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Lights, Camera, Costumes!

A cinematic exhibition celebrates its West Coast premiere in Phoenix.

This unforgettable emerald dress was designed by Jacqueline Durran and worn by Keira Knightley in director Joe Wright’s Atonement (2007).

Hollywood arrives in Phoenix this month in the form of an exhibition featuring 100-plus costumes from the past century of cinema. Appropriately dubbed Hollywood Costume, the collection makes its West Coast debut March 26 at Phoenix Art Museum, thanks to years of curation by Academy Award-nominated costume designer and Hollywood legend in her own right, Deborah Nadoolman Landis.

For Landis, it began with a question: how to communicate the role of costume design in cinema? “Finally, I thought, ‘The best thing to do would be to have a museum exhibition so that the audience can take a journey through the creative process with us,’” she says. But finding enough costumes to fill the show was a huge hurdle that would set her back for years. “The challenge was, where were all the costumes? They’re nowhere. The only person who collected costumes and really understood their value was [actress] Debbie Reynolds. I met with Debbie and she allowed me to cherry-pick through her collection,” Landis explains.

Later, Reynolds received a court order to sell her collection at auction, but Landis persevered. “These clothes now existed all over the world,” she explains. “I had to do a lot of tracking down. It was costume-design archeology; I was the Indiana Jones of costume design!” (It’s not a far-fetched reference, given that Landis created Jones’ iconic fedora and jacket look for Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

When Hollywood Costume opened in 2012 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, it shattered attendance records. Upon its close there in January 2013, Landis began working closely with Phoenix Art Museum Director James K. Ballinger and Curator of Fashion Design Dennita Sewell to bring the exhibition to the Valley. And lest you think the Valley will be the first stop of many, think again. “We’re the only west coast venue hosting this exhibit,” Sewell points out. “Costumes, like paper, are sensitive to light damage, so we knew it wouldn’t go on forever and ever. We knew there would be a limited number of venues, so we’re very excited to show it.”

But why Phoenix over other major west coast cities? The answer lies in Sewell’s great working relationship with Landis, combined with Ballinger’s successful campaign to raise the required funds. “They provided a lot of leadership on this,” says Landis. “Nothing happens without the director’s approval and complete support and enthusiasm.”

Sewell says the Phoenix exhibit will be very faithful to the original London installation, comprised of three parts and designed to look like a soundstage, complete with large red curtains and big movie-studio doors.

Act 1: “Deconstruction,” introduces museum visitors to the role of costume design in cinema. Act 2: “Dialogue” features interviews with actors, filmmakers and designers about the creative collaboration that gives context to the costumes. And Act 3: “Finale” will include some of the most iconic costumes ever. Throughout the three acts visitors can expect to see Marilyn Monroe’s white dress in The Seven Year Itch, a Gryffindor uniform from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Dorothy’s gingham dress from The Wizard of Oz, a Darth Vader costume worn by David Prowse, a white dress worn by Jennifer Lawrence in last year’s American Hustle, and many others.

Sewell believes the mass appeal of movies has helped the exhibit gain popularity. “There is such a broad variety of movies—old, new, all different types of genres represented in the exhibition,” she says. “Most everyone has seen a movie; it’s a very popular American pastime. This exhibit will give the visitor insights that will enrich their movie-going experience.”