New Orleans had been transformed into a 1920s Irish gangster land with a ballroom filled with feathers and sparkling evening gowns, all of which made Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff cringe.
Her specialty is historic costumes, and she was surrounded by reproductions of historic fashions from another era. Accurate reproductions, at that.
But things work differently in Hollywood than in the real world, where historic pieces are preserved.
“They would tear these costumes while they were changing,” she said. “That was my introduction to Hollywood.”
It was a harsh lesson for this textile and costume historian, but it gave her a greater understanding of her journey through the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s exhibition CUT! Costume and the Cinema.
The exhibit runs through July 31 and features 43 period film costumes organized by Exhibits Development Group, USA in cooperation with Cosprop Ltd., London, England. These costumes were worn by such stars as Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Nicole Kidman, Ralph Fiennes, Kate Winslet and, yes, Johnny Depp.
None were ever featured in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1990 film Miller’s Crossing, though. That was the production that introduced Kuttruff to Hollywood’s way of doing things. She was invited to New Orleans to help with costume changes during the 1989 filming of that movie’s dance scene.
“I helped the extras dress, and we were stepping on trains and tearing them, and it made me cringe,” she said. “There were all of these period costumes, and we were tearing them up. But I didn’t think about costuming for movies until then. It’s different. More than one of these costumes are made, because the actors do so much while wearing them.”
Kuttruff received a different perspective of Hollywood costumes on June 5, one that she shared on a gallery tour of CUT! Costume and the Cinema. The tour was part of the LASM’s First Sunday programs.
Kuttruff’s official title is the Doris Lesseigne Carville and Jules A. Carville Jr. Professor in the LSU School of Human Ecology, where she’s been teaching for 23 years.
The museum’s main galleries were filled with a crowd of at least 70 as she chronicled fashion history from the 16th to the early 20th centuries. She traveled backward through the exhibit, because the costumes representing the earliest years are found at the end.
Specifically, it’s where Anjelica Huston’s costume from Ever After, the film in which she played Cinderella’s stepmother, is found.
Kuttruff begins pointing out costume details that are significant to the era, something she’ll do throughout the tour.
But the Huston costume isn’t completely accurate to the era, and Kuttruff is quick to explain that it’s OK.
“This is tricky, because it’s not historically accurate, but it’s a fairytale, so it doesn’t need to be,” she said.
Kuttruff will talk after the tour about fashion’s spiral in recent decades.
“It sort of went out with the anti-fashion movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” she said. “Before that, fashion was determined by the quality of fabrics and how many dresses you had in your wardrobe.”
This also defined the upper, middle and lower classes. The middle class people, however, also shared in the fashion of the day.
“The overall silhouettes were the same for everyone except the abject poor,” Kuttruff said. “The middle class tried to copy the upper class.”
Back in the galleries, it’s the decade between 1774 and 1784 that generates one of Kuttruff’s most extensive historical conversations. These are the years in which the film The Duchess is set, represented here by costumes worn by Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes.
Children’s costumes worn by younger actors also are seen in this display.
“And you’ll see that the children dressed like miniature adults,” Kuttruff said. “The boy’s clothing is known as a ditto suit.”
The 18th century also is the era of “big hair,” where women wore tall wigs that required balance. Some museum patrons recognized both the wig and dress from the Manship Theatre’s showing of this film in conjunction with the exhibit.
The Manship also will show the film Defiance at 4 p.m. July 17. The movie is represented in this exhibit by Daniel Craig’s costume.
“I don’t have a lot of time to watch movies, but I watched The Duchess before coming here for the tour,” Kuttruff said.
“And one of the things that I want to point out in this film is the difference between day wear and formal wear.”
The change in style is seen in day wear. Women’s dresses lose the panniers, which were used to make their skirts puff out on either side.
“Formalwear was always similar to the day wear from the previous period,” Kuttruff said. “So, you’ll see the panniers in the formal wear. The 1770s and ‘80s where the skirt shape was most fashionable. The emphasis is in the back, almost like a bustle.”
She points to a costume on the edge of the display.
“This is based on a woman’s riding costume, which is based on a man’s riding costume,” Kuttuff said. “And not only is the day wear different, it’s making a political statement. She’s declaring her political stance by wearing the color of her party - blue. And she carries a fox muff, which signals that she is a supporter of James Fox. There are all kinds of symbols in the way we dress.”
Then comes the early 19th century, represented by Emma Thompson’s costume from Sense and Sensibility. The dress has a high waist and appears simple in cut. There was even a point in this period when women’s skirts were cut short enough to show part of their legs.
“But you see the waist drop in the 1840s,” Kuttruff said.
Which ushers in the question, “Why?” Why go from a simple cut to the Gone With the Wind fashion of hoop dresses in the middle of the century?
Of course, hoop skirts aren’t represented by Gone With the Wind in this show, but visitors will get an idea of such fashion through the pink ball gown worn by Emmy Rossum as Christine in the film version of the musical Phantom of the Opera.
“It’s said hoop skirts were lighter,” Kuttfuff said.
“Before, women were wearing layers upon layers of petticoats. The hoop was able to make the skirt full without the weight.”
Hoops were replaced by bustles in the 1870s, as seen by Nicole Kidman’s dress worn in the film Portrait of a Lady.
Kuttruff has so much information to share, such as how men’s fashion was every bit as elegant as women’s until the 19th century, when the business suit became vogue.
“Again, suits were set apart by the quality of the material,” she said.
And as seen in The Duchess display, children’s clothing foreshadowed future adults’ day wear.
For now, though, Kuttruff thinks about her own movie experience.
Which makes her appreciate the handiwork in this exhibit even more.