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Costumes Are Ready for Their Close-Up

Once viewed as props and relegated to the back of the closet, movie wardrobes are increasingly finding their way to the limelight.


Matt Damon transforms from a plaid-shirt-clad, working-class wannabe into "The Talented Mr. Ripley" in tony turtlenecks and tuxedos. Jodie Foster's prim governess in "Anna and the King" wears a gray corseted gown whose uptight Victorian styling contrasts with the king's opulent wardrobe and exotic life of many wives. And Jessica Lange literally armors herself for revenge after the death of her sons in "Titus."

Film costumes can define a character in quiet yet powerful ways. Although costumes do not get much attention except during Oscar season, they are becoming increasingly valuable as collectibles and even museum-quality pieces. A small group of collectors and curators is working hard to recognize the clothes as an art form.

This year's Oscar nominees for best costumes come from period dramas wardrobed by established costume designers: Jenny Beavan for 'Anna and the King" (who won an Oscar for "Room With a View"), Colleen Atwood for "Sleepy Hollow," Ann Roth and Gary Jones for "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (Roth won an Oscar for "The English Patient"), Oscar winner ("Chariots of Fire" and "Barry Lyndon") Milenea Canonero of "Titus" and English designer Linda Hemming for "Topsy-Turvy."

The costumes are vying for the gold statue as nearly 150 other costumes from films over the last 100 years are on display at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in downtown Los Angeles. The exhibit provides an opportunity to see firsthand the beauty and details of splendid garments, many of which have had to be restored.

The exhibit features breathtaking masterpieces such as an embroidered gown from 1935's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and a sable-trimmed peignoir from 1938's "Marie Antoinette." The craftsmanship verges on art in the older costumes, as designers used real fur and true embroidery in order for the clothes to look real on screen. Now, with new technology both in cinema and fabrics, designers have an easier task. The robes in "Topsy-Turvy," for example, may look meticulously embroidered on screen, but they are actually spray-painted with designs.

On display are costumes from other 1999 films notable for their wardrobe, including "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" and "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Throughout the life of movies, costumes have been considered as disposable as sets. Outfits that live on in screen infamy were often dismantled or passed through scores of extras. And many of the gowns have suffered indignities beyond belief. Fashion Institute curators worked hard to repair and restore many of the outfits in their exhibit, including a silver lame ball gown from "Marie Antoinette" that, for another movie, had been sprayed with black paint.

AMC's "Faded Sequins, Tattered Dreams: Saving Hollywood's Classic Costumes" (5 and 10 p.m. Tuesday and March 26) beautifully documents this change in attitude about costumes as well as the indignities suffered by even the most fabulous of frocks. Imagine anyone today tossing in a corner the iconic strapless gown worn by Rita Hayworth in "Gilda."

One beaded gown made for Marlene Dietrich cost as much as a house to build, but it was passed from actress to actress before being rescued, in tatters, by a collector. Marilyn Monroe's costumes from "Some Like It Hot" were used again in "The George Raft Story."

But now auction houses, even EBay, are beginning to make quite a bit of money off these famous frocks. All this may guarantee that even the ascots worn by Austin Powers will be guaranteed their day in the sun. And wouldn't that be smashing, baby.

* Hollywood 2000 is on display at the Fashion Institute of Merchandising and Design, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday through April 28. Admission is free. For more information: (213) 624-1200 or http//

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