For a museum or art gallery curator sometimes the opportunity to mount the showstopper exhibitions means the stars must be aligned just so. Sometimes it’s pure serendipity. This was the case for Christopher Salter, Deputy Director of the Museum of Brisbane and fashion curator Dr Nadia Buick.
There had been talk that a private collector in Brisbane had amassed an astounding collection of Hollywood costumes. Costumes worn by some of the greatest stars of the ‘Golden Years’, created by designers who had become almost household names. With a lot of research via social media, the pair found the collector and his treasure trove of glamor.
‘Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood’ is an extraordinary exhibition of costumes, photographs and other ephemera, collected by Brisbane lawyer Nicholas Inglis. His ardour for all things Hollywood, started at an early age as his aunt and uncle owned a suburban movie theatre and later as a keen viewer of midday movies.
He had collected many movie star autographed photos and by chance happened on a Christies catalogue and bid on a pair of trousers worn by Ava Gardner in 1953’s Mogambo. He was hooked. He has since acquired hundreds of costumes worn by the biggest stars of the period including Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Betty Davis and Marlon Brando.
His expertise is so valued that one of the world’s most ardent collectors, Hollywood legend, Debbie Reynolds consulted Nicholas when she started to sell off her extensive collection. Unlike the studios, who re-purposed or destroyed many beautiful designs, he is managing to preserve a little film history for future generations. His blog, ‘The Vintage Film Costume Collector’ is a regular must read for anyone with an interest in film and costume design.
Highlights from the exhibition illustrate not only an incredible attention to detail but also the star power of the actors who wore them. When entering the exhibition you are greeted by Gloria Swanson’s elegant but fragile pink silk nightgown from ‘the’ film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. It was designed by the most famous of all Hollywood costume designers, Edith Head.
The MGM fittings board is a wonderful behind the scenes glimpse into the back lots and ‘mini-cities’ that powered the ‘Dream Factories’. A photo of the board shows a very young Liza Minnelli (uncredited in In the Good Old Summertime) looking at the board with names like Janet Leigh and Greer Garson and their fitting times written in chalk. From the 1920’s to the late ‘60’s the board captured every major production and star at MGM.
Co- curator Christopher Salter said, ”to create Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood, we spent hundreds of hours cataloguing the collection and have been working with one of Australia’s leading textile conservators who is slowly bringing the garments back to life. … there is still so much nostalgia for this period … and the costumes and props are a very real and magical link to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.”
The influence of these designers is sometimes debated. Some of them were responsible for the stars on-screen and off-screen looks as well. American women could buy copies of gowns worn by their favourite actors in specifically licenced ‘cinema boutiques’ within major department stores.
Adrian first designed for Cecil B DeMille and was at MGM from 1928 to 1941 and designed for countless classics including The Wizard of Oz, San Francisdo, Grand Hotel, The Philadelphia Story and The Women. His striking two-metre wide ball gown worn by Anita Louise in 1938’s Marie Antoinette is featured in the exhibition. Adrian was responsible for Joan Crawford’s particular look on and off-screen and he is credited with starting the trend of large shoulder pads. One gown he created for her role in Letty Lynton was copied by Macy’s and sold over 500,000 replicas.
While at Paramount, Travis Banton created Marlene Dietrich’s iconic androgynous look in Morocco (1930), a look that she carried throughout her career. In the exhibition his stunning gold ‘lame’ jersey costume worn by Susan Hayward in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman is pure silver screen glamour. Another of his designs for Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s 1934 classic Cleopatra is a meticulous example of the artist’s craft.
Edith Head is perhaps the most well known of the creative geniuses who helped make movie magic. She arrived at Paramount in 1938. She won a record 8 Oscars for Costume Design. She is credited with creating Dorothy Lamour’s sarong dress for the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road movies. She worked closely with the stars and established an ongoing relationship with Alfred Hitchcock working with the famed director on Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo and The Birds. She was one of the many designers on the Ten Commandments and her full length lavender design for Nina Foch is part of the exhibition.
There is only one Orry Kelly design in Costumes from the Golden Age but he is perhaps the most ‘colourful’ designer featured. Kiama born, he spent some years in New York, as an unsuccessful actor before arriving in Hollywood in 1932. He became a star in his own right, costuming all the celebrities of the day in what are now considered the classics of the period. It is reported that Bette Davis would not make a film without him.
His acclaimed work included the Maltese Falcon, 42nd Street, Casablanca, Arsenic and Old Lace, Harvey, Oklahoma and Auntie Mame. He won 3 Oscars for An American in Paris, Cole Porter’s Les Girls (one of Mitzi Gaynor’s costumes from that film is in the exhibition) and Some Like it Hot. When he died in 1964 his pallbearers were Cary Grant, Tony Curtis and directors Billy Wilder and George Cukor.
The tails worn by Fred Astaire in that famous scene from Royal Wedding are one of the many costumes that also feature video from the film.
Costumes from The Golden Age of Hollywood catapults us to another time – a time of glamour and beauty. It’s a must see for anyone who loves film or loves fashion.
Costumes from The Golden Age of Hollywood is on at the Museum of Brisbane until May 24 2015. Admission is free – http://www.museumofbrisbane.com.au/whats-on/costumes-from-the-golden-age-of-hollywood/ Here you can download your own paper dolly set with doll and costumes worn by actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn.
Nicholas Inglis’ blog – http://vintagefilmpropsandcostumes.blogspot.com.au/