The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has, in a few short years, gone from stodgy to trendy. I always loved the place, especially meandering around the furniture department, which is filled with recreations of rooms from different time periods. Its textile collections are also more than noteworthy but, in recent years, the V&A has started attracting the young and the hip: an ongoing exhibition of influential everyday objects; a Jean Paul Gaultier retrospective that just closed and one dedicate to Alexander McQueen set to open next Spring all contribute to the accolades. It turns out the long arm of the V&A has reached Hollywood too: in collaboration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the Oscar people for the uninitiated) they curated an exhibition of Hollywood Costume that will run at the Academy Building until March 2, 2015.
Frankly, I went expecting something quaint and I was quite unprepared for the breadth of the collection that starts with Charlie Chaplin’s suit from the Vagabond and ends with last year’s “American Hustle” and “Django Unchained”. Photography, in the extremely dimly lit rooms, was not permitted which, in a way, made it easier to focus, not just on the artifacts, but also on the context in which they were placed and on the curious behind the scenes tidbits.
As I wandered from room to room, two glaring facts jumped out at me. The clothes, which are displayed on life-size mannequins, tell the story of women’s changing bodies – at least, Hollywood women. Women of the generation of Bette Davis, Greta Garbo and Ginger Rogers were much, much smaller, both in stature and built – even Marilyn Monroe, whom I always imagined statuesque, was fairly diminutive (and, according to the designers who dressed her, pretty uninterested in clothes). Such tiny waistlines are not to be found in nature any longer, certainly not in any woman I have ever come across.
Contemporary actresses are also very small. And thin. Very thin. This doesn’t come as shocking news but I was taken aback as clothes’ sizes skew more towards a size 0 than a 2. The only relatable body shapes seemed to be Meryl Streep’s, Uma Thurman’s, Glenn Close’s and Oprah Winfrey’s (in The Color Purple). Halle Berry and Selma Hayek’s costumes looked tailor-made for children.
Along the cavalcades I gleaned some sweet and fun facts:
Claudette Colbert refused to wear any of the costumes made for her in “Cleopatra”. At the last minute, Travis Bantin (a famous designer at the time) was called in to start from scratch, which might account for the fact those clothes could not have possibly been conceived in Egyptian times.