Costumes must be the most popular film artefact for collectors and museums. They are as close as anyone is going to get to the physicality of the ‘star’ performer without having their embalmed body on display. Great costumes are masterpieces of design and construction, as garments in their own right and as essential storytelling elements within the film. Notoriously few early examples survive as studios and costumiers reused and recycled pieces for later productions.
Nowadays they are seen as collectors items and prices have skyrocketed. In part this can be attributed to recent events, the tragic sale of the Debbie Reynolds Collection beginning 2011 saw Marilyn Monroe’s iconic subway dress fetch $5.6m. The rise in internet costume blogs and the V&A’s exhibition Hollywood Costume in 2012 have spurred interest. I have mixed feelings of the apparent value of costumes. For every iconic piece, like those carefully selected by Debbie Reynolds or curated by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, there are thousands of pieces of generic costume and clothing worn in film and television productions being sold at vastly inflated prices that far outweigh their value. It is a fine line between collecting well and merely acquiring fetish objects.
The Museum of the Moving Image acquired a truly great collection that would be almost impossible for a museum to purchase at market value today. It is not clear exactly when the BFI began collecting costumes as it has had a haphazard approach to collecting policy that fluctuates and changes on the whims of the directors and curators of the day. The core of the collection was assembled between the late eighties and mid nineties before a change in museum management saw the quality of collecting decline. At the launch of Hollywood Costume it was announced that BFI was to donate it’s entire costume collection to the V&A. Overseeing this process has given me a great appreciation for film costume and unique knowledge of this collection. As with all the MOMI collections I feel very protective over the costume collection but it is perfectly placed at the V&A. They are able to care for and conserve the pieces and their staff knowledge on costume and design is internationally renowned. I say all this because it is useful to consider the collection as a whole and not just individual pieces.
One of the stand out pieces of the collection is an ensemble designed by Travis Banton for Marlene Dietrich in Angel (1937). Banton is credited with creating Dietrich’s look, beginning with her move to Paramount in 1930 until Angel, the last of their collaborations. Banton’s costumes define Hollywood’s golden age; the elegant cuts, expensive fabrics and extravagant detailing form an impossibly glamourous image that helped form ‘stars’ out of mere actors. Marlene Dietrich’s look was carefully cultivated as exotic and luxurious. As with her contemporaries Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, her angular features perfectly fitted the Art Deco sensibilities of 1930’s high style. They appear fused within the film image, as much a part of the film as the set or the script or the music. They were truly idols, not the mere mortals who came to watch them. Banton’s costumes reinforced this image and are the surviving relics from the brief, beautiful period.
I wish that I had an image of the Angel costume to share here, however I wiped vast quantities of files from my personal computer upon leaving the BFI and frustratingly many of my own images went with the documents. The ensemble consists of a dress and cape in pale green and purple. The dress has embroidered and sequinned cherubs reflecting the title of the film. The dress itself is figure hugging and lightweight, as is the accompanying cape. It is similar in shape only to the other more famous Angel ensemble displayed at Hollywood Costume.
Both costumes were sold at the Paramount auction in 1990, where a number of other major purchases were made for MOMI. The second ensemble was purchased by Larry McQueen, a consultant on the auction and owner of The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design. McQueen’s collection is one of, if not the most important collection of film costume in private hands. Pieces are regularly exhibited internationally and the Angel costume is one of the stand out items. It is the most expensive costume Banton ever designs at $8,000. It is not clear whether MOMI ever exhibited their Angel costume, it may be that the costume was not stable enough to be displayed. The McQueen ensemble had to be extensively restored by the original creators Geston/Eastern embroidery.
When MOMI first opened a private collector had loaned a number of pieces including Dietrich costumes but the details of which they were I could never discover. The items were returned to the owner within the first few years of operation and, as with many of the loaned items coming up for renewal, were replaced with purchases during MOMI’s period of popularity and success. It is likely that they appeared within the Hollywood section of the museum which combined an Odeon cinema facade with a sound stage mock-up western set and exhibits showcasing the different aspects of production during the studio era. Exhibits covered costume, make-up and publicity showing how a star persona was constructed and controlled by the studio. In Marlene Dietrich’s case the studio was Paramount and her collaborations with Travis Banton and director Erich von Stroheim.
Angel itself was a flop on its release and is not considered one of Dietrich’s greatest achievements, however it is a masterpiece of collaboration between designer and star. The significance of the surviving costumes fair outweigh the importance of the film. They are not mementos from a popular movie but first hand records of an important period within the development of film form, aesthetically and culturally. Many great costumes have disappeared into private hands of collectors who do not share the same commitment to preservation and access as Larry McQueen or Debbie Reynolds. The V&A transfer will see the MOMI collection, kept hidden for 15 years accessible once more where the artistry of Banton and the glamour of Dietrich can be truly appreciated.