cleopatra dress

I cried when I saw Claudette Colbert’s dress from Cleopatra at Hollywood Costume, an exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and currently on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Other people noticed the Cleopatra dress, I’m sure, but as I stood there quietly bawling, drawn to it by an invisible yet unyielding force I can only call love, I may as well have been the only person in the crowded gallery.

Being so close to costumes worn by the movie stars I love is almost like being close to the stars themselves. Clothing is integral to our interaction with the cinema, whether it be historical, iconic, or whether it just happens to mean a lot to us.

I’m sure when I was younger my favourite film costume was something Kirsten Dunst wore in Jumanji (I spent a lot of time in plaits and overalls). I felt pretty special to be the only person who loved Alicia Silverstone’s yellow tartan suit in Clueless. I used to imagine that I would one day open the laundry cupboard and find Belle’s gold ball gown from Beauty and the Beast. I also fawned over Ingrid Bergman’s dresses in Casablanca and Tony Curtis’ coat in Some Like It Hot.

These days I’d say unequivocally that my favourite costume is that outfit Barbara Stanwyck wears in Double Indemnity. The one she’s wearing in her final scene, when Fred MacMurray shoots her. But then, what about her outfits in The Lady Eve? (Also, nice tie, Henry Fonda.) Or that one fabulous beaded number in The Bitter Tea of General Yen? Or this or this? Stanwyck wore clothing well – in Baby Face, one of my favourite films, she’s ever stylish and ends up in a gown with the most glorious diamond encrusted neckline in the world. None of her outfits were on display at ACMI, but clips from Baby Face did show up in an exhibition featurette on censorship, and I was proud to see her recognised.

Costumes and films bring memories of each other, constantly circling around like a ball gown on a dance floor. It is those costumes from Hollywood’s Golden Age, with all its glamour and soft lighting, furs and sparkling brooches, in which I can trace the strongest elements of my connection to cinema. If I’d been born decades earlier I would have revelled in the fashion. Perhaps I’d have worn Marlene Dietrich’s feathered number from Shanghai Express, sultry to the hilt, or Katharine Hepburn’s gown from The Philadelphia Story.

Watching costumes move on film, I feel a sensory connection, but to see those glass-blown beads and silks and woven satins up close is better than a dream. Poetic French film theorist, Alexandre Astruc, wrote that the most beautiful cinema had a certain way of finding the élan of the soul in the rhythmic movements of the body on screen. Costumes can provide a tangible, or nearly tangible, pathway to this body, and allow us instantly closer to this soul.

In a video interview, costumier Edith Head reveals that to her, transforming people through costume was ‘pure magic’. A self-confessed caricature – honoured with brilliance in The Incredibles – she had a huge impact in Hollywood. So innovative was her thinking that she even created special lenses for her sunglasses, to give her ‘black and white‘ vision while designing. At ACMI I saw the green suit Head designed for Tippi Hedren in The Birds, and I saw a small dark stain near the hem, and a tear in the fabric just on the knee. Efforts of preservation would have hoped to prevent such flaws. But there they were, and I knew I was seeing something special – a marker of realness, of the vulnerability of the soul, of the ephemerality of cinematic experience.

In Rear Window, when on-screen couple James Stewart and Grace Kelly are discussing one of Kelly’s fabulous outfits (designed by Head), Stewart can’t help but balk at its expense. Kelly replies, ‘Even if I had to pay it would be worth it – just for the occasion.’ And the cinema makes for quite the occasion.