The American curator and Oscar-nominee behind the ACMI’s new exhibition on costume design opens up about how she fell in love with the art and its role in cinema.
23 Apr 2013 - 4:04 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2013 - 4:04 PM

Over a career spanning three decades, Deborah Nadoolman-Landis has crafted some of the most iconic costumes in Hollywood history. From Indiana Jones' fedora hat and leather jacket to Michael Jackson's red leather jumpsuit and her Oscar-nominated work on Coming to America, Nadoolman-Landis has been at the forefront of a filmmaking craft steeped in tradition yet rarely afforded the respect in deserves. A two-term President of the Costume Designers Guild, Nadoolman-Landis is visiting Australia to launch her exhibition 'Hollywood Costume', featuring rare and iconic outfits from The Wizard of Oz, Titanic, Gone with the Wind, Breakfast at Tiffanys, The Dark Knight Rises, Basic Instinct and Ben Hur, amongst many others. She spoke with SBS Film ahead of the event's launch at Melbourne's ACMI this week.

This exhibition is the greatest Hollywood costume exhibition in history

What are your earliest memories of being impacted by the art and craft of a costume designer?

It must have happened so early in my life it just must have been absorbed into my DNA. I don't mean this coyly, but sometimes think I was born with too much imagination. I could always imagine people in storybooks walking around in very detailed costumes, just going about their daily lives. I can't remember a time when I didn't just absolutely love literature or the movies or going to the theatre, and the experience of imagining all these people I was being introduced to in some form of costume became a single sensation for me. I grew up in New York City, so from very early on I was going to the theatre.

How has the American film industry's perception of and respect towards the role of costume designers changed over time?

Oh, that's such a good, easy question yet provides such a complex answer. I'm going to have to be Hilary Clinton on this! (Laughs) In my first term as President of the Costume Designers Guild, I worked with Tom Short, the President of the IATSE, which is the big union body that represents the movie and theatre industry. For the first time in the industry's history, we got a $100 a week overtime pay hike for costume designers. That's pretty small but it was a huge achievement! At this time, producers and directors are certainly respectful of the role that costume designers play and that we are key collaborators, but has our pay reached our acknowledged status? I would say no. And to take that one step further, most, not all, but most are women and that means we are treated not much differently to women working on the outside of the industry. We are paid 70 cents in the dollar, so… yeah. It is not all a happy story. We are acknowledged as peak collaborators but are not paid as such.

Is it the same for the great European designers? How are your contemporaries on the continent treated compared to the US costumers?

There is no more active union in Great Britain, though there used to be. The European designers that I know are in an even more fragile position than the American ones. Certainly in terms of their credit and their pay, they are under even greater pressure than those here in the US. Of course, one of the reasons the US designers need a union is that we don't have a national health care system, so all of our pensions and health benefits come from the unions. In Europe, where they have terrific national health systems, they don't have to worry so much about that.

Describe some of the joys of curating this exhibition. Do you still get a particular thrill when you see certain outfits?

This exhibition is the greatest Hollywood costume exhibition in history and is absolutely unique in that presents the point of view of the practitioner. Practitioners never get the opportunity to curate a scholarly, thoughtful production about their work and the history of their work. I just brought everything from my 30 years of work and as much as I could get from colleagues and from producers and directors I know, anyone I could get involved, I did. And certainly, all of the private collectors and archivists I knew from all over the world. The entire five years I worked on this show, working on the design aspects and working out how to tell the story of costume design, I never once tired of it. In fact, I must say, if you think of any filmmaker or artist, and how exhausted they must be when they get to the end of a project, they will be just as excited as when they started. When you have a vision, you are always willing to get in the trenches and bring that vision to the general public. Am I excited when I still see the clothes? Hell, yes.

The enormous crowds that attended in London (Hollywood Costumes enjoyed a sold-out season at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London) and the anticipation ahead of the ACMI season here; what does that say about the movie-going public's relationship with costumes and the art of costuming?

The movie-going public found out a long, long time ago that there is no difference between costume and character. In the exhibition, Martin Scorsese says those exact words. He says, “Costume is character”. The international movie-going public is emotionally tied to the films and their characters and the public have come to the exhibition because they want to know more about them. The thing with costuming, the secret about costume design, is that we are trying to build a life for every character in a movie. Every character in a movie has a life before the movie begins and people are coming to get a further insight into the characters they love. No one simply comes to see a dress! The dress is the least of it. It really isn't about the costume, but it is about how you feel about the movie.

The Hollywood Costume exhibition runs at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from April 24 to August 18. Visit the official website for more information.

Photo credit: ACMI
Photographer: Mark Gambino