite a bit of controversy over the Dude’s cardigan. I can’t even remember where that famous cardigan came from. I think we found it in a thrift store. We ended up having to make six because it was going to be used in scenes where there were stunts, so it could get ripped or damaged. The original one was always in the long scenes but we ended up with those six; I think there was one that was going to fetch quite a bit of money at a costumes auction, only there was some question over its authenticity, and whether it was actually the original…

Jeff is one of the most fun actors I’ve ever dressed. He’s the definition of a character actor. Not all actors are helped by their costume, and he’s an example of someone who is. Because the costume fitting happens so early on in the process, we’re sort of the first information he gets about the character. On True Grit, he was the first person cast, and my method is to design the lead character—that’s who I figure out first—and then the second lead, then it all fans out like a blooming flower. He was doing press for Crazy Heart while he was preparing for True Grit, but I had done all this research, so I had all this information that I was sharing with him about the historical period. He took it in like a sponge. He loves the costume fitting because it helps put him in that era. On the fittings for both True Grit and The Big Lebowski, there was a distinct moment where his posture changed and he went into character right before my eyes. That is such a thrill for a costume designer—it’s why I do movies, to contribute to the story by helping an actor find his character.

Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, London SW7 until 27 January 2013.

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