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The Woman With The Whip

She armed Indy and thrilled Michael. Now this costume designer has written a history of her craft, telling the tales behind the styles.

December 16, 2007|Steffie Nelson | Special to The Times

SHE put the bullwhip in Indiana Jones' hand, and the dark suits and shades on the Blues Brothers. She sent a zillion leather manufacturers into overdrive, knocking off the zippered red jacket worn by Michael Jackson in the "Thriller" video.

Now, Deborah Nadoolman Landis, an Academy Award-nominated costume designer and president of the Costume Designers Guild, is paying tribute to her craft with "Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design." With a forward by Anjelica Huston and more than 800 archival photographs, "Dressed" is one of the definitive books on the subject. (Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter gave out 500 signed copies as his holiday gift this year).

We talked shop with Landis -- a longtime Angeleno who's married to director John Landis -- while she was in New York for a "fancy schmancy" appearance at "Timeless," the fashion conference by Initiatives in Art and Culture.

"When you work on something your whole life and you have a moment," she said, "it's nice to be the bride instead of the bridesmaid."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, December 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Costume designer: An article in the Dec. 16 Image section about costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis said she is president of the Costume Designers Guild. Landis is a past president; Mary Rose is the current president.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 30, 2007 Home Edition Image Part P Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Costume designer: An article in the Dec. 16 Image section said that Deborah Nadoolman Landis is president of the Costume Designers Guild. Landis is a past president; Mary Rose is the current president.

Naturally, she was planning to wear black.

"Dressed" covers the history of Hollywood costume design, from Paul Poiret costuming Sarah Bernhardt in 1912 to "Little Miss Sunshine" last year.

I started collecting a database about 10 years ago. If Bette Davis said she wore a feather in her hat in 1936, I found it. But I always say the book is really not about the clothes, because "costume design" summons spectacle, Vegas and Halloween. That's not what we do. We're providing a conduit for the actors. A lot of images that I started to collect were images that people were familiar with, but now you have the stories that illuminate the costumes in a completely new way.

I was really saddened to read about the liquidation of so many amazing costume archives in the '60s and '70s. There's Western Costume, and there are a few in London and in Rome, but Paramount or 20th Century Fox, they used to be treasure houses! . . . Warner Bros. has about the best archives, and when I was a young designer and I started working there, many of the costumes from "My Fair Lady" were still there.

I remember trying on all the hats -- can you imagine? Now, when someone like Colleen Atwood is designing "Sweeney Todd," she has to create her own costume shop.

There are so many great stories -- how Harrison Ford was supposed to wear a fedora in "Blade Runner," but came on set wearing his Indiana Jones hat so Ridley Scott gave him a crew cut instead. What are some of your other favorite flash-of-inspiration moments?

I love Penny Rose's stories about working with Johnny Depp on "Pirates [of the Caribbean]," because she really didn't know what the approach should be. And when he first saw her he said, it's Keith Richards. And then she did the same thing I had to do with Harrison: She brought down a million tri-corner hats, and they played dress up. It's just like being in a fitting room at Loehmann's.

Do you think fashion design and costume design are fusing somewhat today, with the emphasis on celebrity styling and product placement?

They are not fusing; they can't fuse. Fashion designers really do have to sell clothes. That's not to say that great couture doesn't tell a story or that I don't bend before their great work; I love fashion, I adore it, but they don't do what we do. Nobody knows our name, and everybody has to know their name. It really is all about Marc Jacobs.

For us, it really is all about Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson.

Yet costume design has created some major fashion trends, such as Uma Thurman's look in "Pulp Fiction" or Faye Dunaway's in "Bonnie and Clyde."

It's true, but it's never the intent, because we would always fail. And if you can think of a movie that was a total flop that influenced a fashion trend, I want to know about it. Usually it's something that captures the public's imagination. It's the easiest thing to do, because you can't buy the sets. If you fell in love with it, you can wear a beret, you can take it home with you.

Can you remember the first time that a costume or film had you spellbound?

What movie didn't keep me spellbound? I grew up in New York City and I watched "Million Dollar Movie" on Channel 9 every night of my life.

I love the suspension of disbelief; I want to sit in the dark and be in the movie. How many times have I seen "Gone With the Wind," or "The Women"? I loved all the Adrian movies. Can you believe Adrian designed all those Garbo pictures, all those Crawford pictures and "The Wizard of Oz"? The talent was so unbelievable. And the talent is unbelievable today too. If someone asked me when the golden age of costume design is, I would have to say now.

Givenchy said Audrey Hepburn enveloped him in a radiance he never could have hoped for. Can you think of other synergies like this, where the designer and the actress create an entire iconography?

I would say Marilyn Monroe and William Travilla. He designed all her costumes. "The Seven Year Itch" dress where she's standing over the grate, that's one of the most iconic costumes in history.

But there's an important point to be made here: "In Breakfast at Tiffany's," it really is style over substance. Audrey doesn't remotely look like a call girl. It's a fantasy; she overwhelmed that role.

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