The Oklahoma City Museum of Art explores the underappreciated role of costume designers in Hollywood

Sketch to Screen: The Art of Hollywood Costume Design
Opening Thursday
On display through Aug. 15
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch

Despite being cast in every important scene and center-framed during every iconic movie moment, costume design often remains hidden in plain sight.

It’s a bit of a paradox, said Brian Hearn, Oklahoma City Museum of Art film curator. “You really notice it when it’s bad or when it’s really good, but a lot of times, it’s successful when it’s sort of seamless.”

In Hollywood, however, clothes don’t just drape the actor ” they make the character. Surveying the entire range of American cinema, OKCMOA has compiled a collection of more than 85 original garments and accessories that explore the art of making movie garments, and the historical role costume designers have played in shaping the look of films.

The result is the exhibit “Sketch to Screen: The Art of Hollywood Costume Design.” Many of the featured costumes are identifiable by even casual cinephiles. The collection ranges from Jean Harlow’s cream satin evening gown from 1933’s “Bombshell,” to Mary Pickford’s tattered blue dress from the 1922 silent film “Tess of the Storm Country.” Oscar-winning designs include the John Truscott-created hooded cape worn by Vanessa Redgrave in “Camelot” and Bette Davis’ complete “Death of the Nile” pink-beaded outfit designed by Anthony Powell.

Men’s film fashion also plays a big part in the exhibit. Heath Ledger’s “Brokeback Mountain” getup is featured along with Robert DeNiro’s leopard-print robe and boxing shorts from “Raging Bull,” and the “Gladiator” garb donned by Russell Crowe in 2000.

Sketches and photos are included in the exhibit, which opens Thursday and is on display through Aug. 15. An accompanying film series begins 7:30 p.m. with a screening of “¡Three Amigos!”

Deborah Nadoolman Landis, an Academy Award-nominated costume designer who created the “Amigos” outfits, will speak at the screening. She has written several books on the subject.

Plans for “Sketch to Screen” began three years ago when OKCMOA contacted private collectors, who are generally known for keeping and maintaining the best collections of movie costumes, props and memorabilia. Over the next few years, Hearn and associate curator Jennifer Klos traveled to meet with several of them to assess the inventory of available garments from which to draw. Back in Oklahoma City, the two developed a cohesive narrative around the pieces, and coordinated the corresponding film and guest speaker component, which follows the exhibit throughout the summer.

The “Sketch to Screen” survey starts with the earliest form of cinema, silent films, where a picture’s success was pinned directly to its stitching.

“During the silent era, many of the stars were dressing themselves. Not only that, they had their own wardrobes,” Hearn said, noting that most early starlets were savvy enough to know that glamorous wardrobes made good audition companions. “In some cases, they would get the roles because they had the right clothes.”

Gingerly packed and carefully shipped cross-country, the garments started arriving at OKCMOA a month ago. Cara Varnell, a conservator with Textile Art Conservation Studio in Long Beach, Calif., came to Oklahoma City in early April to oversee costume handling, and to lead a team of designers in dressing the mannequins and arranging each to highlight each garment’s artistry.

Working methodically in a back room, Varnell set up an assembly line where white-gloved assistants unboxed the outfits and drape them on custom-ordered mannequins. Some of the costumes are more than a half-century old, and many are priceless, but even the most modern wardrobes presented problems.

For example, Kevin Bacon’s “Apollo 13″ space suit was designed by Rita Ryack and created by an actual NASA subcontractor, and while it’s made from many of the same materials that help real-life astronauts survive the harshness of space, it proved quite cumbersome to Varnell and her ground crew.

“We have no idea how that’s going to work, and nobody’s ever dressed it before,” she said with a laugh and sigh, pointing out the suit’s seamless sole-to-throat coverage precludes a mannequin’s normal, through-the-foot mounting for display. “We don’t modify the costume. Our job is to make the form fit the costume; we don’t make the costume fit the form. That’s the magic of it, that we figure out a way to do it so that you, the viewer, can’t see, hopefully, what we’ve done.” “Joe Wertz

Jacqueline Durran’s sketch (above; photo/Shannon Cornman) became Keira Knightley’s onscreen look (below).

Joe Wertz

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