The scenario was like something out of a movie. First came the mysterious phone call from an anonymous stranger. Then instructions for the meeting at a London Tube station – ‘Remember to bring your passport,’ she was told.
‘It could have been The Bourne Supremacy,’ recalls Deborah Nadoolman Landis, curator of the blockbuster Hollywood Costume exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London next Saturday. ‘We had no idea who we were meeting.’
Deborah, who is married to film director John Landis and whose own costume design credits include Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Michael Jackson’s Thriller, was on the trail of one of the most iconic costumes in Hollywood history.
She wouldn’t have been surprised, she admits, had she been flown off to a mystery destination. Instead, she was escorted into the depths of a private bank on Fleet Street. ‘It was like Gringotts Bank in Harry Potter,’ she explains.
‘We went down, down, like entering a submarine, and reached a door with a Chubb lock. Then two gentlemen in uniform came in carrying a big cardboard box tied up with string. I put on my gloves, opened the box and burst into tears. I was totally overwhelmed.’
Because there it was... Dorothy’s blue gingham pinafore from the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz. It had been in storage since 2005 when it was sold at auction at Bonhams, London, for £140,000. The passport, it transpired, was simply for ID.
‘Adrian was a genius,’ says Deborah of Adrian Adolph Greenberg, the renowned MGM costumier known by his first name, who designed for more than 250 films.
‘He told one of his seamstresses to go and buy the cheapest cotton gingham – “Don’t pay more than a nickel a yard” – because he wanted it to be exactly what Aunt Em could buy from the only store in that farm community in Kansas. “We’re going to scrub it on a washboard, and who in this workroom has a treadle sewing machine? Bring it in! We’re going to sew ten dresses [you always need spares in the movies] and pink the seams just like you’re Aunt Em.”
Judy Garland's original blue gingham Wizard of Oz dress is to go under the hammer alongside a remarkable treasure trove of Hollywood memorabilia
‘This dress is so poorly put together on a treadle machine, it looks like it was made on a farm,’ says Deborah. ‘That’s what makes us love Dorothy. That’s what makes us so invested in the outcome: There’s no place like home.’
To complete the coup, the dress will be reunited with Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers for the first time since the film was made after Washington’s Smithsonian Museum agreed to loan them out for a month, the only time they’ve ever left America.
The year Wizard Of Oz was made was a fabulous one in Hollywood costume design, and one of the most fabulous costumes of all – designed by Walter Plunkett – was Scarlett O’Hara’s green velvet curtain dress from Gone With The Wind, worn with a hat trimmed with feathers and a chicken claw.
Dress and hat have also been reunited for the exhibition after more than 70 years. ‘Remember that scene when Uncle Peter chases the rooster for Christmas dinner?’ says Deborah.
‘When I held Scarlett’s hat and saw those feathers and the claw... I realised it’s that rooster they killed for dinner! It was the last rooster in Atlanta that wasn’t stolen by the Yankee troops and after they ate it, they used the feathers and claw to decorate her hat.’
That, she says, is what Hollywood costume is about. It’s not fancy dress, it’s not fashion. It’s about telling a story and fleshing out a character. Meryl Streep, who has worked with costume designer Ann Roth on eight films, including Mamma Mia!, says, ‘Ann doesn’t just design clothes. She gives you a biography of your character.’
Under Streep’s rolled-up dungarees she wears a more feminine peasant shirt. She doesn’t have much money; she lives on a Greek island... so where do her clothes come from? Roth had it all worked out.
‘There probably isn’t a great store on the island and she doesn’t have time to go to the mainland. Perhaps a woman who works in the kitchen of her hotel gave it to her.’
The year Wizard Of Oz was made was a fabulous one in Hollywood costume design, which included Scarlett O'Hara's green velvet curtain dress from Gone With The Wind, worn with a hat trimmed with feathers and a chicken claw
Consolata Boyle designed the costumes for Streep’s Iron Lady and for Helen Mirren as The Queen. Even for such well-known characters, she was still using costume to tell a story.
‘It’s not a documentary,’ she stresses. And it isn’t about making replicas of original clothes. The Queen deals with aftermath of Princess Diana’s death when the Royal Family went to ground at Balmoral. On the night she died, they sat up into the small hours waiting for news... but who really knows what the Queen’s nightie is like?
‘This gives you freedom to create her world,’ explains Boyle. She gave the Queen a winceyette nightie and a pink mohair dressing gown, ‘Because Balmoral is draughty so they wrap up warm. There’s a feeling of self-protection against the outside world.’
As for whether that’s strictly authentic, ‘You’re able to find out a lot unofficially,’ she says, cryptically. ‘We had a lot of helpful people...’
But perhaps Ann Roth, working with Meryl Streep, best describes that thrilling moment in the fitting room when the costume appears, ‘We wait for the third person to arrive... and the character takes over the mirror.’
Source: Daily Mail