The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures: A Costume Design Dream

At long last, The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open its doors to the public on Thursday, September 30, 2021. Located in Los Angeles, this exciting new museum is the largest in North America devoted to exploring films and film culture. This brilliant new museum also emphasizes the importance of costume design and costume designers’ essential roles in the film industry. I was honored by The Academy Museum with an invitation to tour the exhibitions before the public, and I’ll just say, it was worth the wait!

©Academy Museum Foundation

It felt like a dream walking through the halls of The Academy Museum, full of costume surprises around every corner. Though I walked in with an idea of what I would see, I constantly came across acquisitions that made the hair stand up on my arms.

We first moved into a large gallery containing a chronological walk-through of Academy Awards history from 1929 to the present, an overview of the origins of the Oscars and the Academy, memorable wins and infamous snubs, Oscars fashion, and wraparound screens showcasing significant acceptance speeches.

Academy Awards History gallery in Stories of Cinema, ©Academy Museum Foundation/Image by WHY Architecture

The moment I knew I was in for quite the magical evening was when I came across the infamous 1986 Bob Mackie ensemble Cher wore to present an award at the Oscars. I was standing in the presence of one of the most famous outfits to grace a red carpet! Me being a Cher super-fan, I felt like I could have passed out. Luckily for me, Assistant Curator J. Raúl Guzmán (and my brilliant guide for the evening) was there to catch my fall.

We then proceeded on to The Identity gallery. The Identity gallery was the museum’s shining North Star for those who love and respect costume design art. Within this gallery, there are more than forty costumes and costume design sketches on view representing a wide swath of film history from the last century, including Lady Sings The Blues (1972), The Wiz (1978), Frida (2002), Us (2019), and Rocketman (2019). In addition, there is a display highlighting a single costume designer, which opens with costumes designed by Mary Zophres. And yes, you will see The Dude’s bathrobe ensemble worn by Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski (1998).

There was one costume; however, I could not take my eyes off. Honestly, I never imagined myself stepping into the presence of the famous May Queen gown designed by Andrea Flesch worn by Florence Pugh in Midsommar (2019). Honestly, images don’t even do this gown justice, and I would say just seeing this gown is worth the price of admission.

The fun continued as we made our way through The Academy Museum and into The Encounters gallery, full of unique costume design. This gallery looks at the artistry that brings the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror to life, featuring original set pieces, costumes, and iconic characters, including C-3PO, E.T., and R2-D2. There were some showstopping costumes in this exhibit that I have always wanted to see, such as the iconic Edward Scissorhands costume by Colleen Atwood. Of course, no exhibit would be complete without the famed Dora Milaje armor worn by Okoye (Danai Gurira) in Black Panther by Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth Carter.

©Academy Museum Foundation

One of the most magical moments within The Academy Museum took place in The Encounters gallery as I approached a costume that still sends chills down my spine. Why it was none other than one of the infamous gowns worn by Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. What else is there to say? It was powerful and actually brought me to quiet tears. I was happy I snuck away from Assistant Curator J. Raúl Guzmán for a moment so that he couldn’t see me quietly having an emotional moment.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures dedicates quite a lot of space to the legendary costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. On my tour, I got to see Ishioka’s Oscar she won for her costume design work on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the envelope and card to announce her well-deserved win, and even the Japanese poster for Francis Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, designed by Eiko Ishioka.

Aside from all of the fantastic costumes I have shared with you, the seven-story, 300,000-square-foot museum will open with:

  • the 30,000-square-foot core exhibition Stories of Cinema, offering celebratory, critical, and personal perspectives on the disciplines and impact of moviemaking, past, and present
  • the temporary exhibition Hayao Miyazaki, the first museum retrospective in North America of the work of the acclaimed filmmaker and Studio Ghibli
  • The Path to Cinema: Highlights from the Richard Balzer Collection, with selections from the world’s foremost holdings of pre-cinematic optical toys and devices
  • Backdrop: An Invisible Art, a double-height installation that presents the painting of Mount Rushmore used in North by Northwest (USA, 1959)
  • And The Oscars® Experience presented in the East West Bank Gallery, an immersive simulation that lets visitors imaginatively step onto the stage of the Dolby Theatre to accept an Academy Award®.

I cannot recommend this experience enough. I could have spent all day in this museum. Actually, I kind of did spend all day, and I still don’t think I saw everything I wanted to. This museum recognizes the importance of costume designers and gives proper credit to the incredible designers around the world, past and present, for their imperative contributions to film. Tickets are available now, so please head to the website for The Academy Museum and reserve your spot today!

Reserve Your Tickets Today at AcademyMuseum.Org

A Short History of Costume Design At the Emmy’s

While taking a look at the Costume Design & Supervision nominees for the Emmy Awards this year, I was stunned by how genuinely excellent costuming has been this past year. All twenty-two nominees across the four categories are incredible examples of how costume design is integral to creating the characters and worlds we love to escape into. There was nothing to not like, from the bright, bold, and energetic costumes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal to the subdued, stark surrealism of the Handmaids Tale. This also got me thinking, who were the costume design nominees for the first Emmy’s? Where they all as excellent as this year and who won? To find the answer, I visited the Television Academy’s list of all the Emmy nominees and winners of the last 72 years, scrolled down to the first awards in 1949, and found nothing. I thought ok, television was just getting started in the forties surly by 1950 it should be a category. Again I found nothing. So I went through each year until I found the very first-year Costume Design was a category of the awards.

At the 18th Primetime Emmy awards in 1966, the first two tv shows to be recognized for their costume design were nominated under the category, ‘Individual Achievements in Art Direction and Allied Crafts – Costume Design.’ The nominees were The Hollywood Palace on ABC with costume design by Ed Smith, and Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque: Second Edition on NBC with costume design by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie. Unlike today where most nominees are from scripted dramas or comedies, both The Hollywood Palace and The Wonderful World of Burlesque were variety shows. 

The Hollywood Palace, nominated for its second season, was an hour-long program hosted by a different celebrity every week. Each week the host and other guests would perform multiple musical numbers and sketches unique to that week. Needless to say, there was a lot for Smith to keep up with. For example, in episode 20, Smith had to design two large musical numbers. The first number was for host George Burns called History of the Dance, where he sings about several decades of dance trends. Each dancer was dressed to represent a different decade of dance in the song.

George Burns and ensemble perform History of Dance.

In the second number, Connie Stevens performs, Married I can always get. She is accompanied by an ensemble of bridesmaids and groomsmen dressed and ready for a wedding. Stevens wears a beautiful tea-length dress that takes her from a wedding guest reluctant to get married herself, to become the bride of her own wedding effortlessly. Another stand out from the season was episode 19, when the Harlem Globetrotters visited to play the Palace ‘Dribblers’, a team comprised of that night’s celebrity guests. For the match, Smith designed custom basketball uniforms for the home team and a chic jumpsuit for Connie Stevens as she played referee. These are just a fraction of examples from the 35 episodes season. With such a high volume and quality being delivered weekly, it’s easy to understand why Ed Smith was honored with a nomination. 

Connie Stevens and ensemble perform, Married I can always get.

Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque, nominated for its second edition, was also a verity show hosted by Danny Thomas with guest stars Jerry Lewis, Shirley Jones, and Lucille Ball. While the designs by Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie are excellent in each sketch, it is the second skit, a parody of “White Cargo,” that really stands out. In this sketch, the costumes really do their job, letting you know exactly who each character is. Lewis and Thomas look the part of quintessential 19th-century English explorers while Ball is dressed to the nines as the “temptress.”

Lucille Ball, Danny Thoman and Jerry Lewis

Bob Mackie design for Lucille Ball

However, the night’s truly unique look was a ballet costume designed by Bob Mackie for Lucille Ball’s slapstick burlesque routine. As Ball hilariously stumbles through the performance, Mackie’s beautiful butterfly inspired costume provides the perfect foil to her actions. It is also essential to the performance, with the removal of the detachable wings are a huge part of the routine. Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie character-defining costumes that genuinely add to every performance earning them the nomination

With each of these shows equally matched in 1966, the Emmy for Individual Achievements in Art Direction and Allied Crafa – Costume Design wasn’t awarded to either nominee. I couldn’t find out why there wasn’t a winner only that it wasn’t uncommon. In the early years of the awards, occasionally, categories only had nominees no winners. While my question of who the first nominees were had been answered, I still didn’t know who the first winner was. Thankfully I didn’t need to go far to find the answer. The first Emmy from costume design was awarded in 1967 to Ray Aghayan and Bob Mackie for their work on the 1966 TV movie adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass on NBC.

Right Ricardo Montalban as The White King & Nanette Fabray as The White Queen; Middle Judi Rolin as Alice; Left Robert Coote as The Red King & Agnes Moorehead as The Red Queen
Judi Rolin as Alice

The costumes designed by Agheyan and Mackie bring the fantastical world of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland to life, with an infusion of the mod style popular during the 60s. This mixture of current fashion was a departure from the usual Victorian-inspired designs reflective of when the books were first published. This creates a unique look for the movie and helps make distinctions between Wonderland and Alice’s world. Wonderland’s fantasy is evident in the design of red and white, kings, and queens. Their costumes are lavishly designed and over the top, bringing Wonderland’s whimsy to the screen as soon as they appear. In contrast, Alice’s simple mod-inspired look makes it apparent that she doesn’t belong in Wonderland. Since it’s never clear if Alice is dreaming, all the other characters are designed with a mix of mod and whimsical elements, creating the possibility that she imagining everything.

For the movie, the costumes were essential to telling the story and creating the world because the set design was minimal. This may be because it looks as if it was performed and shot in a theater. Aghayan and Mackie’s designs were genuinely worthy of the honor for bringing Lewis Carroll’s world alive in such a unique way. In addition to being the first winner of the costume design award, Alice Through the Looking Glass was the only program nominated for costume design in 1967.

Left Jimmy Durante as Humpty Dumpty Right Judi Rolin as Alice
Red & White Kings and Queens Court Dress
Red & White Kings and Queens Court Dress

I didn’t expect costume design to appear as a category so late in Emmy’s history; however, it’s first nominees and the winner did not disappoint. The Hollywood Palace and Danny Thomas’ The Wonderful World of Burlesque, this glitzy, celebrity-filled verity show created new unique designs every week, earning them the first nominations. To the fantastical skeptical of Alice Through the Looking Glass, that brought new life to the classic story. These designs by Ed Smith, Ray Agheyan, and Bob Mackie helped set the bar for excellence in costume design for television that every year designers surpass and set higher.