One of the areas that never gets much attention in a film (at least not by the audience) is costume design—unless someone's dressed like a giant clam, of course, and we haven't seen that since Rex Reed in Myra Breckinridge. Everyone also knows that the presentation of Best Costume Design is one of those Oscar telecast "outs" that viewers use to tend to other business, and it's for that reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences always tries to get a big name to hand out the award, hoping you'll stay in your seat. (Last year, sexy gals Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez shared the presenting honor, but it might as well have been a botoxed Sylvester Stallone, since all eyes were still glued to Angelina Jolie and that leg.)
Costume is essential in film, of course, and not just the overtly frilly kind. Anything a character wears is costume and not only reveals character, but also makes that person's presence in the story believable. When Anne Bancroft wears a leopard coat (and bra) in The Graduate, it's a costume that tells us she's on the hunt. When John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson wear suits to murder people in Pulp Fiction, their costumes tell us their characters take pride in their work. The most noticeable costumes, however, come from the much-dreaded/much-loved period film, and few popcorn munchers are aware of the intricacies that genre/era-specific materials require.
Enter Cosprop, the famous London costumers who are the industry go-to people when one needs Marie Antoinette frocks or Great War officer duds, whose meteoric rise to fame began in 1986 with an Oscar win for the Merchant Ivory production A Room With a View. Since then, the costume house has garnered 24 additional nominations, with its most recent win for the 2008 film The Duchess, starring Keira Knightly. Still, the praise barely trickles in from the public, and in hopes of shedding light on the artistry of design and the skill of hand-stitching, the Bowers Museum presents "CUT! Costume and the Cinema." Featuring ensembles from more than 30 actors in 27 films, this exhibit might sound as if it would only appeal to quilting grannies or fabulous fellows who love feathers, but one gander at these astonishing creations can probably win over even the most deeply rutted T-shirt-and-flip-flop-wearing fop. There's a reason it's called "building" a costume, you see—these rigs can be as complex as skyscrapers.
"CUT! Costume and the Cinema" at the Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; www.bowers.org. Open Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Through March 10. $7-$10.
There's also a rather delightful, probably unintended result of seeing dressforms (mannequins, to you and me) adorned with famous people's clothing: Every once in a while, it feels as if that famous person is actually there, in the clothes, and more than a few times I easily pictured Colin Farrell, Emma Thompson and Johnny Depp standing before me.
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Action-movie fans will no doubt get a kick from an up-close-and-personal visit with Captain Jack Sparrow's pirate ensemble; take in the embroidered designs on the coat that could not be seen in the movie, as well as his tricorn hat, sword and tasseled scarf. Likewise, Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. appear in the form of a very smart black-and-white corduroy frock coat (Sherlock) and brown herringbone, wool, three-piece suit (Holmes). Heath Ledger is brought back to life in his red Casanova coat, with its metallic, gold embroidery over patterned silk and sequined spangles. This, along with Daniel Craig's before-and-after bomber jackets from Defiance, might have you questioning the wardrobe choices of the males in your life.
The ladies' fashions are the most spectacular, of course, from legendary Brits Dame Maggie Smith (Gosford Park) and Vanessa Redgrave (Mrs. Dalloway) to second-tiers Julie Christie (Hamlet) and Nicole Kidman (Portrait of a Lady), with Christie's stunning Delphos gown and Kidman's intricately beaded dress exceptional standouts.
In fact, just about every mega-star is here—Minnie Driver (Phantom of the Opera), Kate Winslet (Sense and Sensibility), Angelica Huston (Ever After), Ralph Fiennes (The White Countess) and others. You'll be so immersed in feathers, lace, furs, emerald buttons, bustles, hoop skirts, corsets, hand-painted flowers, gold lamé, metallic thread and brocade that when you return to the outside world, where sneakers and sweat shirts, hoodies and baseball caps, and skinny jeans and skank skirts make up the bulk of our daily apparel, you just might think, for one moment, that buttons on your boots or cracking a rib in a corset might not be all that bad. After all, just as with these characters, we, too, are judged by our dress. Read: Idiocracy.