"Icons of Costume' at Michener Museum

Why we never noticed Joan Crawford's legs

Stanwyck in 'The Great Man's Lady' (1942): Silver bugle beads.
Stanwyck in 'The Great Man's Lady' (1942): Silver bugle beads.

This crowd-pleasing show celebrates the sometimes-unsung heroes of the film industry: the costume designers. It's the equivalent of light summer reading, fast-paced and fun.

Visitors can see the actual black velvet gown decorated with silver bugle beads that Barbara Stanwyck wore in The Great Man's Lady (1942) and the off-white tulle gown enhanced by Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951). Both were fashioned by Edith Head, the legendary designer who won eight Academy Awards during her 50-year career.

Walter Plunkett, who outfitted just as many stars, is represented by the green velvet drapery dress with tassels that Scarlett O'Hara takes credit for making in Gone With the Wind. Plunkett, who spent three months researching the Civil War period down South, left the fabric out in the sun to fade so it would look authentic. He also designed the sandalwood silk dress that Lana Turner wore in Green Dolphin Street (1947).

William Travillo is responsible for the gold-pleated lame halter gown that Marilyn Monroe made memorable as Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Men with one name

There are creations by three men known only by their last names: Australian-born Orry-Kelly, who came to Hollywood, roomed with Cary Grant and outfitted Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde; Bridgehouse, whose burnt-orange ball gown with hoop skirt and appliquéd velvet embroidery is a show-stopper; and Adrian (born Adolph Greenberg in 1903), who designed costumes for 250 films, including The Wizard of Oz, and artfully drew audience eyes away from Joan Crawford's stubby legs by accenting her broad shoulders with shoulder pads—a look that defined the '30s and '40s.

In all, more than 50 items are displayed, including objects (such as Betty Davis's elegant riding crop from Dark Victory), film props (a replica of the Maltese falcon) and ornate jewelry and fanciful hats. Large black-and-white film stills mounted on the gallery walls provide the atmosphere.

"'You can have everything if…'

Also on the walls are famous quotes: "What Hollywood designs today you will be wearing tomorrow" (Elsa Schiaparelli), and "You can have everything you want in life if you dress for it" (Edith Head). Perhaps designer Lucien Lelong best summarizes the exhibit with his observation: "We, the couturiers, can no longer live without the cinema any more than the cinema can live without us. We corroborate each other's instincts."

An added feature of the show is the Screen Test (weekends only), where would-be actors can choose a costume from The Wizard of Oz, Terminator 2: Judgment Day or Gone With the Wind and perform in front of a camera. I was trying on the lion's outfit when two Philadelphia friends happened by. So we made our own combo movie that will be featured on the Michener's YouTube channel.

Bucks County neighbors

If you'd rather sit back and let others do the work, step into the museum's little movie theater and watch an hour-long video of 35 film clips with Bucks County connections. If you didn't already know it, you'll learn that Claude Rains (Casablanca), Eric Knight (Lassie Come Home), Oscar Hammerstein II (Oklahoma) and Bud Schulberg (On the Waterfront) all lived nearby.

Perhaps "Icons of Costume" was designed to attract Bucks County summer tourists and film aficionados, but the main reason for going to the Michener is its permanent collection. With its outstanding and incomparable Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings, the Michener is one of the country's best little museums. It's an hour from Center City Philadelphia by car; and the SEPTA R5 train stops in Doylestown— a five-minute walk.

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