Back in the long ago mists of time when I was training to be an art historian, (seems like another life altogether) one of the voluntary posts I held was in a regional costume museum. I undertook various activities including cataloguing acquisitions. That process meant that if a member of the public donated Great Aunt Ida’s christening gown on a whim, and twenty years later a long lost relative from Australia arrived and felt the need to see it, museum staff could retrieve Great Aunt Ida’s christening gown from the vaults for that person to look at. Yes, these things really do happen!
I was also able to observe a historical bridal gown exhibition being prepared. (Trivia: not one of them was white, because that only came into vogue for wealthy folk after Queen Victoria set the trend.) And I helped out with activity sheets and distributing crayons at children’s parties. Heady stuff for a naïve student. ;-)
That’s not where my interest in historical costume began, (I blame that on my early addiction to historical novels) but it does mean I have a deep respect for the work that goes into costume displays. When I saw that Leeds City Museum was going to be home to a travelling exhibition of costumes from TV and film productions, I couldn’t wait to attend!
The Heroes and Heroines exhibition runs through to Jan 9th 2011, and if you are in the locality and have a love for costume and/or costume dramas and historical set films, you have to get yourself down there.
Each costume is displayed so that you can walk around the item to study the design. They come with information about the film, designers, and the actors, as well as how the costumes were made and aged. Many accessories are also included, and all this was made richer because they were displayed alongside actual artefacts from past times that are part of the Leeds permanent collection—hats, clothing and foundation garments such as corsets and a bustle.
The Heroes and Heroines collection is not a huge exhibition, but it’s rich in material to look at. I didn’t add up how many costumes there were, but from memory I’d guess 30 to 40. The two costumes that you see on the flyer on the left are a dress that Cate Blanchett wore in a dance scene in Elizabeth, and one of Heath Ledger’s outfits from Casanova.
Amongst the many other costumes were Madonna’s red dress from Evita, shown here on the right. (Designed by Penny Rose, 1997 BAFTA nomination.) Trivia on this one: Madonna had the most costume changes of any character in a film—85 changes! The previous record was Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, who had 65.
Other costumes: Johnny Depp’s dinner suit from Finding Neverland, several costumes from Pride and Prejudice, Orlando Bloom’s outfit from Pirates of the Caribbean, and a stunning gown worn by Keira Knightley in The Duchess.
One of the things that struck me was the relative stature of the actors. Of course the costumes have been pinned tightly to display them to the best effect, which may mean these people look even slighter than they actually are, but overall I was noticing that I am very tall (see how I said that, student of the politically correct years that I am… ;o) As a 5’9” Amazon type, some of these people were looking tres petite to me. I knew that about movie stars, but it really hit home when standing in a room full of their tailor-made costumes. It even occurred to me that it would be more appropriate for me to carry Johnny Depp to the bed, than the other way around. Just a by-the-by thought, don’t you know. ;-)
Interestingly, the largest costume in overall height and stature throughout the exhibition was an outfit worn by Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. (Connery is 6’ 2.5”) That one in particular was fascinating to observe and I could just see his coat billowing as he entered the room.
For the Regency fans, you’ll be glad to hear that there is a great selection, including a sumptuous Banyan, (morning gown or robe de chambre) that Colin Firth wore in Pride and Prejudice, as well as a complete day outfit of his. Incidentally, in case you’re curious, Firth is 6’ 1.5” No, I'm not really obsessed with size, honest!
It was while looking at Firth's immaculately fitted breeches that my Real Life Hero stood alongside me and commented on the anatomical detail of the mannequins. I was already riveted. I can’t quote exactly what Mark said on that point, let’s just say the display mannequin was headless and handless, but otherwise had all his appendages. Ahem. Got to make the trews sit right…right? :o) Hey, I'm an erotica writer, I'm *supposed* to notice these things! You'd worry if I didn't, admit it. Not to mention the fact it was right at face level, being on a display stand. Okay, I'll shut up now in case I dig myself any deeper...
My favourite outfit of the whole exhibition was a dress worn by Nicole Kidman in The Portrait of a Lady. (Academy Award nomination for Costume Design, Janet Patterson.) I managed to retrieve a photo of that one (at least, I think it’s the same dress, more info can be read about it here) and posted it on the left. There was such an incredible amount of work in the attention to detail in the costume, and what would have been its model. Truly an awesome costume.
Second favourites were two dresses from The House of Elliott , the popular 90’s British TV series set in the 1920’s. Simply stunning. I really can’t praise this exhibition enough. If you’re a costume aficionado and you are anywhere near the north of England before the 9th January, get yourself down there.
As with any good exhibition there are lots of activities for the kids provided to keep them amused while you ogle Johnny Depp's dinner suit. There’s a kiddies activity/drawing area, things to dress up in, and best of all a virtual dressing room where historic ball gowns are projected onto the children who enter the room. There were two girls having a super time with this feature while I was there. The museum is also running special events throughout the season, talks and lectures and activities such as a pirate day and craft exhibitions. I was happy! My Real Life Hero said he would have appreciated a few more key accessories such as guns and swords, but that’s fellas for you!
As I mentioned it is not is a huge exhibition, you’d be hard-pressed to spend more than an hour looking around, which gives you plenty of time to go through to the permanent collection of the city museum or venture elsewhere.
We checked out the Hermann Obrist Art Nouveau sculpture while we were in the city. This is an interesting one. Obrist is a less well known Art Nouveau artist whose work has been maintained by his family. The Leeds exhibition represents his first retrospective.
Obrist’s work was inspired by the growth of natural forms. The collection included many sketches and drawings, together with photographs and actual sculpture and monuments that he had created. I found his drawings and sketches fascinating, many of the natural rhythms explored there reminded me of William Blake’s work. Several of the images also made me think of the fantasy world building of Lord of the rings. In the actual sculptures, the rhythms and imagery became almost futuristic in the realisation. This exhibition is due to close at the end of August. It was busy when we were there, which is good to see.
Okay folks, I should get back to the work in progress. If anyone has any questions about these exhibitions please post them in the comments and I’ll try to reply if I can.
As an added bonus for anyone who made it this far, here is a photo of me in costume, from when I was a movie extra in the period romance A Summer Story, back in 1987. Trivia: this was my first introduction to the delights of wearing a corset and I’ve loved them ever since. :)