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The Michener Museum’s Icons of Hollywood Costume Exhibit

By AML Publisher
Photos courtesy of Belle Vie Photography
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Costume from the movie: Dr. Doolittle

Costume from the movie: Dr. Doolittle

Icons of Costume: Hollywood’s Golden Era and Beyond presents over 50 items selected from one of the most extensive collections of movie memorabilia, from Marlene Dietrich’s black velvet evening gown from Shanghai Express (1932) to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s black leather jacket from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Rare studio publicity stills, lobby cards and film props augment the experience, and an interactive “Screen Test” area allows visitors to act out their favorite scenes to be uploaded to the museum’s channel on YouTube.com.

“Fabric is very fragile. It is a miracle that any of the early costumes survived at all. Also, showing costumes and dressing them, showing them on mannequins can stress the seams. Preservation is a very complicated process with these costumes-especially since many of these we are approaching almost a hundred years in age,” explained Erika Jaeger-Smith, the Museum’s Associate Curator of Exhibitions.

Icons of Costume is a celebration of the art of costume design in movies. The exhibit includes fashion and accessories worn by such well-known stars as Greta Garbo, Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor, Ryan O’Neal, Dietrich and others. The designs are the work of some of Hollywood’s most celebrated designers including Edith Head, Adrian and Walter Plunkett.

Edith Head (United States, 1907 – 1982) The Great Man’s Lady, 1942, Paramount Pictures Barbara Stanwyck as Hannah Sempler Black silk velvet dress with silvered glass beads.

Edith Head (United States, 1907 – 1982) The Great Man’s Lady, 1942, Paramount Pictures Barbara Stanwyck as Hannah Sempler.
Black silk velvet dress with silvered glass beads.

The importance of a film’s costumes in setting the mood of the narrative was not well understood by the early film industry. But in the 1920s, as movie costumes started to attract interest from viewers, studios set up costume departments and the costume designer, previously unheralded, began to be listed among the film’s credits. In some cases (Adrian is an example) the costume designer became an important part of the publicity of the film. In the 1930s, period film costume achieved its greatest impact on the fashions worn by ordinary men and women. In the case of Adrian, over 50,000 copies of a dress he designed for Joan Crawford in Letty Lynton were shipped to the Macy’s New York City stores alone. The legendary designers of the golden age of Hollywood, many of whom are included in the exhibition, continue to be a dominant influence on today’s fashions.

Still, it was not until 1948 that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the category for Best Costume Design. Several of the costumes in the exhibition are from films that received Oscars for Best Costume Design, and others were nominated.

Research into the history of costume design presents a host of problems. As studios changed hands over the years, priceless records were often either lost or discarded. Sketches, film continuity photographs, and other items in the costume department vital to the film’s integrity during a shoot were sold as Hollywood memorabilia to auction houses or, in recent years, to Internet sites, once the movie was completed.

In the early days of filmmaking, if an important costume wasn’t simply discarded or sold, it was re-used in another film to save time and money. Such was the case, for example, with the suit worn by Warren Beatty in Reds (included in this exhibition), which was also worn by Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg. Also, costumes from the 1920s through the 1940s that were acquired by collectors sometimes suffered due to the fragility of the fabrics.

Icons of Costume: Hollywood's Golden Era and Beyond presents over 50 items selected from one of the most extensive collections of movie memorabilia.  The exhibit runs through September 5th.

Icons of Costume: Hollywood's Golden Era and Beyond presents over 50 items selected from one of the most extensive collections of movie memorabilia. The exhibit runs through September 5th.

To even further confound the historian, studios often made multiple copies of a given costume while shooting a movie, so if one was damaged another would be available. Thus it’s sometimes impossible to know which of these multiple versions was actually worn by the star in the movie, and would therefore be considered authentic. Finally, after the movie was finished, more or less exact replicas of the most memorable and beloved costumes were sometimes created, often by the same companies that made the original garments. There are a few such objects in this exhibition, and they are clearly labeled as replicas.

Given these many challenges, the fact that such a large number of original costumes has survived at all is a testament to those caring individuals working today in the field of Hollywood costume research and presentation. Though he never won an Academy Award, Adrian is perhaps the most famous costume designer in Hollywood history. During his tenure at MGM (1928 to 1942) he was treated like a star, and was so well known that press releases would often trumpet his work as a special—sometimes the most important—element in a film.

While Adrian never owned an Oscar with his name on it, Edith Head was the most decorated costume designer ever, with thirty-five nominations and eight Oscars. She has the unusual distinction of receiving two Academy Awards in the same year (1950), when the category for Best Costume was still divided between black-and-white and color. On the night when famed costume designer Walter Plunkett received his Oscar for An American in Paris (1951), he overheard a reporter backstage ask Edith Head how many she had received. Plunkett answered for her: “Don’t let her kid you. She owns a fifty-acre estate surrounded by a picket fence made of nothing but Oscars!”

Plunkett himself was nominated ten times and set records for grand period costumes in lavish Hollywood extravaganzas. When asked how many costumes he designed for Gone with the Wind, he replied, “The only thing I remember is that the laundry bill was more than $10,000.”

The James A. Michener Art Museum is an independent, non-profit institution dedicated to preserving, interpreting and exhibiting the art and cultural heritage of the Bucks County, Pennsylvania region. In addition to hosting a changing schedule of exhibitions from around the country, the Museum is home to the largest public collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings. The Museum offers a diverse program of educational activities that seek to develop a lifelong involvement in the arts. The Museum is located at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown. For current Museum hours and admission information, visit our website at www.MichenerArtMuseum.org or call the main phone number: (215) 340-9800. Group Tours: extension 117 / School Tours: extension 124.

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