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The costumes are the stars of film academy exhibit

The costumes are the stars of film academy exhibit
Curator-designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis poses with the Indiana Jones costumes in the future site of the Academy Museum at LACMA. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

One January morning in 2012, Deborah Nadoolman Landis waited at the Temple Tube station in London with her passport in her hand and no idea where she was going.

Landis, a costume designer who was curating a show for London's Victoria and Albert Museum, had received a mysterious call from a collector about a special piece, with instructions. A representative for the collector met Landis and led her into the belly of a private bank, where guards provided a pair of purple latex gloves and a cardboard box tied with a string.

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"I felt like Howard Carter at the tomb of King Tut," said Landis, who created the costumes for "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Coming to America" and Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.

Inside the box, she found an unassuming cotton garment from the most celebrated couture workroom in Hollywood history — the white and blue gingham pinafore that MGM costume designer Adrian created for Judy Garland in "The Wizard of Oz."

"I wasn't really affected until I turned it inside out, that's when the tears started flowing," Landis said, recalling the moment. "The dress validated everything in my life, everything I understood about costuming, what our role is."

Dorothy's pinafore would become a key part of "Hollywood Costume," a show exploring the central role of costume design in film that went on to break attendance records at the V&A, drawing 251,000 people to the design museum in a 12-week period in 2012 and 2013.

An expanded version of the exhibition, including five pieces from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' own collection, will open Oct. 2 at the site of the future Academy Museum in the historic Wilshire May Co. building at Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue and run until March 2. It's the first exhibit at the new academy museum site—and the subject is surprisingly provocative and involved.

The exhibition, which features 150 costumes, including Marilyn Monroe's billowy dress from "The Seven Year Itch," John Wayne's leather holster from "The Searchers" and Darth Vader's black cape from "The Empire Strikes Back," is unusual in its scale — not since a 1974 show Diana Vreeland curated at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has such a collection been assembled.

"The exhibit is not just about pretty clothes," said costume designer Deborah Scott, who has two pieces in the show, the cream-colored suit and purple hat Kate Winslet wore in "Titanic" and a woven necklace worn by a Na'vi character in "Avatar." "It's about how we as designers make a film character become a real person.

"Hollywood Costume" takes up most of the ground floor of the Art Deco building — with architect Renzo Piano soon to break ground on an ambitious and somewhat controversial addition for the museum, the show's designers had the freedom to break walls and create them as needed. Visitors enter from a plaza off Fairfax that is shared with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and step into a theater-like experience, with curtains and an overture playing on speakers.

With a three-act narrative structure, prodigious use of video projection and a specially commissioned score, the show is cinematic not just in its roots but also in its presentation. Instead of traditional object labels, the text around the costumes is presented on screenplay pages. Costumes from classic films are mixed with items from newer ones, even — gasp! — comic book movies. The exhibition is meant to be much more than just an exercise in nostalgia.

It was the V&A that organized and put up the initial budget for "Hollywood Costume," but the expanded show is a peek into the kind of exhibition the long-gestating Academy Museum might mount when it finally opens in 2017.

Some of the most valuable pieces in the show include Monroe's "Seven Year Itch" dress, which sold at auction for $4.6 million in 2011, and Dorothy's ruby slippers, which the film academy purchased for an undisclosed price but which are believed to be worth $2 million to $3 million.

The academy, which has raised more than two-thirds of the $300 million needed for its museum, is using the exhibition as a fundraising carrot, offering perks like a curator-led private tour and tickets to the opening reception in exchange for large gifts. (Though the new film museum is part of the larger LACMA campus, the costume exhibit is purely an academy show.)

Academy Museum Director Kerry Brougher, hired in April from the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., has said that he hopes to satisfy both serious scholars and casual tourists with its exhibitions. Brougher is in the process of hiring a staff for the museum and strengthening ties in the film and art worlds in preparation for its opening. No other exhibitions have been announced yet.

Threading the needle of populism and scholarship is a tricky task for any exhibition but perhaps particularly for one based on the crowd-pleasing art form of movies and especially in Los Angeles, where any number of tourist attractions appeal to the worldwide fascination with Hollywood.

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When it opened in London, "Hollywood Costume" raised eyebrows for Landis' untraditional approach, mixing time periods and including video interviews with actors and directors such as Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese.

"The first night, I was shocked," said Larry McQueen, a private collector who has lent multiple pieces for "Hollywood Costume," including the spangled pantsuit Susan Hayward wore in 1967's "Valley of the Dolls" and Marlene Dietrich's beaded stole from 1937's "Angel."

"Being a connoisseur of costumes, this doesn't pay as much attention to the actual costumes as it does to design. I thought, 'Why aren't there more vintage things?' The second night I went through it, I realized the exhibition was going to be a hit because ... it has to be more than a dress on a mannequin. What makes Hollywood Hollywood is entertainment. You've got to pump that drama into it. You've got to create theatrics. I think they have on this."

Capturing emotions

There's an irreverence and a sense of showmanship to the exhibition. A mannequin of Dietrich, in her crisp tuxedo from 1930's "Morocco," lights a cigarette for Sharon Stone, in her revealing white shift from "Basic Instinct." A cocksure Iron Man and Batman stand in closer proximity than Marvel and DC Comics' attorneys have likely ever allowed their superheroes to stand before.

"I knew the show I didn't want to do.... I didn't want to line up iconic, impressive costumes, open the doors and say, 'Hey, here,'" Landis said.

"I didn't want it to be Madame Tussauds, God bless them, didn't want it to be a theme park, didn't want it to be a fashion show. How do you somehow bring the audience back to the moment they saw the feature? I wanted to be able to capture the emotion. The terrible part and the huge challenge was, how do you get back to the place where it becomes a cinematic experience?"

When Landis, who also sits on the academy's board of governors, first conceived the show more than a decade ago, she couldn't find an American institution to mount it. A friend, British costume designer James Acheson, warned her that it would be just another "dead frocks on dummies" show. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Landis said, chief film curator Mary Lea Bandy told her that the show wouldn't pass muster with the "P and S snobs" (painting and sculpture).

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"Costume exhibitions are a hard sell," McQueen said. "Visitors love them. But textiles are extremely fragile, and they weren't meant to last that long. They weren't stored according to museum or archival standards. They were work product."

In the 1970s and '80s, when movie studios like MGM and 20th Century Fox began discarding the contents of their once-massive wardrobe departments, collectors like McQueen stepped up to acquire the pieces, which were soon scattered among institutions and individuals all over the world.

"It's like throwing out a library," said Scott. "Financially, it just became not as viable to the studios as other things. It's a terrible shame — pieces that are lost, a dress that's been cut off, overdyed, taken in and destroyed. You lack the ability for new people coming up to see those kinds of costumes, how they were made."

Scott found the inspiration for Winslet's "Titanic" hat, dramatically revealed as the ship prepares to leave port in the 1997 film, in a vintage piece she found at the V&A.

"The older costumes are a vital resource for anyone who would start designing," Scott said. "Hopefully, the Academy Museum will soon answer the call for all of us."

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