Hollywood Costume

When you have Academy Award-winning costume designer Lindy Hemming on the phone – whose work on the Batsuit from The Dark Knight trilogy and Daniel Craig’s bespoke suit in Casino Royale is soon to be displayed as part of ACMI’s upcoming Hollywood Costume exhibition – it’s important to ask her the hard-hitting questions. So who is sexier, Batman or James Bond?

“Obviously it’s James Bond!” she laughs. “Batman isn’t meant to be sexy! He’s meant to come to our aid and be saving the world. Sexiness is not his thing. James Bond is meant to be sexy so the answer is that!”


Unlike the Batsuits in Joel Schumaher’s disastrous ‘90s films starring Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman, in which Batman’s nipples almost become their own character, Hemming had to design the new Batsuit to match the realism of director Christopher Nolan’s vision.


“The whole thing with those suits – the Tim Burton ones were great – but the [others] reached a point where they were going in a direction which didn’t seem to have anything to do with Batman. I don’t know why the suit needed to look so sexual, really. In terms of character and who he is, what relevance that had to anyone other than the designer and the director, I don’t know!” she laughs. “For us, trying to do a more gritty, more modern, believable Batman – those kind of things were just not in the scheme at all.”


After realising that way too much time had been dedicated to the sex appeal of Batman, Hemming reveals the extraordinary lengths she went to in research in designing the costume.


“My own inspiration for the new Batsuit was modern, high-tech running shoes with meshes and tension points and shock absorption and all that stuff – that was my first inspiration. And then from that I went into motorcycling sports technical wear and then it took me to the…latest developments in the military. I think the films do seed the ideas they had at the military and vice versa because they had developed things like invisibility fabric in the military at that point. They had a fabric that was black and couldn’t be read on radar and we [felt] that maybe that was part of the Batsuit. You know the stealth bomber? They’re painted in a black paint that can’t be read on radar. We were thinking, ‘That would be a fantastic idea for our suit’.”


The dazzling amount of research, technology and design in the Batsuit is quite a contrast to Hemming’s work on James Bond.


“It’s difficult because Casino Royale was a new bond for me. I had done Pierce Brosnan up ‘til then, so my normal Bond idea was going to be changed with the introduction of Daniel Craig. He was going to be a new kind of Bond. Specifically on Casino Royale, I think we were looking at a much more physical, explosive sort of action Bond rather than a languid, sophisticated older Bond.


“The suit was very different to the kind of suit that Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan because they were going for a British or European gentleman [who fits in with] business people and military people and other spies, but with Daniel Craig he bursts into everything like a puma or something, he leaps into every situation...In the case of Daniel Craig, we weren’t trying to hard the fact that he’s a sprung, muscular guy.”


Five years in the making and direct from its run at London’s Victoria & Albert Musuem, Hollywood Costume explores the critical role costume design plays in storytelling. The exhibition, starring pieces from an extraordinary 19 Academy Award-winning costumes, brings over 100 costumes from a century in filmmaking, from The Wizard of Oz to Titanic to Gladiator to Anna Karenina. Co-curator from ACMI, Ulanda Blair, speaks in admiration of the iconicity of the costumes.


“It’s hard to choose but one that’s quite extraordinary is actually an Australian-designed costume for Camelot which was designed by Melburnian John Truscott,” she says. “It’s an incredible costume that has been stitched together with watermelon seeds and sea shells and really is quite a contrast to a lot of the other very opulent queen costume in the section The Royal Romance which is a lot of embroidery and ruffles and lace and ribbon. To see this almost ethereal, quite organic object in amongst that is quite striking.


“Yesterday we rigged Spider-Man; that was quite a thrill to see Tobey Maguire’s costume in the flesh, crouched – it gave us all goosebumps. We’ve got Marilyn Monroe’s famous white dress from The Seven Year Itch and just to see that in the flesh you sort of understand how tiny she was. There’s that the palpable sense of a body that’s inhabited that costume. That’s something you feel throughout the ghostly presence of the actors that have worn these costumes. I also get a smile from the Dude’s dressing gown from The Big Lebowski which I think is a wonderful example of how something that’s so ordinary can really come to define a character and really breathe life into a character.”


Being able to view the costumes in real life allows visitors of the upcoming exhibition to examine the garments in such close detail compared to seeing them in films. However, one criticism of the exhibition in London was the over-protection of the costumes inhibited any close examination – feedback that ACMI have taken onboard.


“Conservations is obviously a huge issue,” Blair says. “We’ve got three conservators from the V&A working with us at the moment. The lighting is also a big issue. We can’t have bright lights. The show isn’t behind glass – it’s an open display – conceptually the show’s about resisting the fetishisation of costumes. It’s about breathing the life back into the costumes and making these characters come alive and whilst it’s wonderful to be up close to the costumes, we also have to be careful about making sure they can’t be easily touched or damaged.”


Lindy Hemming herself is quite hesitant to answer my question about what we should look for when examining the Batsuit purely because the display in London was too difficult to see.


“When it was in London, nobody could really see the suit so all the things I had said about it nobody could appreciate. What is interesting is the way that suit was designed and the way it was created was much more technical than one normally has to go into for costume. You actually had to set up a workshop to make the individual pieces by moulding the panels. First we add the fabrics that the military used – lightweight protective clothing – so we did a huge amount of research to get to what the suit might now be at this time than the heavy rubber plate of previous films. People should look at how many layers of work and layers of design and creation have gone into making the 100 pieces – and an under suit and a soft suit – it’s a very complex garment. It was more like product design or designing a piece of a car or something like that. It was much more complex than normal.”


Often, costumes in films are given little attention by viewers, partly because the role of the costume is to trick the audience into subconsciously buying into the illusion on screen. Thus, the films we love owe much to the brilliance and talent of their costume designers, and Melbourne is very lucky to have an exhibition that explores such an awe-inspiring aspect of the filmmaking process.


Hollywood Costume is about elevating the role of costume design in film storytelling and character development,” Blair says with affection. “The exhibition brings academic weight and gravitas to a disciple that’s all too often been conflated with shopping and fashion. It’s about coming to appreciate the absolute integral role of costume design and it’s about time that it’s happened.”


And it’s about time Batman returned to what he stands for – nipples and sexiness! Bring back Joel Schumacher and bring back Batman’s nipples. Right guys?



Hollywood Costume opens at ACMI on Wednesday April 24 and runs until Sunday August 18.