The art of the costume

December 1, 2017

Last weekend I visited Bendigo in regional Victoria with some friends. One of the key reasons for our visit, aside from some catch up time over some good food and wine, was to see the Edith Head exhibition at the beautiful Bendigo Art Gallery on View Street.

 

The gallery has recently held a number of outstanding exhibitions, including 2016's amazing Marilyn Monroe presentation.

 

Currently the gallery is home to the works of Edith Head, a costume designer in Hollywood from the 1920s through to her death in 1981. She won eight Academy Awards and designed costumes for some of Hollywood's biggest stars in classic films including Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffanys, Grace Kelly in Rear Window and To Catch a Thief, Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity and Mae West in She Done Him Wrong.

 

She worked closely with Alfred Hitchcock in several of his biggest films including To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, The Birds and The Man Who Knew Too Much. This was of particular interest to me as Hitchcock's films are among my all-time favourites. I always feel nothing was left to 'chance' when it came to Hitchcock. The costumes the characters wore added to the drama and suspense as much as other elements like music, lighting, camera angles and sound effects. The film, Vertigo, as one example is a feat of costume excellence. In dressing Kim Novak in her dual role as Judy/Madeleine, Edith Head was able to show how differently the characters dressed as an insight into their social status and personality. The pretty, floral dress Grace Kelly wore as she undertook a dangerous errand in Rear Window, heightens our concern for her as she looks so innocent. Her jeans and casual shirt in the final scene signal her domestic bliss with Jimmy Stewart's character compared to her elegant gowns at the start of the film as she as tries to win him over.

 

As I viewed the exhibition, there was a video of Edith Head from the 1950s explaining the process of creating the costumes. She would consider the scene and then contemplate what was the right outfit for the characters at that moment. She would think about how the character was feeling, the season/time of day the scene was taking place, the socio-economic status of the character and the event the character was at to help determine what was the perfect outfit - the right colour, the right fabric, the right style.

 

Her process was fascinating and resonated with me in terms of writing. While we can't show our readers what a character is wearing in a picture, we can describe it. And how we describe it can immediately tell the reader a lot about what the character is feeling or how they interact with the world around them.What colour is a character wearing - what does this tell us about their mood? What fabric is a character wearing - is this appropriate for the season? What brand or style is a character wearing - is this fitting with their social status or income or level of interest in following trends? It reminded me of the importance of considering those tiny details as part of describing characters.

 

A lovely exhibition at a beautiful gallery and a bit of writing food for thought as well. Well worth a visit if you are in the Bendigo area.

 

 

 

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