Costumes Are the Stars at Pre-Awards Exhibits

When it comes to the mass marketing of movies, studio execs look to TV ads, billboards, newspapers and, increasingly, social media, but there’s also a relatively low-cost way to capture the attention of filmgoers enthralled by the outfits worn by a picture’s characters: the costume exhibit — in which, say, the period attire from “The Imitation Game” or the futuristic gear in “Interstellar” go on display to stir the hearts of fashion-conscious cinephiles.

Two such exhibits take place each year at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Downtown Los Angeles, one around the Oscars (Feb. 10-April 25 this year), another during Emmy season.

Selma” costume designer Ruth Carter loaned four outfits for this year’s show, but only after sending other clothes from the film to such places as the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood and Lincoln Center in New York.

“That’s all I had left,” says the self-taught artisan. “I wish they had more (costume displays) when I was a kid, but I guess I did OK.”

For a field that once had to fight to get credit in reviews, costume design has come a long way. Pop-up displays with costumes appear in stores and theaters as films are released.

As the world’s film capital, Los Angeles sports several exhibits. In addition to FIDM, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has entered the fray.

The shows at the fashion institute and the museum have little in common, says Barbara Bundy, FIDM VP of education. The museum offering is a joint presentation of the Academy and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and the costumes are more classical, she says. “Our exhibition shows only current movies that are nominated, or (films for which) our curatorial staff thinks the costumes are very good. We’ve been doing this for 23 years.”

The institute even loaned some historical costumes to the AMPAS display, a traveling exhibition curated by costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis that first opened in 2007 at the Victoria and Albert. The AMPAS exhibit, called Hollywood Costume, premiered Oct. 2 and will close March 2.

Landis says she compiled the list of repped films from her favorites, then added to the list. “Other exhibitions are about the clothes, but this exhibition was never about (just) that. I created it to express costume designers’ place in film,” Landis says. The interactive display has its own specially commissioned music, and video interviews conducted by Landis with such industryites as Meryl Streep and costume designer Sharen Davis.

Sometimes it’s difficult to acquire display items, Landis says, because studios no longer keep wardrobe on hand due to the expense. “Costumes are recoverable assets,” she says. “Now they are sold on eBay.”

Even though costumes from films like “Gone With the Wind” traveled around the country to market the film, things were different in Hollywood’s Golden Age, Landis says. “In the old days, after MGM, Warner Bros. or Paramount would finish a film, the costumes would go into a vast (stockroom), and were used by the second lead in the next picture and then by the bit players in the third picture. Those were working costumes.”

For designers like Carter, today’s displays are a great opportunity to teach others about the profession. “Any student who wants to learn will go to that exhibition and absorb something,” she says. “I’m proud to contribute to their learning.”

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