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Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Conservation work completed on "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”

A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.

A Life Beyond Crime: The Papers of Nicolas Freeling

By Emily Neie

The papers of British author Nicolas Freeling (1927–2003), best known for his internationally acclaimed crime novels, have opened for research at the Ransom Center.  The collection consists of Freeling’s manuscript drafts, correspondence, journals, clippings, and other documents. Freeling is the author of more than 40 novels and has won several prestigious awards for crime fiction, including the British Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award (1964), the Grand Prix de Roman Policier (1964), and the Edgar Allan Poe Award (1966).

Freeling began his writing career in 1959 while serving a three-week jail sentence in Amsterdam after being accused of stealing food. Although he was deported to England shortly after being released, his experience with an Amsterdam detective inspired him to write the first of his famous Piet Van der Valk detective novels, Love in Amsterdam. Freeling continued the series for ten years, and, to the dismay of readers and publishers alike, killed off the beloved detective in the final book.

Two years after writing the tenth and last van der Valk novel, Freeling introduced readers to French police detective Henri Castang, who appeared in 16 novels. He also penned four non-fiction titles, including two books inspired by 12 years of experience working as a restaurant chef, a book of essays about literature’s best crime writers, and his memoir, The Village Book.

Freeling resisted his classification as a crime writer, preferring to focus instead on human psychology and social institutions. The images featured in the slideshow largely represent Freeling’s novel Gadget and excerpts from his journals. His attention to detail in the research process and commitment to realism reveal talents that extend beyond writing excellent crime fiction.

Gadget paints an alarmingly factual account of the implications of the nuclear age and its effects on human behavior and motivation. Freeling worked closely with American physicist Peter Zimmerman to achieve accurate renderings of nuclear instruments, and the two men exchanged notes, research, and drawings throughout the novel’s development, all of which can be found in the archive.

The Freeling papers are a rich and varied resource, with documents ranging from recipes that reveal Freeling’s affinity for cooking, detailed drawings of a nuclear bomb referenced in Gadget, journal excerpts about the effects of drinking wine while writing, and more. While Freeling may be known primarily for his detective dramas, his dedication to the analysis of the human mind is preserved in his papers.

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: A drawing by physicist Peter Zimmerman with his and Nicolas Freeling’s notes as part of research for “Gadget,” 1971–1975.