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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.

Exhibition services team builds custom storage hanger for "Men of Honor" dive suit from Robert De Niro’s collection

By Wyndell Faulk

There are many factors to consider when housing very large collection objects. This was particularly true in the case of the deep sea diving suit worn by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Men of Honor, which came into the care of the Ransom Center when Robert De Niro donated his archive to the Center in 2006.

The mandate was to create a storage device to increase the longevity and preserve the construction of the suit. The dive suit was too large and too heavy for housing in conventional preservation boxes, and flat storage could not have properly supported the suit’s own material from crushing itself.

The amount of storage space had to be considered, along with the construction of the support device, so the suit could be easily transported and exhibited. This dictated that the type of materials used to construct the device be archival and light weight, such as acrylic sheet and polyethylene foam.

The solution was a hanger designed to be simple, adjustable, and adaptable.  The main body and structure of the hanger is 1.25 cm thick acrylic sheet.  It was measured to fit the exact shape of the interior of the deep sea diving suit across the shoulders and into the arms.

The acrylic sheet panels were cut, drilled, and polished, then bolted together with two thick polyethylene foam planks placed between them. The Ethafoam serves as lightweight, highly compact archival filler. It also provides a porous surface to which layers of Ethafoam padding can be hot-glued to cover the surfaces and edges of the acrylic sheet and the bolt heads.

The central neck panel is also constructed from acrylic sheet, and screwed together to form an adjustable sliding block that is removable. This allows the shoulder support to be placed inside the suit without obstruction and refitted once the suit is ready to hang. The neck panel also has an adjustable swiveling eyebolt that provides easy attachment when transporting, hanging, and exhibiting.

The Ethafoam padding goes well beyond the shoulder seams of the suit and gives support across the entire upper half of the shoulders and well into the arms to reduce weight pulling on the shoulder seams of the suit. The width of the hanger from front to back completely supports the neck’s thick vulcanized collar, as well.

The hanger can readily be taken apart and modified for future adjustments or additions. One possibility being considered is the addition of fabric straps from the main body of the hanger to the interior of the waist for further support.

The hanger is unobtrusive in appearance but can also be covered easily for exhibition purposes. It is, of course, important that the stabilizing support that extends from the wall be securely mounted to ensure adequate support to the weight of the suit.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of the Western Association for Art Conservation newsletter.

Related content:

Video: What do costumes reveal about a film character?

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In the Galleries: Robert De Niro’s King James Version-inspired tattoos in "Cape Fear"

By Io Montecillo

The 1991 Martin Scorsese–directed thriller Cape Fear may seem an unlikely candidate for documenting the use and influence of the King James Bible, but its central character, Max Cady, as played by Robert De Niro, wielded biblical verses like weapons.

This aspect of Cady was absent in both the original 1962 film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum and in The Executioners (1957), the novel by John D. MacDonald on which the film was based.

Cape Fear follows Cady, a convicted felon, as he seeks vengeance against his attorney, Sam Bowden. While in prison, Cady learned that Bowden suppressed information that might have resulted in a lighter sentence or acquittal. The biblical story of Job’s suffering looms large as a model for Cady’s punishment of Bowden.

The research materials from the Robert De Niro collection reveal the extent to which De Niro was involved in the development of the Pentecostal past of and biblical influence on Cady. To prepare for the role, De Niro consulted multiple Bibles, a concordance, Bible study guides, Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Book of Job, and books and articles about Pentecostalism and Pentecostal worship.

Screenwriter Wesley Strick recalled, “Every scene of Bob’s, he would call me and say, ‘Can Max say something else here about vengeance, from the Bible?’” De Niro also worked closely with Scorcese and artist Ilona Herman to identify Bible verses and designs for Cady’s extensive tattoos.

Cape Fear did not offer viewers a traditional Bible story. Indeed, Cady’s use of the Bible was troubling for many audiences, and it contributed to the tension of the film. One critic observed, “The dissonance between the cultural expectations we associate with the Bible and our immediate perception of this character [as evil] contributes to the sustained horror of the film.”

Materials from Cape Fear and other films influenced by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.

Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.