Hollywood Comes Downtown for FIDM’s Annual Costume Party
by Lea Lion
On a Friday morning, a motley crew of reporters is clamoring to get the stars’ attention. Photographers are snapping pictures in rapid-fire succession and TV cameras are rolling.
These types of scenes are ubiquitous in Los Angeles. What sets this one apart is that the stars are not famous actors and actresses. They are the behind-the-scenes people who make it all happen.
It is the day before the opening of the annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) museum in South Park, and the media has been invited for a preview (hence those clicking cameras). Featuring more than 100 costumes from 25 films, including outfits from all five films nominated for this year’s Academy Award for Best Costume Design, the show is a whole other type of blockbuster. The Downtown Los Angeles exhibit runs through April 5.
Three kimonos from last year’s Oscar winner for Best Costume, Memoirs of a Geisha, greet visitors as they enter the museum. Fashioned out of colorful silks, embellished with intricate embroidery and fastened with traditional Japanese sashes called obi, the kimonos hold their own as objects d’art. But in addition to aesthetic considerations, these costumes play another role. They must transform an actor into a character, and allow for free movement in the process.
The costumes from Apocalypto and Curse of the Golden Flower receive special treatment in the FIDM exhibit. Both films are represented by several costumes displayed in a custom-built set complete with props.
“We think the costumes themselves stand out because of their epic quality,” said FIDM costume historian Kevin Jones. “They have built-in drama, so you can’t just place them in a white gallery.”
The Curse of the Golden Flower display features the emperor’s more than 50-pound, dragon-encrusted gold armor and the empress’ multi-layered gown fashioned from layers of copper fabric. A colorful background screen reminiscent of Tang Dynasty Chinese art complements the costumes.
“I think, oh my God, these poor actors having to wear these insane costumes and then move around in them and perform, have it come out of their eyes, make us believe it – that is such a gift,” Jones said.
Across the room, the Apocalypto display showcases ornate headdresses crafted out of look-alike Quetzal feathers. The mannequins also wear leather loincloths, black-ink tattoos and strings of beads wound around necks, wrists and ankles. Visitors view the costumes from the bloody Mel Gibson film through a set designed to resemble Mayan ruins.
“It’s different when you are in an exhibition because you can stand and look at the costumes and analyze what you are seeing,” Jones said. “On film you can’t. Rarely does an actor just stand there, so much of this, unfortunately, gets lost, and that is what I love about working on this exhibit. We actually get to see the details.”
Hopper has worked closely with director Clint Eastwood for more than 20 years on films including Flags of Our Fathers and Best Picture nominee Letters From Iwo Jima. Costumes from both films are represented in the exhibit.
“This is Ken Watanabe,” Hopper said, pointing to a mannequin wearing a sober, dark green ‘30s-era Japanese cavalry uniform that the actor wore during a dinner party scene in Iwo Jima.
Unlike some of the exhibit’s showier costumes, Hopper’s designs are understated and rely heavily on comprehensive historical research. When Eastwood embarks on a new film, Hopper says she typically spends several months collecting vintage items and recreating period clothes from photographs. It is all part of her minimalist philosophy towards costuming.
“With the work that I do with Clint, his movies are basically everyday life, so the costumes that I deal with are everyday clothes,” Hopper said. “The costumes, in a way, have to be invisible. If they show then I think it’s kind of distracting. It should be more about the story.
“Of course, it depends on the show because there are some shows that you want [costumes] like Dreamgirls,” she added, gesturing towards the next gallery, where the Academy Award-nominated designs from that film are on display.
In an adjoining gallery, Davis, the costume designer for Bill Condron’s Dreamgirls, is standing next to three mannequins outfitted in hourglass-shaped silver lamé gowns with blue sequin trim.
Worn by actresses Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose in the film, Davis’ costumes are characteristically flashy. But, there is more to these gowns than meets the eye.
“My first exhibit here was Ray and that was a very low-budget film and the costumes were not very well constructed, so when they asked me to put them on display here I was horrified because I knew they weren’t really made for that,” Davis recalled. “The Dreamgirls costumes had to be well made because of the heavy dance movement.”
Davis noted that the costumes performed another unique feat: they transformed three actresses with very different body types into a uniform height.
“Anika Noni Rose is about 5-foot-2 and very petite and of course, Beyoncé is 5-foot-7 and Jennifer was 5-foot-9, she is pretty tall, and Bill’s request was that they were always the same height,” Davis explained. “All the shoes are custom-made. Anika’s heels were four or five inches high… Jennifer’s heels were one inch.”
If the Art of Motion Picture Costume Design exhibit tells one movie-worthy story, it is that behind the scenes, costume designers are the stars of the show.
The Art of Motion Picture Costume Design runs through April 5 at the FIDM Museum and Galleries, 919 S. Grand Ave., (213) 624-1200 or fidm.com.
Contact Lea Lion at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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