Interview: Deborah Nadoolman Landis


The Hollywood Costume exhibition, commissioned for the V&A in 2007 and now at the Academy of Motion Pictures Museum in Los Angeles, was the most successful exhibition in the V&A’s history. 268,000 people came to see the show during the 14 weeks it was on display in the winter of 2012-13 and it began a new chapter for its creator, Deborah Nadoolman Landis.  I spoke to Deborah about her career in costume design and her inspiration for the exhibition.

“I think I have to start with my life. I was a practitioner, a working costume designer in Hollywood and in the theatre until I was in my early 40s – working consistently designing movies. We are taught as designers to live backstage in the dark, that’s the culture. I was naturally very reticent and shy. I had never had my picture taken on any film that I worked on. If you’re looking for me on the set of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, I’m not there. And by my choice. I never walked in the background as an extra, I was never a part of the crew. Costume designers are like this, this is the professional culture of our world.” But as Deborah stepped away from Hollywood and enrolled at the Royal School of Art with Sir Christopher Frayling, she began to reflect on the industry to which she had devoted her life, and what it was missing.

“I realised I had a place, I had a voice, I had a role”, and, most importantly, “I had another story to tell.”

So when the V&A embraced the concept, Deborah saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. ‘I knew that the exhibition had to be the expression of everything that I knew and had learnt from my colleagues’.

Hollywood Costume is the culmination of Deborah’s life’s work, her practice and her scholarship. To my surprise, Deborah could not find a West Coast venue for an exhibition on Hollywood costume. “Why be surprised”, she assured me, “costume designers have no value here; it’s an industry town, there’s nothing special about costume design here in Los Angeles”. Indeed, Deborah was urged not to do the exhibition by friend and fellow costume designer Jim Acheson, who dismissed the idea as “dead frocks on dummies”. So Deborah realised she needed not only to celebrate costume designers and their work, but win her industry over. And she did so by creating a dynamic and emotional spectacle.

The perspective of Hollywood Costume is not Hollywood as a vehicle for depicting unobtainable beauty, but costume design as an integral vehicle of storytelling. It combines original film clips and interviews with a specially-commissioned musical score, leading you on a journey through some of the most iconic moments in movie history. “It’s sight and sound and your remembrances, your souvenirs of that moment in time when you were first introduced to these unforgettable people”. Deborah recasts the costumes as the stars of the show.

From Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch to the blue and white-checked dress worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, each piece reveals the integral role of the designer as storyteller.

“I would not allow those clothes, shabby and beautiful and everything in between, to be ripped from the artistic and creative context from which they were designed”.

The exhibition thus reveals Deborah’s powerful intuition when it comes to telling stories. “I am embarrassed to use the word truth but when a film is working the audience has to be a believer. If we are not believing that the people in the movie had a life before the movie, then what’s the point”. I asked whether she considered bad design to be responsible for bad movies.

“Everyone’s had that experience of watching a woman run through the jungle with perfect hair, perfect lipstick, and wearing high heels. You are looking at your girlfriend and saying, really?”

What good designers do is enable audiences to suspend disbelief. “When Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz are dancing on the yellow brick road, they are close to hitting the wall at the back of the stage where Oz is painted, but you don’t think about it because you believe in it and you are there – you’re buying it, you’re loving it, and you’re in the movie. We, the costume designers, are giving them that”.

Cinema audiences are savvy, more so today than ever before, so directors have just a few frames to help us make that imaginative leap and absorb us into their stories. The costume designer is integral this process, working with the director to design every frame. For Deborah, the creation of real people in the centre of the frame, at the cross-hairs of the frame, is key. “It’s not the special effects, we’re madly in love with special effects but that’s not what’s going to make us believe. It’s going to be the people every time. And the design – the hair and make-up, the costume, and everything else in the frame – is going to support the narrative and help us believe”. As the season of Christmas blockbusters approaches, it is worth reflecting on the enduring appeal of honest and creative storytelling. I have learned to see costume as about so much more than clothes. The costume designer is a serious creative force, the figure who actualises and brings to life the people we fall in and out of love with on the big screen.


PHOTO/Sara Gambarelli


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