Starstruck at the Ulster Museum
World class costume exhibition features iconic pieces from film and television. Listen to an audio tour of the exhibition presented by Jane Coyle in the podcast to the left
We all love those costume dramas that sweep us off our feet, into another place or time. It's those costumes that transform mere mortals into kings and queens, duchesses and divas, which are now on display at the Ulster Museum.
In its new exhibition, Starstruck, the public can see 50 costumes worn by stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Daniel Craig, Kate Winslet and Colin Firth. The costumes evoke many different historical periods, from the jewel-dripping pomp of the Elizabethan court to the more understated elegance of the 20th century.
Interpretation Manager Hannah Crowdy takes us on a stroll through the exhibition, starting with a dress and jacket worn by one of the biggest stars of all. 'We decided to use Elizabeth Taylor's costume, as worn in Young Toscanini as our opening act. You can see how the violet of the costume matches her famous eye colour. She's a Hollywood icon, of course, and she passed away recently, so people will be very aware of her.'
One of Crowdy's favourite costumes is a sleek grey velour number that Kate Winslet wore in Finding Neverland. 'It shows how much care was taken with the underpinnings of the suit - the lining has a beautiful pattern to it. It's something that will perhaps only appear on the screen for a flash, but it's still there. I imagine that detailing like this helps the actors get into character.'
Crowdy explains how the costumiers must balance artistic needs with historical authenticity. 'This exhibition shows the changing styles of clothing,' she says. 'Although liberties have been taken, the costumiers have gone back to museums, sewing patterns and paintings, then interpreted them for the movie.'
As we approach a baroque wedding cake of a purple gown in the centre of the exhibition, Crowdy tells us more about how the exhibition was put together. It originated in Worcester Cathedral, which liaised with costumiers to form the collection from which the Ulster Museum was able to select the costumes on show in Belfast.
As such, the combination seen here is unique, and the pieces provided their own inspiration as to the layout of the display. 'We had our list of costumes and made a plan of how these would be arranged in the exhibition space,' Crowdy adds. 'This costume, worn by Minnie Driver as Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, was supposed to go with the other costumes, but when we unwrapped it we decided it had to be our center piece. Opinions change.'
Crowdy then leads us to a costume that is striking for a very different reason: it's an evening gown with a pair of enormous tulle wings attached. 'When we unwrapped this costume from Ever After: A Cinderella Story, we wondered why it had such a heavy corset. Then this pair of wings appeared, to be held up by the corset.'
Drew Barrymore wore the dress for her character's entrance at a magnificent fairytale ball, but a second version was also created in which the wings were tattered and the costume dirtied, for a scene where Cinderella fled the party in a rainstorm.
One of the most popular films of the past year, The King's Speech is represented by a set of outfits worn by actors portraying the King, his family and speech therapist, Lionel Logue. 'This is quite a coup for us,' Crowdy admits, 'and we're really pleased to have them. The King's Speech is one of those films that have a real appeal, even to people who normally don't go for costume drama. I'm a historian by training, and I hope that movies like that make people want to come out to the Ulster Museum and see the real thing.'
Crowdy notes that the filmmakers got special dispensation from the royal family to use the exclusive Balmoral Tartan. But these costumes also reveal a more prosaic truth about the period being depicted. 'Those heavy skirts and woolen cardigans that the girls wear, the Queen's big fur stoles – you can see that they didn't have central heating in those days,' Crowdy jokes.
We notice that, judging from her costume, Helena Bonham Carter is quite slight. 'Yes! We even needed an extra plinth for the bridal gown she wore in Frankenstein.' Tom Cruise's plinth is also quite high.
Some historical figures have been returned to by filmmakers time and again, and there are dresses worn by actresses playing Elizabeth I in several different productions. 'Cate Blanchett's costume for Elizabeth is a different one than is printed in the catalogue, and to be honest I think it's even better; it's the dress that people remember very well, from when she's running through the meadows as a young girl.'
Helen Mirren's costume, on the other hand, is the grand-dame of Elizabethan dresses, the one you imagine when you think of the monarch, wide as an armchair and accessorised with that remarkable, almost halo-like collar. In a small, hidden modern practicality, the lace cuffs of this version are held in place with press studs.
It's apparent how big a part space plays in this display. 'We've got 50 costumes. 51 if you count the two girls' costumes from The King's Speech. Originally we had wanted to have more, but early on it became clear that these costumes need room to breathe, they need space to be seen properly and to walk around them.'
Already, the museum is filling up with members of the public who clearly appreciate that opportunity and, while touching is strictly forbidden, lean in to the costumes to gape at their detail. 'There were people who were sceptical about this exhibition, thought that the clothes would hang together with safety pins. They, and indeed we ourselves, were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the pieces,' says Crowdy.
Another coup for the Ulster Museum is the display of costumes from the ITV series Downton Abbey. 'We'd have loved to have more of the servants' costumes, but they're currently being used for the filming of the new series. We've got this costume for Gwen, the housemaid, and you can see it's been worn. There's one scene where the maid goes for a job interview and falls. The mud is still visible on the hems.'
The clothes of Downton Abbey's more aristocratic residents hint at a generation gap. Younger characters wear the height of 1912 fashion, whereas the costume of Maggie Smith's character, for instance, reflects that she still has one foot in the Victorian era.
Visitors may have seen similar shifts demonstrated in the museum's Flower Power collection, which contrasts a dowager floral print dress from 1880 with one worn by a 1920s flapper. 'Yes!' Crowdy confirms. 'We constantly had that feeling when unpacking, like with Gwynneth Paltrow's dress from Emma: "Oh, we've got one just like that!"
'We're really happy to have this exhibition, because it forms a way into our own collection. Worchester Cathedral had 100 pieces on show, but that was one of the criteria we had for selecting what was going to be in ours – they had to have an historical base. We could have had costumes from Pirates of the Carribean, and undoubtedly they'd be popular, but they would not have been at home here.'
The costumes certainly do offer a window into the past, reminding us that our ability to buy clothes cheaply and discard them regularly for new ones is a very recent phenomenon. 'People ask us why we don't have more clothes from working class people,' say Crowdy. 'The truth is, there are none. They were worn over and over, until nothing was left of them. Clothing is so much more disposable now.'
Daniel Craig's leather jacket from Defiance is worn at the elbows, and Geoffrey Rush's applique doublet from Shakespeare in Love has seen better days. Whether purposely distressed or the victim of film set wear and tear, damage only adds authenticity.
Starstruck is the closest Northern Ireland's film lovers can get not only to their favourite film and television characters, but also to the actors. People really do seem to feel that connection: as we prepare to take our leave, a small group of 20-something women discover the exhibition's grand finale, the costume worn by Colin Firth in Pride & Prejudice. 'It's Mr. Darcy!' gasps one, then adds in a whisper: 'Would it be okay if I touch him?'
Starstruck is on display at the Ulster Museum until September 25.