Tights, camera, action!

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’ (1939)

Clothes at the movies? Well, they won’t let you into the Cineplex without them, even if it means wearing the proverbial dirty raincoat – though these days for all we know viewers at home are naked on the sofa with a DVD watching Keira Knightley get in and out of that flimsy, filmy green dress in Joe Wright’s 2007 film Atonement.

As it happens, that flash of green (by British costume designer Jacqueline Durran) is about to go on display in a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London entitled Hollywood Costume. Of course, it’s not quite the same without Knightley herself, movie lighting and the odd advantage of being just out of real reach, on a screen. Is that dress made of silk, or sensuality?

This is the question at the heart of the exhibit, curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis – whose own design credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Coming to America (1988) – and Sir Christopher Frayling. It is a power-house show, with major sponsorship from Harry Winston, over 100 authentic costumes, movie clips, drawings and interview material with practitioners, as well as an attendant book weighing as much as a robust newborn baby. It’s unquestionably aimed at large crowds, which is one of its limitations: there’s a crowd-hugging emphasis on recent box-office, and some neglect of the age when movie clothes actually meant the most.

Avatar, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix get generous coverage, along with Judy Garland’s gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz (1939) and the swaggering green dress Scarlett O’Hara made out of old curtains as the South sank in Gone With the Wind (1939). We get Dorothy’s scarlet slippers – on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History – but we don’t get the blood red ballet shoes that danced Moira Shearer to her death in the great 1948 film The Red Shoes, by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. And we don’t get nearly enough pre-1960s fantasy.

The red-sequin dress worn by Ginger Rogers in ‘Lady in the Dark’ (1944)

After all, until the age of Aquarius, the characters in moving pictures had to be more or less dressed, and the clothes were enviable. In a whole range of drama, romance and comedy, people were clothed in lavish fashions far beyond the restrictions of the Depression and the war, and with a suggestiveness that was essential to the unspoken pact of fantasy and voyeurism that came from sitting in the dark and yearning for the light.

These were clothes made for black-and-white, with shiny fabrics that caught the light. The audience could neither touch nor own such garments but they wore them in their dreams. Witness, for example, one of the few pieces from this period that made it into the show and one of its highlights: the shimmering silver-white dress worn by Irene Bullock (or Carole Lombard) during the nocturnal scavenger hunt in My Man Godfrey (1936). On screen, the dress looks as airy and fanciful as Irene herself but the real thing was made from tiers of glass bugle beads, weighed a tonne (not literally, but close) – so much so that it was decided the mannequin wearing it in the museum had to be lounging rather than standing in order to avoid collapse.

The ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

Designed for Paramount by Travis Banton, one of the screen’s most daring and influential designers – a guy from Waco, Texas, who took himself to Hollywood and got into movies because he designed the wedding dress for Mary Pickford when she married Douglas Fairbanks – Irene’s dress is awesome to behold. But to really understand the effect of the dress – and most movie costumes – a mannequin is a poor substitute for the body itself, turning within and against the fabric. Clothes are like a screen: they show you off, and hide you at the same time.

Still, it does point up the need for more examples from that defiant and showy time when Hollywood took the gamble of ignoring real hardship for the sake of an impossible glamour. Banton, for example, also contributed to the unrestrained fantasies of Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich but while a black tuxedo, white shirt, bow tie and hat from Morocco (1930) appear, her other films for von Sternberg cry out for more.

The dress from ‘Gone With the Wind’

At least there is proper attention given the red-sequin dress worn by Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944). That testament against wartime rationing was designed by Edith Head (once Banton’s assistant) in a film directed by Mitchell Leisen, who began his career doing costumes for Cecil B DeMille. The latter is represented by the breathtaking peacock feather gown worn by Hedy Lamarr in DeMille’s deliciously perverse and trashy biblical epic of 1949, Samson and Delilah, which looks like nothing so much as a foreshadowing of a Las Vegas floor show. The gaudy bra that goes with the extravagant skirts is in overlapping scallops in every shade of turquoise; less evocative of the Bible than an age in which many Samsons would have become hairdressers.

Not that hair is unimportant when it comes to costume. Ann Roth, for example, worked with and on Jane Fonda for Klute (1971), and points out in the show: “The first thing I did was I took Jane over to East 8th Street. And there was a guy who cut hair over there. And I had her hair cut like that, the shag, and of course that cut became a sensation.” Thirty years later, it was Roth who also did Nicole Kidman’s nose for Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

It is the gift of this show that it conveys the power of such choices, and the often laborious work that goes into making what seems, on screen, as natural and expressive as a character’s smile or the turn of their head. Ultimately, that may outweigh the loss of Kim Novak’s grey suit in Vertigo (1958). After all, you can always rent the movie – and watch it wearing whatever no matter what – if you want to see it again.

David Thomson is author of ‘The Big Screen’ (Allen Lane, £25)

‘Hollywood Costume’ is at the V&A, London, October 20-January 27 2013, www.vam.ac.uk

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