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Fashion Diary: Costume design gets its due at UCLA

June 23, 2009 |  7:25 pm

Gossip, first impressions, trends in the making, celebrities and style setters. A regular feature by fashion critic Booth Moore.

I’ve always thought that L.A.’s fine arts and academic institutions should do more to promote and preserve Hollywood costume design, which is as much a part of our cultural history as anything that happened on 7th Avenue. And this week, UCLA took a huge step in the right direction by naming Deborah Nadoolman Landis the first David C. Copley Chair for the study of costume design at the School of Theater, Film and Television.

An Academy Award-nominated costume designer, Landis’ credits include "The Blues Brothers," "Animal House," "Coming to America," "Thriller" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." (Her husband is director John Landis.) She is a past president of the Costume Designers Guild, a teacher and an author, most recently of "Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design" (HarperCollins).

Landis_rage Landis is going to be a busy woman in the coming months. In addition to her new post, which is being endowed by San Diego Union-Tribune publisher David C. Copley, she’s curating the upcoming exhibit "Icons: A Hundred Years of Hollywood Costume Design," opening in 2012 at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

We chatted for a few minutes on Tuesday about her future plans for the Copley Center.

How did you score this post?

I met David Copley because he has a huge collection of motion picture costume illustrations. I went down to his house and was overwhelmed! He has Cecil Beaton’s original sketches for "My Fair Lady," Jean Louis’ sketches for "A Star is Born," I could read the walls like Egypt. At the time, I was working "Dressed" and it was already at HarperCollins. But when I saw Beaton’s original sketch of Audrey Hepburn in the Ascot dress, I had to have it in my book. He lent me the sketch, and then we spent some time together at Cannes.

At the same time, I had been talking to Robert Rosen, who is the dean at the UCLA school about a chair in costume design. We wrote a proposal and I never thought it would be funded, but David has a profound appreciation for the role costume plays in our imagination and I couldn’t be happier.

Is there a physical Copley Center?

Not yet! There’s just my office, but one day we’ll be calling Frank Gehry.

Where do you start when you have $6 million to spend?

Certainly costume design has been a neglected area of study and I have every intention of changing that. I am creating a third-year program within the existing structure with an emphasis on film and TV, combining costume theory, history and practice. And I hope someone will be interested in writing a doctoral dissertation on the work of costume designers Irene Sharaff or Colleen Atwood.

Does UCLA have any costume holdings?

The UCLA library special collections department has a fantastic holding of Dorothy Jeakins and Lucile sketches. And who knows? One day, the David C. Copley Center could be the next Fowler Museum. We could have the Ascot dress, oral histories from costume designers and a digital database. We could host conferences and exhibits.

What's the biggest misconception about costume design?

The terrible thing about costume design is the word "costume," because reflexively we think of Halloween and artifice. But what costume designers do is much more profound, because we are building character from the inside out. I love what Ann Roth said about working with Meryl Streep, that when they are in the fitting room, they are always waiting for the third person to arrive — the character.

Another misconception is that costume design has something to do with clothes. We didn’t buy everything we are wearing today. Each of us is wearing things we inherited, thing we were given as gifts. We are wearing an amalgam of stories. All characters are supposed to have lives before the movie starts, just like real people. This is what costume designers create.

I found it interesting that an area of study will be costume design's influence on fashion and culture. Historically, hasn't there been tension between costume designers and fashion designers? Can the center bridge the gap? 

I hope so. We work in two different contexts. Costume designers work in a narrative, so first we are reading the script. Fashion designers have no script. The second context is the frame, and finding balance with the cinematographer and production designer. Costume designers’ best work should disappear. Glamour is just one part of our job. But it works both ways, costume designers pull from what’s appearing on the streets too.

But many movie costumes have crossed over and become part of fashion, yes?

Absolutely. If the movie is successful and you have fallen in love with the characters, you want to go and buy that jacket. But nothing makes you fall in love like a story well told. And that’s the success of the costume designer, filmmaker, and actor — not simply the jacket.

One of the most influential costumes you designed was Michael Jackson's "Thriller" jacket. What was the inspiration?

That costume had to serve the screenplay. The reason the costume was red is that very often design is reductive. I knew because I had spoken to the production designer, the director and Michael that there would be a huge dance with ghouls. And the ghouls would be very ragged and coming from dust. So I thought, what would make Michael pop? I went through the palette and came up with red.

What are some of your favorite films for costume design?

It’s more about a costume designer’s body of work than an individual film. I love "Barry Lyndon," and "Out of Africa" has unsurpassing beauty. And I can’t believe they were both designed, along with "A Clockwork Orange," by Milena Canonero. And I can’t believe Jim Acheson designed "Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life" and "Brazil" and "Spider-Man" and "Dangerous Liasons." It’s their contributions to our shared culture of the movies that means so much to me, both the wacky and the sublime.

Photo: Deborah Landis. Credit: UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

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