~ Posted by Nicholas Barber, December 5th 2012

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition does more than let us peek at Indiana Jones’s leather jacket and Dorothy’s ruby slippers. It makes the case that costume designers are artists. It reminds us that, in a film, clothes aren’t just clothes: they’re a labour of love which has been refined for months to convey all sorts of coded meanings about its wearer.

What the exhibition doesn’t do, though, is persuade us that having an artists for a costume designer is always a good idea.

Watch almost any contemporary Hollywood film and you’ll soon notice that everyone’s clothes are, by some strange co-incidence, brand new. Watch any romantic comedy ("27 Dresses", "How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days") and your second thought, after "How did they afford that Manhattan apartment?", is "How did they afford that haute-couture ensemble?" Watch any film set in the business world ("Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps", "Margin Call"), and you’ll see that the beautifully knotted ties have all come from an exclusive boutique. Even a character who’s meant to be a slob will be a slob who has spent time sourcing the perfect, limited-edition T-shirt.

Of course, it’s all very well for a costume to be a caricatured attention-grabber in a deliberately artificial movie (cf everything directed by Tim Burton or Baz Luhrmann). But in a supposedly naturalistic drama, it’s distracting if the clothes magically transmute to respond to the hero’s mood, or if every character appears to employ an army of personal shoppers. Maybe today’s costume designers should think less about being artists, and more about running up some outfits which an ordinary human being might actually wear.

Getting back to the exhibition, you can strain your eyes taking in all the filigrees and frills in Robert Downey Jr’s "Sherlock Holmes" outfit. The "Ocean’s Eleven" tableau has you wondering whether the eleven thieves have a conference call every morning to make sure none of their shirts clash. And the uniform worn by Batman’s latest incarnation has so many layers and ridges that you long for the simplicity of the Adam West version from the 1960s. 

There’s also a display of costumes from "Gangs Of New York" (2002). In the accompanying video clips, Martin Scorsese and his costume designer, Sandy Powell, reveal that they wanted Bill The Butcher to be a knife in human form, so they gave him an elongated stovepipe hat to exaggerate his blade-like outline. But I don’t remember seeing the film and feeling, on some subconscious level, that Bill was a knife. I remember assuming that Daniel Day-Lewis must have stolen his headgear from "The Cat In The Hat".

Compare that with the display relating to one of Scorsese’s earlier films, "The King Of Comedy" (1983). In an interview clip, Robert De Niro recalls that he and Scorsese spotted a shop-window dummy clad in a red suit with a red bow-tie. Yes, they said to each other, that’s what Rupert Pupkin would wear. They bought the suit, and the costume was finished.

Nicholas Barber is a film critic for the Independent on Sunday and film previewer for Intelligent Life.  His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Bring back the lyricist and When Dredd was wacky