Yes Martha, Keira Knightley really is that tiny

Costumes from "The Young Victoria."
Academy Awards season in Los Angeles manifests itself in a variety of ways. Oscar parties are being planned. Hair and makeup appointments are being made. Closer to the actual date, folks might start driving by the Kodak Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard to look for signs of red carpet installation. Then there are the die-hards, the fans who cruise the Four Seasons Hotel and the Chateau Marmont hoping to spot nominees.

One of my Oscar rituals is to visit the annual exhibit of motion picture costumes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Downtown. The exhibit, which always precedes the Oscar broadcast, is now in its 18th year. I enjoyed getting up close and personal with more than 100 costumes from the year's films. In the exhibit are costumes by four of this year's Oscar-nominated designers: Sandy Powell ("The Young Victoria"), Colleen Atwood ("Nine"), Janet Patterson ("Bright Star"), and Monique Prudhomme ("The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.") The FIDM museum also has a tradition of showcasing the previous year's Oscar winner for costume design. This time it's the sumptuous costumes from "The Duchess," designed by Michael O'Connor and worn in the film by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.

Seeing a film's costumes in real life is always a reality check for me on the magic of movie making. I'm reminded how the costumes help actors inhabit their roles, and on the flip side how some actors can bring the costumes to life. There is the eye-opening realization of all the long hours and expert craftsmanship that go into making costumes. And there is the never-ending amazement at just how slender some actresses really are, so much so that FIDM curators sometimes have to use child-sized mannequins.

costumes-broken-embraces.jpgWalking through this year's exhibit brought the usual thrills, surprises and one or two disappointments. Powell's costumes for "The Young Victoria" were as stunning in person as they were on screen. I especially looked forward to those from "Bright Star," the film that depicts the love story between the poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, played by Abbie Cornish. But without Cornish, her dress lost its magic. Penelope Cruz's tea-length, black crepe sheath with gold chains and rhinestones from "Broken Embraces" (shown here) was a show-stopper. It's an authentic Chanel dress from the 1990's, making it one of the most valuable pieces in the exhibit.

Shopping cart from "The Soloist"

It was fun to see homeless musician Nathaniel Ayers' shopping cart from "The Soloist." The cart, with all of its oddball components, arrived from storage in one piece ready for exhibit, according to curator Kevin Jones. The creature costumes from "Where the Wild Things Are" were so charming that I was finally convinced to put the movie in my Netflix queue. Ann Roth's costumes from "Julie and Julia" were surprisingly subdued, causing me to ponder whether it was all Meryl Streep that made them so successful.

costumes-parnassus-crop.jpgPrudhomme happened to be at the exhibit the day I visited. She had just flown in from her home in Vancouver and was pleased to see the costumes from "Dr. Parnassus" re-assembled two years after finishing the project. Production was interrupted by the death of star Heath Ledger in 2008, and Prudhomme told me the cast and crew felt that "his spirit was always hovering over us." Prudhomme, who came to costume design from a fine arts backround, is having a good year on the awards circuit; besides being nominated for an Oscar, she is up for a Costume Designer's Guild award in the fantasy category.

A number of the designers featured in the exhibit are, of course, based in Los Angeles. FIDM alum Marlene Stewart, who created the costumes for "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," got her break in costume design working with Madonna in the early MTV days. She came to FIDM after earning a B.A. in history from UC Berkeley and cherishes any opportunity to do character research.

"You get the chance to explore that person's world," she said. "That's what really keeps me going in costume design." She affectionately recalls working with "Night at the Museum" star Ben Stiller: "Ben is very particular about his costumes. It's actually wonderful to work with someone who notices 1/8 inch from across the room."

"Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"

FIDM's curators are already at work on next year's exhibit. Tracking down costumes once filming has finished is "a team effort and a treasure hunt. Costumes might be scattered all over the world," says Jones. Curators have to see any film with potential costume interest so they can quickly begin the process of assembling the show. It almost sounds as challenging as what the costume designers have to go through. Good thing all of us who get to see the end result will have so much fun and be so highly entertained. That's really the point of it all, isn't it?

"Art of Motion Picture Costume Design" at the FIDM Museum runs through April 17.

Photos: FIDM

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