City of Angels and Artifacts: Part 1

Hollywood Costume is a museum exhibition curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  Since the exhibit first opened in 2012, it has traveled to Australia, Virginia, Arizona, and, on October 2, 2014, to Los Angeles, California where it will be until March 2, 2015.

For its final stop on the exhibition tour, Hollywood Costume is hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the home of its future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures—the former May Company Department store located along LA’s Miracle Mile at Wilshire and Fairfax.  I had the opportunity to coordinate the exhibition’s installation and to serve as consultant when more than 50 costumes were added to Hollywood Costume for the tour’s grand finale.

Unlike costume exhibitions that take the moviegoer’s point of view, Hollywood Costume invites visitors to see a film through the designer’s eyes.  The exhibition’s multimedia components include exclusive filmed interviews, sketches, animation, and film clips.  The exhibition spans four galleries of approximately 12,500 square feet and its multimedia aspects help bring to life the more than 150 costumes gathered for the venue.  Gallery text is informative without being turgid and—I am told—reads like the curator’s lectures for her graduate “Introduction to Costume Design” course at UCLA.

Of the artifacts displayed, only the Ruby Slippers and three complete costumes (Singin’ in the Rain, Star Trek III/IV, The Addams Family) are from the Academy’s own collection.  Everything else—from Mary Poppins to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp costume—is on loan from 50 different sources.  Los Angeles-based private collector, Larry McQueen, has loaned 18 costumes from his collection including a Travis Banton-designed gown for Angel (1937).

Marlene Dietrich wore the Angel gown, exhibited in gallery one, for her role as Lady Maria Barker in the Ernst Lubitsch 1937 melodrama.  The opulent gown and stole represent the stunning result of collaborative efforts both prior to production and many years later when the costume was restored for exhibition.  Though Angel was filmed in black and white, visitors to Hollywood Costume have the opportunity to appreciate the gown’s detail in color and up close.

Marlene Dietrich in Travis Banton design for Angel (1937)

Marlene Dietrich in a publicity still for Angel (1937).

Banton was Paramount’s chief costume designer from 1929 through 1938 during which time he designed multiple costumes for Dietrich including the tuxedo from Morocco (1930), which is on exhibit in gallery four of Hollywood Costume.  The hand stitched Angel gown was the most expensive costume Banton had ever designed even though it was seen onscreen for fewer than ten minutes.  The labor that went into it included hand embroidery and embellishment with hundreds of beads, sequins, and stones.

Publicity still for Morocco (1930)

Publicity still of Marlene Dietrich in a Travis Banton design for Morocco (1930).

Treated as production assets, film costumes are frequently re-used and re-purposed for other films.  As dress scholar Anne Hollander once noted, “Once their function is fulfilled, theatrical clothes quickly wither unless great care is taken care of them.  [. . . ]  costumes get used again and again and are repeatedly fixed over and pulled apart so that they may live many lives, and eventually die of overwork” (Hollander 1977: 715).  At a film production’s end, it remains common practice for costumes to re-enter wardrobe stocks and await fresh opportunities to become carriers of biographical information about new characters; to be worn on the backs of different actors in other films. 

Banton’s Angel costume was no different.  It was re-used by designer Irene for Mitchell Leisen’s film Midnight (1939).  Edith Head used and re-worked the costume twice: for Jerry Lewis’ 1961 The Errand Boy and for Melville Shavelson’s 1963 A New Kind of Love.  Over the years, the costume’s re-use included turning the stole into bodice front draping (The Errand Boy) and later into a turban (A New Kind of Love).  In 1985, costume designer Travilla reconfigured the costume yet again, returning it to its original design, which Barbara Hershey wore in the TV movie My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Legend of Errol Flynn

Lorraine Day in publicity still for The Errand Boy (1961)

Lorraine Day in publicity still for The Errand Boy (1961), costumes by Edith Head.  Head pulled from Paramount's existing wardrobe stock, which included Banton's 1937 design.


Scene from A New Kind of Love (1963)

Scene from A New Kind of Love (1963), costumes by Edith Head.  Note how the Banton gown has been re-worked.

After 53 years in show business, the Angel gown retired from production work.  Check back soon for “City of Angels and Artifacts: Part 2” in which I describe how the costume became part of a private collection in 1990 and was eventually restored.

Many thanks to Larry McQueen who graciously shared his research and photographs with me.

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