The opening display of Hollywood Costume sets the tone. Before any clothes come into view, there's a room-sized screen playing clips from The Wizard of Oz, Kill Bill, Mildred Pierce, The Searchers, Camelot, and many other films, ending with Natalie Portman folding back the wings of her Odile costume and taking her bow in Black Swan. All of this is to the accompaniment of chords that go nowhere: the kind of music that soundtracks the sequence where a writer overcomes his writer's block and gets down to serious typing; or my favourite part of the Oscars ceremony – the montage of living Best Actors and Actresses (the annual reminder that Olivia de Havilland is still alive!)
So far, so dreadful. But once you edge round the screen, the first thing you see is the green cotton velvet dress Scarlett O'Hara makes out of curtains to wear to visit Rhett Butler in jail – and the disarmament process begins. Like all shows about clothes, Hollywood Costume relies on the power of the relic and does everything it can to play on our sentiment. The galleries are pitch dark; the costumes spotlit. It's the standard way to protect delicate fabrics and create drama (and used to spooky, beautiful effect in, for example, the Musée du Quai Branly), but in the third gallery things get much stranger. Here, each costume is topped not by the head of a mannequin but by a screen with the moving face of the star who wore it. So Katharine Hepburn's Tracy Lord is near Audrey Hepburn's Eliza Doolittle, and Marlene Dietrich's tuxedo from Morocco is over the way. The tableau, at times three mannequins deep, is both sepulchral and gaudy; an animated version of the Venetian cemetery island of San Michele.
The studios who commissioned these costumes weren't always so respectful. Costume Design became an Oscar category only in 1948 (until 1957 there were separate categories for costume in black-and-white and colour films). And, as the studio system ended, so did the reign of large costume departments. When, in 1967, Paramount failed to renew the contract of Edith Head (caricatured as Edna Mode in The Incredibles), she found another home at Universal but, as she reflected later, "More and more contemporary costumes were simply being purchased ... and that was a job for an increasingly important person in the wardrobe, the shopper." In 1970, MGM was the first of the major studios to sell off its costumes and scatter its archive of drawings and notes.
Although the exhibition can be overwrought and, like a bad film or cheap music, tells you when and what to feel, the accompanying catalogue is a scholarly treat; highlights include the chapter on Kubrick's use of Hogarth's paintings in Barry Lyndon, and all the chapters by Christopher Frayling. The show fusses over one of the original pairs of Dorothy's red shoes from The Wizard of Oz, on loan from the Smithsonian, but the ruby slippers – now a faded burgundy, with missing sequins – left me unmoved. And it's best to pass over the attempt to interest us in Jason Bourne's hoodie.
But, since Hollywood Costume relies on what you bring to it, I was bowled over by Joan Crawford's dress in the 1937 The Bride Wore Red (a terrible film with terrific costumes) actually being red – in the age of black and white, why bother? And Hedy Lamarr's floor-skimming peacock-feather cape in Samson and Delilah (a film which had five costume designers) is an extraordinary outfit by any standards. The fact that, at DeMille's suggestion, they used real feathers (1,900 of them), which came from his own peacocks, for a moment lifted the maker of epic spectacle into a whole new category of auteur.
Hollywood Costume: Victoria and Albert Museum, 20 October 2012- 27 January 2013