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Dressing Success

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By Bekah Wright

Published Jul 1, 2013 8:00 AM


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(Above left): Forbidden Fruit, costume designer and illustrator Natacha Rambova. (Above middle): Myra Breckinridge, costume designer and illustrator Theadora Van Runkle. (Above right) Cabaret, costume designer and illustrator Charlotte Flemming. Photos: (Forbidden Fruit) Courtesy of the Cecil B. DeMille Estate; (Myra Breckinridge) Courtesy of Theadora Van Runkle; (Cabaret) Collection of Deutsc he Kinemathek–Museum fÜr Film und Fernsehen.

Two reasons to roll out the red carpet—Hollywood Costume, the much-lauded museum exhibition, is rounding the globe, and Hollywood Sketchbook: A Century of Costume Illustration has hit bookshelves. Most days, the mastermind behind both, Deborah Nadoolman Landis M.F.A. '75, can be found on UCLA's campus at the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design, where she serves as both professor and founding director.

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Landis bears a lot of titles—costume designer, former twoterm president of the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892, and Oscar nominee (in 1988 for costume design on Coming to America). And distinctions: She created Indiana Jones' iconic costume and the red jacket Michael Jackson wore in his Thriller video.

Hollywood Costume's London debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum was one of the most visited of all time, with more than 250,000 patrons viewing more than 100 iconic costumes from Holly Golightly's little black dress designed by Hubert de Givenchy for Breakfast at Tiffany's to Landis' Indiana Jones attire from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Landis sees her path to becoming a costume designer as both accidental and twofold. She intended to be a historian, so dressing characters from another time period was a natural fit. The second component, being handy with a needle and thread, is a skill she credits to her grandmothers.

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"I was a maker who was fascinated by history," she says. "If those two things aren't a cocktail for a costume designer, I don't know what is." The native New Yorker, who is married to film director John Landis, says, "It's still very difficult to make costume design relevant. It's been marginalized for a long time." She notes that costume designers didn't have a distinct branch within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences until January of this year. Before that, they were lumped in the catch-all "Designers Branch" with art directors, production designers and set decorators.

"It's not quite as bad as suffrage," she says. "But recognition for the field has been a long time coming."

There is, in fact, no sewing in Landis' classes. Instead, there's a strong emphasis on script analysis and delving into character studies. "A costume designer's function is to figure out who the people are in a screenplay," she explains.

Writing Hollywood Sketchbook was another avenue for getting her point across. The majority of the drawings in the book have never been published before, much less seen by anyone beyond the director of the film for whom they were designed. And yet, "All these drawings could hang on a wall as works of art unto themselves," Landis says.

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