Sharon Stone crosses her tanned legs on the big screen as you enter a new exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.
The white mini-dress she wears in the scene from “Basic Instinct” (1992) is on display inside: It’s fitted on a mannequin whose head is a video screen picturing Stone.
“The men always want to know if she has her underwear on,” sighs Deborah Nadoolman Landis, senior guest curator of “Hollywood Costume” (through Jan. 27, 2013), a sprawling London show of movie garb spanning the past century.
“Hollywood Costume” is an exhibition for movie lovers, not fashionistas. A thrashing soundtrack rumbles all the way through, giving the show a major-motion-picture feel. Period gowns get short shrift. Crinolines worn by Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love” (1998) and Kirsten Dunst in “Marie Antoinette” (2006) are hastily lumped together on a podium.
The more riveting displays are the menswear: Robert De Niro’s beige army jacket in “Taxi Driver” (1976), Bruce Willis’s blood-stained wife-beater in “Die Hard” (1988), and Charlie Chaplin’s tattered outfit in “Modern Times” (1936).
“It’s not about the clothes: It’s about movies, and what we love about the movies,” says Landis, professor of costume design at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I didn’t want to have what friends of mine here call dead frocks on dummies.”
Landis herself designed the wardrobes for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), as well as for “The Blues Brothers” (1980) and Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” video (the last two were directed by her husband John Landis).
The most striking male outfit of all is John Travolta’s white disco suit from “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). Looking as good as new on a mannequin with an upward-pointing arm, it was bought off the rack.
Costume designer Patrizia von Brandenstein “took the very young and very hunky John Travolta to Brooklyn, to the hood, to go shopping for the right polyester suit,” says Landis. “She remembered thousands of teenage girls beating against the windows. They had to call the police.”
Of the three suits purchased that day, two were lost. Travolta gave the third to a film critic whose wife auctioned it after his death. It now lives in a Plexiglas box in the office of a Mayfair-based London businessman who loved the movie.
By far the most precious loan to the exhibition is the pair of sequined ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939). They’ve never left the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., were escorted over by a Federal Marshal, and are due back by Thanksgiving.
“It’s the equivalent of the Louvre loaning the Mona Lisa,” says Landis with a straight face.
What makes “Hollywood Costume” a lively show is the use of moving images. Actors, directors and designers speak on camera while overhead projectors beam sketches, photos and archives across tabletops. Martin Scorsese’s recorded talk on “Gangs of New York” (2002) is coupled with century-old images of the New York underclass.
In a filmed tandem, Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro take turns discussing their costumes on separate screens. Their outfits sit on mannequins directly behind, including De Niro’s boxer shorts from “Raging Bull” (1980) and Streep’s frumpy blue suit and handbag from “The Iron Lady” (2011).
The exhibition comes even more to life when I meet the designer of Stone’s “Basic Instinct” dress, Ellen Mirojnick. She says director Paul Verhoeven wanted something Stone could slip on easily as co-star Michael Douglas peeped at her from behind.
Mirojnick just finished dressing Douglas for his role as Liberace in the TV movie “Behind the Candelabra.” She also created his slick Gordon Gekko gear in “Wall Street” (1987).
“The Street did not dress like that at the time,” she says. Mirojnick got the idea for the suspenders from insider-trader Ivan Boesky, and otherwise emulated Hollywood aristocracy -- Cary Grant, Gregory Peck -- and the Duke of Windsor.
Landis laments Hollywood’s failure to preserve film costumes. Not a single outfit survives from “Citizen Kane” (1941) or from the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. Bette Davis’s best-known gowns are now used in a drag revue, and “worn ragged,” she says.
“We have not done a good job in the film industry of keeping and safeguarding our history,” says Landis. Hollywood is “always about tomorrow, never about yesterday.”
The V&A exhibition temporarily corrects that. Even if you don’t get a fetishistic thrill from seeing the costumes with your own eyes, you’ll want to see the movies all over again.
(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Hephzibah Anderson on books, Jason Harper on cars, James Russell on architecture and Jeremy Gerard on New York theater.