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FIDM's 'Art of Motion Picture Costume Design' knows that clothes play a big role

This year's display includes Oscar- nominated work by Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood.

February 07, 2010|By Julie Neigher
  • 'NINE': Colleen Atwood knows these are work clothes for Penelope Cruz.
'NINE': Colleen Atwood knows these are work clothes for Penelope… (David James / Weinstein…)

Question: Would Rita Hayworth's performance as "Gilda" have been as mesmerizing if she hadn't danced in that skin-tight, Jean-Louis-designed, black satin dress that undulated in the caress of the spotlight?

Answer: Not on your life.

Costume design is a treasured art that has been invaluable to cinema since its inception. Each practitioner's passion and research help lift a character off the screenwriter's page, transforming words into flesh -- and cloth. One sketch can transport viewers back in time or give them a tantalizing glimpse of the future. In the creation of a costume, fashion trends can be forged. (How many women worked the "Annie Hall" look that Ruth Morley created for Diane Keaton in the '70s?)

For the last 18 years, the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising's Museum & Galleries has paid homage to the creativity of the costume designer. The Institute's annual exhibit, "The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design," opens Tuesday and will feature approximately 100 costumes from more than 20 films released in 2009. The exhibit itself is a work of art, taking 50 people a full year to produce.

Here's a sample of the films included: "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" (designer Ellen Mirojnick), "Star Trek" (Michael Kaplan), "Sherlock Holmes" (Jenny Beavan), "A Single Man" (Arianne Phillips) and "The Soloist" (Jacqueline Durran). Also included are pieces from four of the five designers nominated for this year's Academy Awards: "Bright Star" (Janet Patterson), "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (Monique Prudhomme), "Nine" (Colleen Atwood) and "The Young Victoria" (Sandy Powell). (The fifth nominee, "Coco Before Chanel," designed by Catherine Leterrier, wasn't selected for the exhibit.)

FIDM always showcases the previous year's Oscar winner, in this instance 2008's "The Duchess," designed by Michael O'Connor. On display will be two dresses worn by Keira Knightley as Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and one costume worn by Dominic Cooper as Charles Grey.

A fun tidbit: FIDM ensures that mannequins are authentic to the proportions of the actors, so you'll be able to measure yourself against your favorite celebs. FIDM founder Tonian Hohberg, who is also a member of the board of directors for the FIDM Museum & Galleries Foundation, notes that one of the most attention-grabbing costume displays was from the film "Titanic." The clothes, designed by Deborah Scott, were "extremely popular to the point of adding extra security," Hohberg says.

We had a chance to interview two nominees for costume design for the 82nd annual Academy Awards, which will be telecast on March 7. Both are two-time Academy Award winners, have been featured in previous FIDM exhibits and have pieces in 2009's collection, as well. One is Powell, whose Academy Awards were garnered for "Shakespeare in Love" and "The Aviator." She also dazzled with the colorful period pieces featured in "The Young Victoria," the love story of England's Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Look for her work in the film "Shutter Island," starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The other is Atwood, whose wins were for "Chicago" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." Her talents are also featured in Tim Burton's upcoming "Alice in Wonderland" (her eighth collaboration with the director). She's currently working on "The Tourist," starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp. Her work in "Public Enemies" and "Nine" will be featured in FIDM's exhibit this year.

Sandy Powell

What's key about the art of costume design for film?

What you are doing is helping to create a character. You're hoping to make a character believable. You also want to make it visually work with the rest of the film. I think it's equally important that costumes don't distract. I think it would be wrong if someone went to a film, and all they could remember were the costumes.

Let's chat about your breathtaking costumes for "The Young Victoria." The palette is richly colorful. Did you do this to counter the image of her latter years when she was famous for wearing black exclusively?

The point was that it was young Victoria. The young life most people don't think of Victoria as having. A lot of the colors, yes, were chosen to accentuate her youth. The other reason was that she had so many dresses in the film, it's a nice way to differentiate among costumes. Also, I like using color.

Did you have access to any of the royal archives for research?

Yes! I went to Kensington Palace where her actual clothes are archived. I handled the wedding dress, the coronation robe and several day dresses. It was fab! It always helps to see how something is constructed. What was most interesting was the size of it -- it was minute. Like child's clothing. Victoria was only about 4 foot 9! We think of her as being dumpy and round, but actually she was well-proportioned when she was young.

Is there anything else, in researching Victoria and Albert, that you thought might not be public knowledge?

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