Costume Designer, Author Landis Brings 'Dressed' to DMA

Learn about Hollywood costume history from the artist behind MJ's red jacket

By Lyndsay Knecht Milne
|  Wednesday, Aug 26, 2009  |  Updated 1:57 PM CDT
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Costume Designer, Author Landis Brings 'Dressed' to DMA

Harper Collins

Deborah Nadoolman Landis, the costume designer behind such classics as 'Coming to America,' will give a presentation at the Dallas Museum of Art on Thursday as part of the Arts and Letters Live series.

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For designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis, great costumes can't make bad movies good. But they can make good films great, and Landis knows a bit about how to do that. Her touch has made beloved characters iconic: Michael Jackson as a werewolf in "Thriller" was at once his pop star self and a ghoulish ringleader in that red motorcycle jacket, designed by Landis. Eddie Murphy's Prince Akeem is both lovable in hiding and clumsily fabulous as royalty in Coming to America, for which Landis earned an Academy Award Nomination for Best Costume Design. Then there's Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blues Brothers, Three Amigos, and other films with stars whose costumes one pictures instantly upon hearing the titles.

Landis' reverence for the nuances of story and seam plays out in Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, an encyclopedic celebration of the value costumes can add to the most lauded Hollywood films. In anticipation of the designer's presentation at the Dallas Museum of Art in the Horchow auditorium on Thursday at 7 p.m. as part of the Arts and Letters Live series, we wrote her to ask what aspects of the 592-page volume she would focus on. A certain decade, maybe? The future of costuming, which she's helping shape as the chair of the world's first center for the study of costume design at the University of California, Los Angeles?

In reply, Landis pours out thoughts on how subtle costumes have helped more heady hits of the last few years -- much like the essential suspension of disbelief in good screenwriting. This thinking adds insight into what has made the designer's partnerships with her husband, director/producer/writer John Landis, so successful. The pair worked on the "Thriller" film, Blues Brothers, Coming to America and other projects together.

"For filmmakers and the key artistic collaborators: the costume designer, the production designer and the cinematographer, the story always comes first. Glamour is just one tool that a director has to tell the story," Landis writes."It's exciting for actresses to look gorgeous on screen and like spectacular special effects, it's also fun to watch. There is a risk with glamour -- it says, 'Look at me!' In the same way that the story may seem to come second to robots and explosions, a costume designers' worst nightmare is when 'fancy' clothes (and make-up and hair) sabotage a movie. How many times have you turned to a friend and said 'She could never afford that!' or 'She just ran through a jungle and her lipstick is perfect!' When the audience is talking to each other they are no longer involved in the movie."

"If clothes are the major story point as in Sex in the City or The Devil Wears Prada, then the costume designer, Patricia Field, may create costumes that dominate the frame. But the opposite would be true for costume designers Mary Zophres (No Country for Old Men), Monique Prudhomme (Juno) and Ann Roth (Doubt) whose detailed sensitive portrayals allowed the audience to become immersed in these dramatic stories with no such distractions," Landis writes.

Like Diane Keaton's character in Annie Hall, for instance, whose wardrobe of vintage menswear was as natural to Keaton's own style as it seemed in the film and is still influencing fashion. Understated costumes like Hall's are examined in the sketches and photos of Dressed alongside the likes of Marilyn Monroe's glamorous dress from Seven Year Itch.

"Because stories are about people and people are the centerpiece of every movie, costumes are always in the foreground and always in the center of the frame. Yet, the work of a costume designer is often 'hidden in plain sight' and the costume designer's work is often completely invisible," Landis writes.

And sometimes, the costumes become legends themselves. In a June Wall Street Journal interview, Landis (somewhat reluctantly) shared one of many Facebook messages she received from Michael Jackson fans after the singer's death. "I just wanted to write and say you are the reason (along with Michael’s music) that Thriller is the number song/video in the country," it read.

Designers who really think to serve their subjects with pieces like the red leather jacket are what help make stars larger than life -- and, in some cases, larger than death.

"Michael Jackson could have an entire museum built just for his performance costumes and I would be the first on line to see that exhibition," Landis writes. "He was one of the most naturally elegant people on the planet. His grace of movement, his narrow vertical frame, and his taste for the extraordinary made him a style icon. To quote Diana Vreeland '...too much good taste can be boring.' And Michael was never boring!"

Find tickets to Landis' appearance at the DMA, which helps conclude the cinema-themed Summer Spotlight exhibition, here.

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