The following is an abridged interview with Deborah Nadoolman Landis by Clothes on Film editor Chris Laverty for Moviescope magazine. Read the full version in issue 31 available now.
“It’s like we’ve been in rehearsals and now we’re going to open on Broadway. Wait till you see it – you’re gonna flip out!” Prof. Deborah Nadoolman Landis is the closest costume design has to living royalty. She has costumed countless films including Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers and Coming to America (for which she was Academy Award nominated), stood as two-term president for The Costume Designers Guild, is a senior lecturer for UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), and has written several books on her craft.
Yet for the past five years one project has dominated Landis’ life: curating her costume design exhibition for London’s V&A Museum, “I’m so frigging exhausted” she laughs. Undoubtedly the only display of its kind, ever, Hollywood Costume is more than a celebration of gorgeous frocks from the movies. It is something of a sneak attack; the history, creation and meaning of costume from script to screen via The Wizard of Oz, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Atonement, and countless more cinematic milestones.
Deborah Nadoolman was only 27 years old when she created Harrison Ford’s immortal costume as Indiana Jones for Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). She originally began designing for Tom Selleck, who was frontrunner to be cast in the role.
The exhibition is divided into three ‘Acts’ – Act One: ‘Deconstruction’, Act Two: ‘Dialogue’, Act Three: ‘Finale’ (“my nicknames are Undergraduate, Graduate and Postgraduate”). Each act contributes to telling the story of costume design. ‘Deconstruction’ opens with a full size cinema screen, we then step immediately beyond to reveal what Landis insists is fundamental to every single role in filmmaking – the screenplay. “That’s our Google map. My passion is costume, but do I sit at home with my Singer sewing machine sewing up costumes? No. Do I start a clothing line at H&M? No. What gets me going is reading a script”.
If screenplay is placed front and centre, it does not take long to get to the clothes. The first plinth is a roll call of classic movie costumes: the green curtain dress from Gone With the Wind, Landis’ own Indiana Jones outfit from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Charlie Chaplin’s complete costume from The Tramp… Whether your knowledge of costume extends beyond elegant gowns and snappy suits – though to be fair it will by the end of this exhibition – Act One is reason enough to make the trip.
Deborah Nadoolman Landis has not costumed a film since Burke & Hare in 2010 directed by her husband John with whom she has frequently collaborated, most notably for Michael Jackson’s Thriller video in 1984. Yet she regularly publishes new tomes about costume design and lectures for three hours to the entire incoming filmmakers’ class at UCLA. After spending five years curating Hollywood Costume, Landis could rightly be labelled obsessed. “My mind is empty except for this” she agrees.
One of the final costumes on display at Hollywood Costume is Judy Garland’s cotton pinafore worn as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Another of these pinafores (also including original blouse; only a replica can bee seen at the exhibition) was sold recently at Julien’s Icons and Idols auction for $480,000.
“I do have a real concrete reason for doing the exhibition. On my first term as president of the Costume Designers’ Guild, I went into a collective bargaining negotiation with producers. I anticipated they had no idea what we did beyond wardrobe because I know what our contract is; we are paid one third less than production designers. There is such a disconnection in the perception of what costume design is and what we actually contribute. I was so depressed after those negotiations that I decided to go on a lifetime campaign of elevating the prestige and status of my field”.
Act Two of the exhibition, ‘Dialogue’, is “a box ticker” Landis attests. “It’s to look at how costume designers have worked in genre. So I have John Wayne’s costume from The Searchers and Hailee Steinfeld’s from True Grit and between these two is a montage of 100 years of the Western. Andy Serkis even recorded a special video explaining the evolution of motion caption costume”.
With Landis as curator/director it is easy to overlook her own costume contribution, principally the original Indiana Jones outfit from Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I spent eight hours up at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch this June. I’m the only costume designer to ever visit there. I had to spend all that time looking for a number one jacket and a number one hat. I looked through 40 or 50 jackets from Indiana Jones. I was 27 when I designed Raiders so I was thinking “what did I do?” And then I found two jackets. I burst into tears. I can tell you the difference; I used brass D-rings at the waist and Anthony Powell (subsequent Indy costume designer) had switched the D-rings for rectangular clips and used a steel zipper. Then I went through hat after hat – remember I made the hats for Tom Selleck? But I actually think I found the number one hat; it had the Savile Row label inside”.
Edith Head’s ensemble for Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in The Birds is one of the most memorable installations at the exhibition. Hedren is also featured in a brief VT discussing the costume and her work with Edith Head.
The final act of Hollywood Costume is the appropriately named ‘Finale’. It demonstrates that despite Landis’ agenda to educate, she can appreciate that for some people it is just about getting close to outfits they have coveted since childhood. The first gallery Landis refers to as “Vamps and Vixens”; a boudoir of ladies. “Marlene Dietrich in Morocco is lighting Sharon Stone’s cigarette in Basic Instinct” she explains. “They had to be chatting, having a good time. We have the real Breakfast at Tiffany’s black dress on loan from The Museum del Traje that was given to them by Hubert de Givenchy. I even have an exact replica of the pearls. Every single costume is dressed to look exactly the same as you saw them in the movie”.
But with so many priceless costumes underneath one roof, was Landis not worried about theft? “You better believe I took the head of security at the V&A aside and said “You have Chaplin’s bowler, Indiana Jones’s hat…don’t fuck up”. Hollywood Costume is the culmination of a life’s work, but above all else it is supposed to be fun, “I hope you can’t stop laughing from the moment you enter till the moment you leave, because that would be the greatest compliment”.
Interview conducted on 20th September for Moviescope magazine. Extracts republished with permission.
Hollywood Costume at the V&A museum in London runs until 27th January 2013. Tickets can be booked through the V&A website.
© 2012 – 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.