What a costume designer does is a cross between magic and camouflage. We create the illusion of changing the actors into what they are not. We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.
– Edith Head
Before I decided to take this blog in a new direction a few months back, I briefly toyed with the idea of starting one called Reel Wardrobe, which would combine two of my passions that are at times extremely interconnected – fashion and film. I’ve been fascinated with costume design forever, I even co-admin a site that identifies the clothes worn on Glee. I love how designers are able to capture personalities, moods, stories, messages in clothing, what can be interpreted from it, and how they’re conveyed. Clothes are synonymous with ourselves, they’re micro time capsules that are both personal and universal, capturing moods and motivations, social climates and personal perceptions, making memories and impressions.
Because of this, the fact that I was raised on classics and musicals, and that, you know, I’m my film nerd self, yesterday I made an impromptu trip to one of the exhibitions I’d been meaning to catch – Costumes From the Golden Age of Hollywood at the Museum of Brisbane. Comprised of Brisbane resident Nicholas Inglis’s private collection, it includes 69 costumes from the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood (the 1920s-60s) worn by actors like Grace Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Julie Andrews, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Gloria Swanson, Elizabeth Taylor; in addition to sketches and other memorabilia. It’s an exhibition I could have spent all day in, studying the fabrics, stitching and construction. Outside the clothes on display though, a lot of the anecdotes to go with the costumes raised something interesting – in the 1950s, when the majority of these costumes were made, studio heads were worried about something, something that was upsetting their system that had worked so far. They were worried about TV. They were concerned that it would draw audiences away from the cinema, finding the ‘same thing’ for free at home, motivating them to have bigger budgets, elaborate shooting locations and flashier costumes that the small screen couldn’t rival (this was where the biblical epics were born from). You see, in the ‘Golden Age’, it was the heyday of studio filmmaking. Actors, directors, costume designers were signed to specific studios at a salary for many years, making many films per year. It was, oddly enough, pretty much made acting a steady job. If you could be seen as an asset to a studio, you were signed. Of course, this lead to people being dissatisfied with the restrictive system when the studio couldn’t find them any worthwhile projects (Grace Kelly was signed to MGM but was ‘loaned out’ to Paramount of many of her most successful films). Studios maintained a stable of creatives, keeping the almost theatre company set-up that was costly to maintain. Sound familiar? Aren’t we talking every week about how cinema attendance for mid-budget dramas is declining because people can see the same thing at home on cable TV? What goes around comes around, maybe.
Since most of these films were my childhood, from the well-known and adored Easter Parade to the lesser known but no less delightful I Love Melvin, which reunited Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor post Singin’ In the Rain, where I, transfixed to the television, watched Grace Kelly (I even wore a version of her infamous dress from Rear Window to my formal [Australian version of a prom]), Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Fred Astaire and so many others, this exhibition was pretty much a dream come true.
I Love Melvin
Sadly, you couldn’t take photos inside the exhibition (for obvious reasons), but here’s a few from my favourites that were really great to see in person, truly a dream come true and a bit of a throwback to my childhood.
The Swan isn’t one of my favourite films starring Grace Kelly though (that’s probably To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, or High Society). However, On the Town is one of my favourites with Ann Miller. When I was 10, it was one of my favourite films, watched a million times. It’s one of those thinly veiled recruitment movies that were very popular in the 40s and 50s, where Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin play three sailors on leave in NYC (in fact, it was the first film to be shot on location in the city), where three very different women catch their attention, played by Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Ann Miller. It’s a film that long ago was cemented into the ‘favourite’ category, so much so that I can’t say exactly why I love it anymore. But it’s fresh, crazily energetic and joyful, and super-duper snappy. And, of course, Ann Miller acts and taps up a storm. If you haven’t seen it and pretty much any other musical from the Golden Age, enjoy.