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This costume exhibit could be more wearable

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Photo by Iris Schneider

I love movies. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. That's how I felt at the Hollywood Costume exhibit on display at the future home of the Academy museum. The exhibit, showing at Fairfax and Wilshire in the May Company building that will house the museum, was put together (and is on its final tour stop) by the Victoria and Albert Museum and augmented with pieces from the academy's collections. It includes 150 costumes (40 from the academy archives) and it is impressive in its scope. You enter the darkened space to the swelling sounds of a film extravaganza. Unlike a movie trailer that is too loud, the music never stops.

Ushers remind you to give your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkened space, and guide you with flashlights so you won't go bump in the night. But the pitch black environment--simulating a black box theater with black floor, walls and ceiling--did not make it easy to navigate as the costumes were under hot spotlights, forcing your eyes to pingpong between total darkness and bright spotlights and video screens. Ouch! And while your eyes do adjust to the darkness somewhat, your ears are given no such mercy.

Each display is a cornucopia of information, replete with screens showing original notes from the likes of Charles Chaplin and other great directors and actors, videos showing costumes being worn in the films they were designed for, musings from actors and fascinating interviews-displayed almost life-size--with directors, actors and the costume designers who work with them. At one point though, Quentin Tarantino was talking about the costumes for "Django Unchained" while Martin Scorsese, in a too-close by display, spoke about "Gangs of New York." Maybe it's just me (I have a hard time filtering noise), but it was virtually impossible to shut out the sound of one in order to listen to the other. The exhibits are impressively multimedia, incorporating drawings, artifacts and fabric swatches to show how costume design comes together and illustrating the collaborative process that the best in the business prefer. But amid the cacophony of sound and light, it was hard to absorb the wealth of information.

As a sidenote, it is interesting that this exhibit comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Having reported on the auction of half of Debbie Reynolds' extensive costume and artifact collection, I have always wondered why the Academy did not snap up that collection and others before these items were sold off at auction to individual cinephiles. When the museum opens we may get a chance to see what is in the academy archives.

There is a lot to learn at this exhibit--for instance, did you know that Meryl Streep got her degree from Vassar in Drama and Costume Design?--but after an hour, I found myself seeking solace. There must be a way to figure out how to create a more conducive environment in which to look at these iconic costumes and listen to lauded experts of their craft. They have much to say about the science of costume design and how costumes help them define and craft their characters. It's fascinating to learn about their process, and how these designers make something very complicated look simple: "My job," says Edith Head, "is to help the girl who wears the dress become the person she's playing on the screen."

The exhibition runs until March 2, 2015.


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