Sculpture being an exception, but generally I’m not all that interested in seeing “stuff” in museums. When I first visited London I went to the home of Charles Dickens. You could see his inkwell. Oh God, kill me now.
Anyhow, I rationalised that the Hollywood Costume exhibition was more about design than, say, the sofa someone famous once sat on, or the spittoon they once phlegmed in. So I paid my $19.50 to the good folk at ACMI and hoped for the best.
My standard response when bumped into is a quick “you’re right”. The fortieth time this happened, I, albeit wearily, said it again, and not only got thanked but also “treated” to some rambling musings on declining social graces.
A long-winded way of saying it was crowded there. Bloody crowded. Dark, crowded, expensive and poorly laid out. Fortunately - while my companion was still getting his money’s worth by reading every caption - I found some observations more interesting than price and crap lighting to thumb into my phone.
Steps in and we were greeted by Nicole Kidman’s corset from the beautiful (and boring) Moulin Rouge! Staring at the peachy-coloured ensemble, bemused, I remarked, “I can’t possibly believe that Nicole Kidman is that tiny in real life.”
As I inched around the exhibition I would hear dozens of versions of my comment. “How petite Glenn Close must be,” said a woman at the 101 Dalmations display.
“Did you see how small Meryl Streep’s constume was?” asked a woman to her escort, as they moved past the glitzy Mamma Mia! costume.
A collective gasp was audible at Keira Knightley’s green dress from the beautiful (and boring) Atonement.
While the vast majority of these comments were made by women, worth noting, men were making them just as brow-furrowedly at the white Marilyn Monroe/Seven Year Itch display.
Noting that there were no plus-size costumes that prompted any of us to comment, “whoa, I never realised so and so was such a fatty”, would be a redundant statement.
For better and possibly much worse, third-wave feminism has not only gotten us talking about women’s body image, but more importantly given us a swift lesson in image manipulation.
I doubt for example, that many people can peruse the flawless make-up ads in magazines anymore and be unware of what it means to be Photoshopped.
Of course, Nicole Kidman’s corset - in all its teeny tiny glory - was not photoshopped. There on display was an impossibly small costume that a nearly-6 foot tall actress was able to fill out.
A very different concern was thus sparked. Calling an image “Photoshopped” has become shorthand for dismissing images of unattainable beauty. The Hollywood Costume exhibition was a good reminder that sometimes a computer isn’t necessary for this.
In case you weren’t convinced by Sadie Stein’s Jezebel article on the topic, seeing Marilyn’s Seven Year Itch dress up close promptly laid to rest those idiotic - and endlessly repeated claims - that Marilyn Monroe was somehow plump. She wasn’t. Should women need reassurance/delusion that their curvier bodies were once-upon-a-time lauded as the bastion of beauty, we really need to look beyond Norma Jean.
On the other hand, seeing not just the Seven Year Itch dress, but a sea of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them dresses worn by women in decades of films, presents some stark insights into Hollywood.
Women who appear to be average-sized on screen aren’t.
Women who are in fact well below average-sized completely dominate our screens.
Intellectually, of course, I knew this. I wrote my PhD on this topic as it relates to advertising. Equally, in more recent years, I’ve sat in green rooms at TV studios and seen in the flesh the below-average slenderness of women who read our news or tout the latest ab-product. In case watching the horror movies of my own TV appearances isn’t lesson enough, fortunately there are endless lessons to be learnt about screen padding.
I’m not abolitionist when it comes to thin female models or actors. Not at all. There are thin - very thin - women in real life who aren’t sick or emaciated or living exclusively on cigarettes and Diet Coke. Their bodies should be deemed attractive. Celebrated.
But they aren’t the only physical incarnation of attractiveness. Such bodies can’t be the sole definers of physical perfection of which women are left to compare themselves.
I don’t want a roomful of plus-size costumes, but a roomful of size 0s is thoroughly jarring.
Hollywood Costume is showing at ACMI in Melbourne until August 18, 2013.