Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Exhibition review - "Hollywood Costume" - V&A, Monday 21st January 2013

Off through the snow to South Kensington for the final days of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V and A – as most certainly “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED” I will be interspersing the text with photo stills from the relevant films to show you some of the iconic costumes on display. There will be a bit of ranting going on, so bear with me!
Firstly I have to have a rant about how badly we cope with snow in this country. I checked online before leaving home to see if the trains to Victoria were running OK – and apparently they were, with “minor delays”. So, off to the station to find that there was a Victoria train due in 8 minutes. Lovely. 2 minutes after it was due to arrive, the train just vanished from the departures board. No announcement – it just disappeared into thin air. The station announcer then told us to “Stand back from the platform edge as the next train is not in customer service”. That train then pulled in slowly to the platform and stopped. Despite it not being mentioned in any way on the departures board, it was apparently heading for Charing Cross. And this after four days of snow that had been forecast for at least a week. Still I suppose I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t expecting to fly out from Heathrow. I’ve always felt that, should the Germans ever decide to invade again, they wouldn’t have to bother with guns and bombs and stuff; they would just have to wait until 1/8th of an inch of snow fell on the UK and they would be able to simply walk in and find us all completely stranded with all transport links at a total standstill.
Never mind, even with delayed trains we still managed to get to the museum earlier than our scheduled time slot, so we had a bit of a wander round. I do find the V&A phenomenally dreary for some reason. Its better than it used to be - but it still reminds me of an enormous attic with lots of dusty old bits and pieces lying around. I suppose the best way to appreciate it is to go with something definite in mind that you really want to see, see it and then come away again, rather than just wandering round aimlessly and poking about among the piles of stuff. The standards of display seem to be improving considerably – but see below. One particular gallery that I’d never seen before and the name of which escapes me is an enormous semicircle set up as a kind of late-Renaissance street, with windows and doors and shopfronts, statues and street furniture all set in the context that you would have seen them in the original street. We wandered around the costume gallery but found it somewhat gloomy – apart from one section in which the late regency costumes had been displayed in an enormous niche, the surround of which had been intricately painted to make it look like a bamboo trellis with climbing plants against a skyscape; this made the costumed dummies appear like real people taking tea in the garden, and really made the costumes come alive. No other part of this gallery had been given this treatment and I wondered why.

The queue for the Hollywood Costumes exhibition was enormous – its been sold out for months and I was lucky to get tickets a while back. Its quite a big exhibition and there is lots to see – but the layout really lets it down. For what is the national museum of design and aesthetics, I always find the V&A exhibitions are badly, badly let down by their layout. Its all about how it looks, and there is never any consideration given to how people behave at an exhibition, how they move about (or in this case don’t move about) or any kind of thought given to how to accommodate large numbers of people effectively, allow them to see the exhibits but prevent logjams. Particularly frustrating at this exhibition (and many others that I’ve been to) is that the explanatory cards are always put on the floor. This means that in order to see it you have to shuffle around and crane your neck and bob about behind the inconsiderate person who plonks themselves in front of something and then just stands there. The V&A curators could really learn a lot from going to a big Disney theme park and seeing how to move people in a particular direction, giving them plenty to look at should the queue come to a halt.
The first room is particularly badly laid out. Its square, and the podiums (podia?) with the costumes standing on them run the width of the square. There are four of five of these and the dummies, all facing front, are ranged in two back-to-back rows on each podium. This means that the costumes can only really be seen from one side (never a back view), and because of the lack of directional flow, people are just milling about getting in each others’ way, clumping in front of something particularly interesting or viewing costumes in a completely random, scatter gun fashion depending on where the crowds are thinnest. Its frustrating in the extreme. Solution: make the podiums thinner (one costume deep). Alternate costumes to face front so they can be seen from the back as well.  Design a directional, non-negotiable flow system which moves everyone in the same direction, sending them in a series of S-shaped movements along the front of one podium, around the end, along the back of it in the opposite direction and repeat with the next podium (think of the directional post and tape arrangement you go through to get to the ticket desk at the cinema, or to a window at the post office). At the end of the last podium, allow people to move either forwards into the next display room or back to the beginning of the first room if desired. Place information cards on stands at waist level, not on the floor.
On the first podium, costumes are lit individually and in rotation, which is fine if you can walk along the row at the correct speed to keep up, but most people are standing in front of a costume, getting a quick glimpse of it and then waiting in front of it until it gets lit up again. As the very first costume in the exhibition is Vivien Leigh’s green “curtain” dress from Gone With The Wind, there are a lot of people waiting in front of it.(thankfully, none of the other podiums have been given this ridiculous lighting treatment) The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that the green and yellow tie-backs used as a belt are not the same ones as Leigh is wearing in the poor resolution still from the film mounted behind it Its crammed in next to a couple of beautiful costumes from The Last Emperor which I would love to inspect from all angles but I can only see them from the front. The final podium in this room is spectacular – there are period costumes from Shakespeare in Love, Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and Dangerous Liaisons - and because wigs and millinery are completely separate disciplines of costume design and therefore not, for the most part, displayed with the costumes, some considerable time and effort has been spent in recreating hairstyles and headgear with strips of elaborately curled and styled black paper. I like it.
The second, much larger room feels as if it has been curated by a completely different team of individuals. There are a series of large, waist high tables like the cutting benches you would find in a costume studio. They are lit from above to make it look as if there are things lying around on the top, there are props, one seated or standing dummy wearing a costume and interviews with their designers projected onto the solid backs of chairs arranged around the table. The attention to detail of the lighting is incredible – the first table showcases Tippi Hedren’s green skirt suit from The Birds  and on it stands an empty birdcage, but its “shadow” contains the moving shadows of the two caged lovebirds Hedren takes across the bay in the motor boat. So the birds are there, but not there. On another table is a white ceramic ashtray –
empty in reality but projected into it is an image of a couple of cigarette stubs. One of them is still lit and the “smoke” curls out of the ashtray and flows across the table. The trouble is that all the tables are quite close together and the resulting hubbub caused by all the interviews playing at once is horribly distracting. Each chair is “occupied” by a different interviewee, and they play alternately on each side of each table – so you are constantly dashing round each table to catch the next bit of the interview and so, unfortunately, is everyone else. On the opposite side of this room are three large centralised podiums with a number of costumes (all facing outwards again). This would be fine, but interspersed between the costumes are large waist height projection screens, showing clips of the films from which the costumes around them come. And of course, people are clumping in front of each screen, standing there until they have seen the clip selection all the way through. This means that progress around each podium is practically glacial. Slap bang next to costumes from two different renditions of Cleopatra is a display about computer generated “motion capture” filming and
how costumes are applied to animated figures. It’s a bit of a perspective shift to be looking at a costume worn by Claudette Colbert in the 1930s and at the same time have a narrator practically shouting at you about the latest technology on display three feet away. I finally realise that this is because the costumes on this podium are clumped according to (more or less) when the film is set and how new film technologies have changed the art of costume design over time. So a costume from the black and white 1930s film 42nd Street stands next to a costume from the 2010 film The Artist The two Cleopatra costumes are the “start point” on this podium and the motion capture “costumes” are the end point – but of course they are adjacent to each other because it’s a rectangular podium and you’ve walked all the way round it.

The last podium in this room is another gear shift. Instead of the mannequins being headless, each has a small square screen attached to it in the position where the wearer’s head would be. On these are projected moving images of the actor’s head as it appears in the film itself. It’s a clever idea, but I’m not sure it entirely works, nor is indeed necessary. On some, half the screen is obscured by a hat or other headdress and some of the screens are blank because the relevant projector isn’t working. I care not that there is only a week left for the show to run – get the bloody things going!
The third room again feels like a different team has curated it. Its in a completely different format from the first two and so feels like another clunky change of gear. It’s a more-or-less traditional “catwalk” approach with mannequins displayed facing front at different angles, sometimes two or three deep. The face-screens are there, the floor-bound information cards are there, the video clips are not there. I begin to notice that the V&A is playing jiggery-pokery with some of the costumes; the accessories are not the original ones but modern substitutes. And the attention to detail as regards these accessories is pretty damned poor. Kate Winslet’s beautiful “Embarkation” costume from Titanic is topped off with a hat far smaller than the one she wears in the film and with a brown patterned ribbon rather than the blue one from the film. Natalie Portman’s “Black Swan” costume from the film of the same name is accessorised with PINK pointe shoes when they should be black. Daniel Radcliffe’s Hogwarts costume is wearing a completely non-Gryffyndor tie. At the end turn of the catwalk is a semicircular podium that is almost completely bare, meaning that on the “home stretch”
towards the exit door, many of the mannequins are crammed together in too small a space to be properly appreciated. The most heinous consequence of this is that the two most arguably famous costumes in the entire show – Marilyn Monroe’s “subway grating” frock and Judy Garland’s iconic dress from The Wizard of Oz are shoved up against each other in a total “dogleg” where the podium turns at a right angle towards the exit. Monroe’s frock is the only one in the entire show presented in a glass case and the curators really missed a trick in not installing a fan in the floor to make the dress billow upwards in the way that most of us think of it and (poor) modern copies of the Ruby Slippers (not the real ones, as I notice the blurb is trumpeting)  are tucked away on the floor and easily missed as a result. If ever there were a pair of shoes that should be on their own waist height column covered in yellow brick-patterned paper, its these. Garland wore pale blue ankle socks in the film, but here the feet of the mannequin are wearing what look like strident royal blue football socks. Surely, surely these two costumes should have stood on their own on the semicircle at the end of the catwalk, where the desire of people to linger and look is not going to cause a jam right by the exit door?
There are some lovely – and iconic – examples of the costume designer’s art on show here. But the overall layout of the exhibition is messy, badly thought out and frustrating. And for the national museum dedicated to the history of design, that’s an absolute scandal.

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These are my opinions. I am entitled to them. As you are to yours. If you are going to respond to my opinions, at least make your responses worthwile. Vitriol is pointless. And more importantly, won't get published - so you'll be shouting in the dark.