Sir Christopher Frayling interview: Curator of the V&A's Hollywood Costume exhibition


2015-06-26 13:01:11


Sir Christopher Frayling interview: Curator of the V&A's Hollywood Costume exhibition

Film expert Sir Christopher Frayling discusses the forthcoming London exhibition and his movie costume collecting tips

London's Victoria and Albert Museum will host Britain's first major Hollywood costume exhibition from October 20.

The exhibition has been co-curated by Sir Christopher Frayling, the former Arts Council chairman, whose lifetime's knowledge and passion for films extends to a personal collection of spaghetti western memorabilia.

Here he tells Paul Fraser Collectibles what visitors can expect to find, explains why it's so hard to find a genuine costume worn by a great leading man, and the most underrated area of the sector.

PFC: Which items in the exhibition are you most excited about?

Sir Christopher Frayling: Charlie Chaplin's tramp costume, which we borrowed from the family archive in Switzerland. It's such a wonderful costume, with the ill-fitting jacket, baggy trousers and size 14 shoes - nothing quite fits and that's part of the fun of it. It's so much part of that character and his silhouette is so famous, it's like Mickey Mouse's ears - known all over the world.

In his autobiography he talks about having trouble "finding the character", and then he puts on the clothes and slowly he gets the character. It's not just a great costume, it had a big impact on Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin The TrampChaplin's tramp persona is 'known all over the world'

Another favourite is [costume designer] Edith Head's costume for The Birds. Tippi Hedren wore this two-piece green suit almost throughout the film, and there were various versions of it made in various states of "pecking order". Here's this very glamorous model being abused by the birds, it's the kind of thing Hitchcock enjoyed doing. It's a fabulous costume.

Where have you sourced the items? Other museums, private collections?

There's no single museum that collects the material culture of the movies, and costumes are the most important aspect of the material culture. It's been a remarkably difficult piece of detective work. So the private world, or the world where actors kept their own costumes, is much more important than in most art exhibitions. Around 50 lenders have contributed to the exhibition - the collectors have kept this alive.

In the 60s, the studios didn't look after the back catalogue and were junking it left, right and centre, before the back catalogue really had a value to it.

What's the attraction of collecting Hollywood costumes?

It's a mixture of nostalgia and design quality. Wanting to be close to the actual thing. It's terribly important that this is the actual garment, it's not just a facsimile - you can watch the clip and say "that's my costume".

I did an exhibition in Los Angeles on the films of Sergio Leone, and we got the poncho from A Fistful of Dollars. It was in a Perspex box which had to be cleaned eight times a day, it was smudged so much by people's noses. They really wanted to be close to it - there's an aura about these costumes, they're like secular relics.

We've seen Marilyn Monroe's Seven Year Itch dress sell for $5.6m and Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady Ascot dress make $4.5m last year.What made these two costumes in particular so desirable to buyers?

Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady dressA secular relic? Audrey Hepburn's My Fair Lady dress sold for $4.5m in 2011

It's a mixture of the women who wore them, and the moments in the film that people want to remember. The updraft from the subway, and in the case of Audrey Hepburn, leaning over during the race and getting over excited.

In the case of the Ascot dress, it's by Cecil Beaton, a great designer and photographer, so there's a name attached to it.

Which is the most collectible era for Hollywood costumes at the moment?

You've got the studio era, when you had an in house costume design department, run by the great figures, like Adrian at MGM. They were the design managers with an army of seamstresses. There was an assembly line of movies coming out of the studios, with a particular look associated with them. So we have MGM, the big white set, the glamour, luxury and the over the top art deco costumes - they're very collectible although there were an awful lot of them.

Post the 50s, each movie is almost an independent film put together by a team of people who like working with each other. I think the particularly interesting costumes are the ones where the director and the costume designer have a long standing relationship, like Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, or Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell. There is something about the way the costume designer is in sync with the director that really makes the costume sing. In the post studio era costumes are just as collectible if not more so, and because film stock has got so much better, the costumes today are much better made than in the Hollywood days, when you could get away with murder.

Which actresses have the most appeal to Hollywood costume collectors?

Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland - we have a Dorothy costume in the exhibition.

The items in your collection focus mainly on leading ladies. Are there any leading men out there whose costumes are particularly desirable. James Dean, I'd suggest would be one - who else?

The James Bonds. Marlon Brando. The big question is, 'How do these things survive?' Half of these things disappeared, either because the studios junked them, or they went into costume houses which remade them.

I went to a costume house in Hollywood called Western Costume, which has been around since the 20s. It's absolutely full of reworked costumes, where they have been remade over and over again for countless westerns. In there there may well have been all the costumes for John Ford movies but they're unrecognisable.

To find a pristine costume, in mint condition, that doesn't need much restoration work but is absolutely authentic is actually quite rare.

Whichcostumes worn in recent films could be iconic in the coming years?

Of course there's the superheroes, Batman, Spider-Man and Superman, which were iconic in comic land long before the movies came along.

Captain Jack Sparrow and the design of the Pirates of the Caribbean films is fabulous - we've got his costume in the show.

Jack SparrowJack Sparrow - a contemporary example of quality costume design

Avatar raises the issue of the role of the costume in the era of CGI. Because it's still incredibly important that the designer produces the good ideas even if the computer people take over and turn it into a digital experience. There arestill collectibles even though it's done in the computer - so there's drawings, prototypes etc.

Are there any areas of costume collecting that are undervalued or underappreciated?

People tend to associate costume design with "period". What's undervalued are contemporary films set in the present day, where just as much thought has gone into what the costumes look like and what they say about the character as for period films, but people don't really acknowledge that - they take it for granted. Costumes for contemporary films are seriously undervalued. If you can get hold of Bruce Willis' T-shirt for Die Hard you're in business.

Genuine costume drawings are another one. Sometimes studios produced designs after the fact, as part of the marketing of the film. They're not always the drawings used as working drawings. Working drawings are like gold dust.

The Hollywood Costume exhibition runs at London's Victoria and Albert Museum from October 20 to January 27

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