Fans of The Bourne Ultimatum will remember a striking sequence early on in the film when Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) takes a trip to London and ends up using the transport system around Waterloo to make a nifty escape from the bad guys. What you probably won’t remember is what he’s wearing. Cloaked head-to-foot in utilitarian greys, Bourne somehow both stands out for the viewer and blends into the background. His unremarkable T-shirt, trousers and jacket are now on display at the V&A, alongside a doctored film showing the different effect had he worn psychedelic pinks, or a white slogan t-shirt instead.
It’s one of many great exhibits in the V&A’s latest blockbuster show. Five years in the making, Hollywood Costume is a three-room epic taking you from Charlie Chaplin’s silent films right through to Avatar’s motion capture “costume” from 2010. The V&A avoids any Madame Tussaud-style pitfalls, using headless models for the most part, as well as music, lighting, film and photography to bring these now actorless costumes to life. Occasionally the show’s designers use screens showing the character’s face above. The effect is tantalising; you want to rush home and rewatch the film immediately (My Fair Lady), or in some cases still as shockingly off-putting as the first time you saw it (Taxi Driver).
Divided into three “acts”, the first section deconstructs some well-known costumes, from Tyler Durden’s blood red leather jacket, to The Dude’s dressing gown via Bourne’s invisible greys and Brokeback Mountain’s particular jean brands. A doodle by Spielberg becomes Indiana Jones; the boys from Ocean’s 11’s clothes are used to demonstrate how characters are created through costume. This is followed by a nicely developed examination of the collaboration between directors, actors and costume designers. On a video panel, Sandy Powell describes what it’s like to work with Scorsese; two screens show Tim Burton and long-time collaborator Colleen Atwood discussing their working methods. (It’s a shame here that the accompanying costume is from Sweeney Todd rather than the iconic Edward Scissorhands, but this is a minor quibble.)
The final section, “Finale,” does away with any attempt at analysis and just goes for the wow factor. It’s a breath-taking visual onslaught of classic movie costumes coming one after the other, after the other. Here’s Audrey’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s LBD; Sharon’s white Basic Instinct number; the blacks of Bond and Batman; the now-iconic whites of Tony Manero and Marilyn. And then there are Dorothy’s show-stopping ruby slippers, on display outside the US for the first time ever, looking more maroon than red under the lights. We had our own “Dorothy in Oz” moment spotting a gold creation from our favourite MGM musical, Hello, Dolly!, hearts racing and faces beaming at seeing a piece of our personal movie-watching history in real life. Elsewhere, normally cynical journos were going gooey over the green Atonement dress, Darth Vaders’ mask, or the Superman cape. If you’re a film fan, book your tickets now; and discover which of the more than 100 costumes on display somehow make you fall in love with the magic of movies all over again.
Hollywood Costume is at the V&A, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL until 27 January next year. (The original ruby slippers are only on display until 18 November, before being substituted with a replica for the rest of the exhibition.) Ticket prices vary from £5-£16. Visit vam.ac.uk to find out more.