Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery Volume 40.4

TRUTH IS BEAUTY by Marco Cochrane of stainless steel rod and stainless steel mesh, 2013. Photograph by Eleanor Preger, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery. THE 10 PRINCIPLES. Night scene: BURNING MAN PARTICIPANTS, 2013. Photograph by Neil Girling, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

Creativity is the principle that lies at the fiery heart of Burning Man. It is the sacred act that is celebrated by this neo-Pagan, techno-Hinduist, born-again-hippie festival, which represents to participants the absolute freedom to be one’s true self. It is appropriate that the hellishly hot, sandy basin in which the event sits is called the Playa. Metaphorically, it’s located on the boundaries of modern civilization and the vast unknown, between proverbial sea and sand. Effectively, it’s humanity’s sandbox, a place to play without all of the artificial constraints and prejudices we humans have made for ourselves.

      That word, play, is a much underappreciated aspect of human nature. Nora Atkinson would probably agree. As the Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft for the Renwick Gallery, Atkinson put together the landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” for many reasons, ranging from the personal (a former resident of the state of Washington, she felt a longing for West Coast culture) to the idealistic. As the quintessential outsider event, bringing Burning Man to the nation’s capital had more than a touch of subversiveness to it.

Burning Man was born in San Francisco, on the original Playa, Baker Beach, in 1986. It all began when carpenter Larry Harvey and his friend, Jerry James, knocked up a crude wooden effigy of a human being, dubbed the Man, bundled him up into the back of a Ford pickup truck, and carried it down to the shoreline. There, they and a group of friends raised the combustible figure, doused him with gasoline, and the rest is history.

WINTER IS COMING... by Manish Arora of silk and metallic armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, chain-linked by hand, 2015. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

THE PLAYA PROVIDES NECKPIECE from various artists, assembled by Jennifer George, of metal, plastic, crystal, abalone, wood, and sterling silver, 2006-2017. The gifting economy that underpins the entire foundation of Burning Man, both literally and figuratively, leads to a continual and constant exchange of medals, pendants, badges, brooches, and other memorabilia as signs of affection, friendship, community, and shared memories. Photograph by Patrick R. Benesh-Liu.

      Well, not quite. The catalysts that transformed the Baker Beach gathering into a temporary settlement nestled in the sweltering sands of Nevada desert were the po-po, and a group of like-minded malcontents, thrillseekers and iconoclasts known as the Cacophony Society. Like Russian matryoshka dolls, the Society came from a small group of friends who dubbed themselves the Suicide Club—after surviving, according to local lore, a stint hanging precariously from a loose railing over the crashing Pacific Ocean below Fort Point. Afterwards, Gary Warne and three compatriots recovered to safety, with a solemn oath to live each day as their last. These dwellers of the fringe, inhabiting the periphery of the human experience, would attract more like-minded individuals. Happenstance (and word of mouth) brought the flotsam and jetsam of San Francisco together on Baker Beach, celebrating the immolation of the Burning Man.

The festivities were interrupted in 1990, as the local police informed the revelers that the party was over. The community did not waste any time; during Labor Day weekend, a procession set out from Golden Gate Park, to find Burning Man’s new home, in Black Rock Desert, Nevada, far to the north of Reno. Here, in the middle of nowhere, underneath the blazing sun, a member of this band of merry adventurers, Michael Michael, marked the boundary between worlds with a foot dragged through the dirt, baptizing it with the words, “On the other side of this line, everything will be different. Reality itself will change.”

AERIAL VIEW of Burning Man gathering at Black Rock City, 2012.  Photograph by Scott London.

      Black Rock City is the real final frontier (pardons to Gene Roddenberry). There might be a lot of wild, unexplored and untamed land left on planet Earth, but Burning Man dives deep into the social, spiritual and ethical territory that lays far out in uncharted waters. Ten Principles girdle the philosophical foundation of Burning Man: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leave No Trace, Participation, and last, but absolutely not least, Immediacy. It is radical in that most honest of ways, by being a pure expression of what it preaches.

What may surprise those who view the festival as frivolous is the amount of work that goes into organizing Burning Man, and the structures that have grown up around it. The Department of Public Works (whose insignia is the Man circumscribed by the spokes of a tire wheel, embedded in a great black gear) has a laundry list of tasks that include “Building logical roads, creating and placing signage, maintaining approved potable water systems, providing portable and stationary electrical power, assisting with major art projects, and setting up the small-plane airport and runway.” The fact that between all those practical considerations, nestled surreptitiously, is the art, illustrates how the boundaries between practical life and art grow thin and merge together here. Like in many indigenous and folk traditions, there is no separation.

It was this challenge, of authentically presenting the spirit of the event, presenting the glitz and glamour without obscuring the substance, that Nora Atkinson faced in mounting the exhibition at the Renwick, part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Like a living flame, its temporary nature and spontaneity is its essence. How do you communicate that to an audience inside a building that is more than a century old?

 

BEFORE I DIE by Candy Chang (New Orleans, Louisiana), 2011. As an experiment in community building, and healing, Chang created the first wall on an abandoned house in her neighborhood of New Orleans. A response to a loved one who had just died, now these participatory installations, like David Best’s Temple, allow its audience an intimate relation with the art. In fact, the audience is part of the art itself. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

 

      The key, Atkinson reveals, is collaboration. “I reached out early on to the Burning Man organization. I had already had in my head a number of artists that I wanted to include, many of them being perennial artists that I thought really represented the aesthetics that have come out of Burning Man. But I also wanted to make sure that the community felt heard, and that the internal community favorites made it into the show, and that we had a really wide spread.” She makes reference to the populist nature that is at the root of Burning Man, an “Anything You Can Do I Can Do” ethos that sees MFA trained artists creating installations alongside carpenters and death metal heads.

Some, like Michael Garlington, graduated from Burning Man University by first working in the Department of Public Works, then apprenticing to celebrities such as David Best, who created the temple made of recycled wood that takes over the Grand Salon on Renwick’s second floor. Now Garlington’s work is exhibited by a gallery, and he erects his own sacred structures on the dusty surface of the Playa. For Atkinson, revealing this network of connections and relationships that develop through the festival was vital, as was giving Burners (a term for Burning Man attendees/devotees that is as contentious as it is ubiquitous) a voice in the show. “We actually put out a call in the Burning Man community, through the Burning Man organization, asking people to submit artists that they thought were important, artists that were some of their favorites, to us. And there were some pieces in the exhibition that made it in that were discovered through people’s suggestions.”

TEMPLE by David Best and the Temple Crew of recycled wood, 2018. Best creates wooden temples, spiritual structures, that are lit on fire each year at Burning Man. The Renwick commissioned him to create a temple for the exhibition, which Best dedicated to people who have lost, whether it be a loved one or something else. Visitors were encouraged to write on small wooden plaques that could be placed at the various altars around the temple. Best has said that there are few sacred spaces where people can reflect on loss and to celebrate and remember our deepest emotions. Photographs by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      While the art installations may be the most memorable aspect of the festival’s visual milieu, Atkinson wanted to present the experience of Burning Man in a holistic and comprehensive manner, and what is a day on the Playa without body paint, glow-in-the-dark fabrics and otherworldly outfits?

READY TO LOVE ENSEMBLE by Manish Arora of thread, silk, beads, crystals, faux patent leather, felt, sequins, and iridescent armor, hand-embroidered, hand-embellished, hand-appliquéd, chain-linked by hand, 2016. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      Normally we associate costumes and clothing as being different; one is unserious, fun and fantastical, while the other is outerwear to protect ourselves from the elements. Both however are the same in one very obvious respect: they are objects worn on the body. It is the gentle and not-so-gentle continuous pressure of society that makes certain outfits “costumes,” generally because they are too outlandish for people to comfortably accept as clothing. 

In fact, we are rejecting the validity of the wearer’s humanity. A person wearing something so outside the norm that we don’t recognize them as part of “our group” anymore becomes a caricature. Whether it is the loose, voluminous clothing of a clown, replete with red hair and rubber nose, or the dazzling ethnic attire from a foreign culture, for many people that invokes The Label of Other.

The costumes and clothing generated by Burners speak to the dissolution of societal labeling, just as the gifting of food, water and services represents an intentional shift away from a heartless status quo towards a healthy one. What you wear on the Playa is an expression of self; a statement of both exploration and identity where the message is simply, “This is who I am.” Whether the image you are projecting is what you want to be, what you actually are underneath society’s baggage, or the self you are finally, after many years, comfortable with revealing, Burning Man, for all its carnival illusions, is rather more real than the circus it superficially resembles.

With limited space and a huge breadth of material, Atkinson had to establish criteria for what pieces she wanted to display in the exhibition. The route she chose was to present artist and designer-made costumes to highlight the more unusual and fantastic wearables seen at Burning Man, while using photographs to give visitors an idea of what the every day Playa-goer looks like. She jokes about how when she has taken Burners through the exhibition, the most audible criticism is “Where’s the duct tape?” For many, who don’t know how to sew or cut fabric for clothing, ensembles are assembled from thrift-store purchases and random gear shimmied together with glue and a prayer.

NAGANA BRASS GOWN by Gelareh Alam of hand-cut leather, and custom metal work by Jungle Tribe, 2014. Although resembling something out of Mad Max, Alam’s intention for both pieces in the exhibition were born of a desire to express her thoughts on the emotional investment, both good and difficult, that love requires in a wearable piece. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

      That is not the case with the specimens on display here. Even though they appear like the regalia of alien queens, Gelareh Alam’s Cocoon Gown and Nagana Brass Gown, along with Caley Johnson’s collaborative piece the Crown of Nagini, are more than simple costumes. Rather than being made for theatrics or pretending, Alam’s clothing is meant to raise the stature of the wearer, and to create an aura of confidence that elevates them. They are also deeply personal. Alam, who grew up during the Iranian revolution, has been going through a journey of self-realization since she arrived in the States.

When Alam first came to the U.S. to study fashion design at the Art Institute of California, she was moving from a degree in psychology to a new world, without being able to speak English. She found her voice through visual communication, which she feels led to her emphasizing sight above the other four senses. America gave her the room to explore and grow as a human being. When Alam went to Burning Man in 2007, as she was completing her degree, it was because a friend gifted her with a birthday ticket.

What that visit did for her self-confidence was profound. She brought some of her clothing to the festival, and the recognition she received from total strangers was like the cosmos giving her the proverbial wink and nod. “I could not believe the response I was getting. It was amazing to see. Suddenly I was being praised for the creativity that I was not allowed to practice growing up, and that was a huge transformation.

“Burning Man was so natural for me, it felt like home,” says Alam. “Expression in the elements. Sublime. Here was a culture screaming that radical self-expression was not just good, but demanded. It was a place to re-define myself, and align with peace, equality, human empathy. It was transformational and deeply empowering. As an artist I am constantly in search of inspiration and constantly trying to break through those barriers. At Burning Man, this is the whole point of everything anyone does there.”

THORAX, AMBASSADOR OF THE INSECTS by Tyler FuQua of reclaimed materials, 2015-16. Photograph by Carolyn L.E. Benesh.

     Tyler FuQua has been constructing giant puppets for over fifteen years as his true passion, while making a living as a contractor. Building things is in his blood, whether it’s remodeling a bathroom or creating large metal installations. “Of course, it’s way more fun to build a giant robot instead of remodeling a bathroom,” he explains, “but sometimes I get projects that combine art and functionality.” His wearable costume, grandly titled Thorax, Ambassador of the Insects, was inspired as he mused about the speaker grills on his stereo, which resembled alien bug eyes. “I made the first helmet using these grills but it was just too ominous. I build fun things for all ages so this just wasn’t doing it for me. I went back to the drawing board and made what you see now. I really wanted to use as many reclaimed materials as possible, so the creation of Thorax was really determined by what I could find on the shelves at thrift stores. I would just walk around with an open mind until I found something that would work for what I needed. A lot of my art is creature-based, and I am a huge superhero fan, so Thorax is a conglomeration of those two things.”

There is also an element of self-invention. For many, Burning Man is that rare time in their life when they can be someone else. The straitjacket of their work, home or family life is temporarily lifted, and they are free to experiment with who they are. On the Playa, Burners find themselves anew, break apart previous conceptions of self, and come back together, rejuvenated, in some cases reborn, no LSD or ayahuasca required.

That isn’t to say everyone who comes to Burning Man finds it a transcendent experience; indeed, the point is the festival represents different things to different people. Perhaps that’s what makes it such a uniquely American phenomenon. Atkinson notes one of the reasons why she chose it as the subject of an exhibition was that Burning Man is as American as apple pie. “It was born in this very frontier culture, this sort of West Coast culture and Silicon Valley, believing that just because something has been done one way before doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done. The idea of being out in a vast, empty environment and creating something entirely new from scratch has a lot to do with the entire American dream and the spirit of what we are as a country.”

TOTEM OF CONFESSIONS by Michael Garlington and Natalia Bertotti at Burning Man, 2015. Photograph by Michael Holden, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

      Such a multidimensional entity as Burning Man isn’t meant to be pinned down by taxonomists, although many will try. One flailing wing of the butterfly might be identified in that the festival is a radical social experiment. By undergirding the laboratory with strong, actively exercised principles, the Mad Scientist is unleashed into “the real world.” This doesn’t take place in a vacuum, a society without rules that is the nightmare of many a dystopian take on the future. In fact what we have here is a nascent utopia, taken to its practical heights by the wild and untameable spirit of the people involved. But the dream doesn’t die with the end of each year’s festivities; it keeps being passed on by those who lived it, out there on the dusty earth of the Nevada desert.

SUGGESTED READING
Bruder, Jessica.
Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2007.
Christians, Karen and Christine Kristen. Jewelry of Burning Man. Santa Rosa, CA: Global Interprint, Inc., 2015.
Raiser, Jennifer. Burning Man: Art on Fire. New York: RacePoint Publishing, 2016.
King, Nicholas. Burners. Cochiti Lake, NM: Laughing Coyote Press, 2017.
Galbraith, Carrie and John Law. Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society. San Francisco: Last Gasp, 2013.
Jones, Steven T. The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert Is Shaping the New American Counterculture. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2011.

LORD SNORT by Bryan Tedrick, 2016. Photograph by Duncan Rawlinson, courtesy of the Renwick Gallery.

“No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is showing in two phases, with the full exhibition through September 16, 2018, then certain works will be viewable through January 21, 2019, at the Renwick Gallery, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006.
Visit their website at www.americanart.si.edu/visit/renwick.

Burning Man debuts annually; for 2018 it met from August 26 - September 3.
Visit their website at www.burningman.org.

 

     Get Inspired!

 
 

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Patrick R. Benesh-Liu is Associate Editor of Ornament and continues to find time to enjoy craft in between writing, travel and tech support. A scene hopper, Benesh-Liu has spent time in a variety of art and craft-based communities, from millennial pop culture fan groups like Anime cosplay and furry costumes to outsider art museums like the John M. Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. While in Washington, D.C. at the Renwick Gallery’s landmark exhibition, “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man,” he realized his interests were all leading to one place, Black Rock City. After interviewing Nora Atkinson, the Renwick’s Lloyd E. Herman Curator of Craft, as well as artists whose work was featured, the interconnectivity of this event with creative communities became apparent. As Ornament’s reporter, he also provides a zesty compilation of the latest news in craft.

Chagall: Fantasies For the Stage Volume 40.1

SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS of oil on canvas, 126.0 × 107.4 centimeters, 1912. Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. All images © 2017 Artists Rights Society, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Modernist painter Marc Chagall frequently drew on the performing arts for inspiration; many of his paintings depict musicians and dancers, and he famously created murals for the Moscow State Jewish Theater, the Opera Garnier in Paris and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Born in Russia, in modern-day Belarus, in 1887, he was a student of Léon Bakst, who designed the opulent sets and exotic costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s groundbreaking Ballets Russes. Chagall moved to Paris in 1910, just after the Ballets Russes had become the toast of the town.

      But Chagall’s own four productions for the stage are relatively unknown: the ballets “Aleko”  (1942),“The Firebird” (1945) and “Daphnis and Chloé” (1958), and one opera, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (1967). “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—a more focused version of a larger exhibition on Chagall and music seen in Paris and Montreal—puts Chagall’s theatrical costumes and scenic designs in the spotlight.

 

COSTUME DESIGN FOR “THE FIREBIRD”: Blue-And-Yellow Monster from Koschei’s Palace Guard of watercolor, gouache, graphite, and india ink on paper, 46.5 × 29.1 centimeters, 1945. Private collection.

 

COSTUME FOR “THE FIREBIRD”: Blue-And-Yellow Monster from Koschei’s Palace Guard of wool/synthetic knit with polyurethane, wool/synthetic knit appliqués, wood beads, silk plain weave (chiffon), and animal hair, 1945. New York City Ballet. 

      Rather than revealing a new side of Chagall, the theater amplified and, one senses, fully realized his vision, transforming the stage into a Chagall painting come to life. A lyrical blend of Cubism, Fauvism and Symbolism, his artwork is dreamlike without ever being cloying or creepy—a description equally applicable to his theatrical endeavors. As one early reviewer wrote, “He creates a naive and irresponsible world without gravity or function, in which the subconscious reigns with such unquestioning authority as to achieve an appearance of sweet reasonableness.” 

All four productions used very few props, relying on the costumes and painted backdrops to tell the story. Like Chagall’s canvases, they were populated with anthropomorphized animals and whimsically distorted human figures, rendered in faceted planes and vibrant rainbow hues. Instead of luxurious materials, Chagall’s costumes employed a Pinterest-worthy plethora of superficial decorative techniques: paint, beadwork, appliqué, faux fur, feathers, collage, and patchwork. 

It is tempting to call these pieces sculpture, but you cannot dance in a piece of sculpture, and you cannot wear it over and over again, performance after performance. Chagall’s shabby-chic approach to stage spectacle was not only consistent with his aesthetic—he often used collage in his artwork—but camouflaged natural wear and tear, as well as facilitating repairs. His attention to wearability is evident even in his larger-than-life costumes, with masks made of lightweight papier-mâché and anchored to the body by visible suspenders.

COSTUMES FOR “THE MAGIC FLUTE”, 1967. Metropolitan Opera Archives, New York. SARASTRO of silk plain weave, painted, with silk plaieave and metallic appliqués. GREEN-FACED MONSTER (WITH REPRODUCTION MASK) of cotton knit, painted, with synthetic/lurex plain weave appliqués, silk plain weave (chiffon) appliqués, synthetic knit, painted, and papier-mâché. QUEEN OF THE NIGHT (WITH REPRODUCTION HEADDRESS) of silk/synthetic plain weave with silk plain weave (chiffon) appliqué.

      In 1941, Chagall—who was Jewish—fled Nazi-occupied France with his family, settling in the United States. It was there that the Ballet Theater of New York commissioned him to design a new ballet, “Aleko”, set to the music of Tchaikovsky and based on a Pushkin poem. Chagall’s paintings often drew upon the Russian fairy tales and Yiddish folklore he had known since childhood, making him a natural choice for the production. Much of his scenic work was inspired by lubki, the Russian woodblock prints that often illustrated such stories.

COSTUME FOR “THE FIREBIRD”: Monster with Donkey’s Head of wool/synthetic knit, painted, with polyurethane and wool/synthetic knit appliqués, 1945. New York City Ballet.

      Amazingly, “Aleko” was almost derailed because American stage union regulations would have prevented Chagall from painting the backdrops himself; instead, he finished it in Mexico City, where it premiered before traveling to New York. As a result, the costumes reflect Mexican dress and textile traditions as much as Russian ones, complete with circle skirts and puffed sleeves. (Only eleven of the original sixty costumes survive.)

Perhaps because he was unused to working in three dimensions, Chagall painted both the costumes and the backdrops, using fabric that looks like raw canvas. The New York Times was duly impressed: “It is Chagall who emerges as the hero of the occasion. He has designed and painted with his own hand four superb backdrops, which are not actually good stage settings at all, but are wonderful works of art… So exciting are they in their own right that more than once one wishes all those people would quit getting in front of them.” Another critic agreed that “no ballet can stand up to his designs.”

Thanks to the success of “Aleko”, the Ballet Theater commissioned Chagall to create a new production of “The Firebird” in 1945. Igor Stravinsky had written the ballet—based on a Russian fairy tale—for the Ballets Russes in 1910. Chagall had given up on painting after the death of his wife, Bella, the previous year, but the ballet lured him back. His famous stage curtain depicts the titular half-bird, half-woman; her face bears a striking resemblance to Bella’s. The production was so successful that it remains in the New York City Ballet’s repertoire today, the sets and costumes re-created from Chagall’s designs.

COSTUMES FOR “DAPHNIS AND CHLOÉ”: Shepherdesses, 1959. Opéra National de Paris.

At the end of World War II, Chagall returned to France, where he would live until his death in 1985. For his next production—Maurice Ravel’s ballet “Daphnis and Chloé” at the Paris Opera—Chagall worked with the choreographer George Skibine to ensure harmony of scene and movement, even going so far as to paint the costumes while the dancers were wearing them in order to guarantee that they complemented their bodies and gestures. The results may look fantastical—Pan is seven and a half feet tall and a trio of shepherdesses wear candy-colored dresses—but Chagall’s palette and motifs were, in fact, inspired by his recent travels in Greece.

Chagall once said: “I believe in God, Mozart and color. Without them I could not live.”

Naturally, he jumped at the chance to design a new production of “The Magic Flute” for the Metropolitan Opera. The production required three years of work for fourteen sets and two hundred and twelve costumes. The Met kept Chagall’s designs in a purpose-built safe while the production crew worked. The massive undertaking displays the full range of Chagall’s powers; his Papagena is impossibly chic in a feathered dress that would make Balenciaga proud, but her animal companions look like battered stuffed toys, patched and leaking their filling. 

 

LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART INSTALLATION for “Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage.” Photograph by Fredrik Nilsen. 

 

      As beguiling as the forty-one costumes assembled here might be, the highlight of the LACMA show is an array of one hundred of Chagall’s gouache costume sketches and backdrop designs, almost all drawn from private collections. They are not static maquettes but highly finished, fresh and dynamic depictions of bodies in motion, an effect the installation attempts to capture by placing some mannequins on rotating platforms and others posed in theatrical attitudes. Music from the four shows plays in the background, and Chagall’s backdrops are digitally recreated within proscenium arches. 

Chagall’s work paved the way for future collaborations between visual artists and the performing arts. The show brings to mind the subsequent stagecraft of Salvador Dalí, David Hockney and, especially, Maurice Sendak, who shares Chagall’s playful yet slightly sinister imagination. This is where the wild things are.

“Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage” is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art
through January 7, 2018.

 

      Get Inspired!

 
 

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is an art historian specializing in fashion and textiles, and a frequent contributor to Ornament. She has worked as a curator, consultant and educator for museums and universities around the world. Chrisman-Campbell is the author of Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. In this issue, she explores modernist artist Marc Chagall’s costumes for the stage. His fantastical designs, on display in an exhibition currently showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, evoke a wild dream-like realm of imagination. Chrisman-Campbell sums it up: “This is where the wild things are.”

Hollywood Costume Volume 37.5

With all the hype, volume and special effects of a big-budget blockbuster, “Hollywood Costume” arrived in Los Angeles in October, concluding a world tour that began a year earlier at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

It is a very different exhibition than sold-out London audiences encountered; many of the iconic pieces seen there (and in the coffee-table-busting catalogue by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who organized the show) were not able to cross the pond because of their fragility, such as Holly Golightly’s little black Givenchy dress. Vivien Leigh’s green velvet curtain ensemble from Gone With The Wind was already committed to a different exhibition; another spectacular green gown—worn by Keira Knightley in Atonement—is also missing in action. However, more than forty pieces were added for the Los Angeles installation, including costumes from The Great Gatsby—the 2013 Oscar winner for costume design—and a certain pair of ruby slippers owned by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is hosting the show in its new exhibition space at the historic Wilshire May Company Building.

There are one hundred fifty costumes in total, and less might have been more. True showstoppers are mixed in with unmemorable costumes from forgettable films like Closer, John Carter and One True Thing. The galleries are so densely packed that mannequins are hidden behind other mannequins, or behind video screens, tripods and computer-animated projections; more often than not, the technology gets in the way of the objects, literally as well as metaphorically. It does not help that the galleries are pitch black, selectively lit by spotlights. The effect is one of walking into a darkened movie theater—appropriate, but not easy viewing. A swelling musical score composed for the show by Julian Scott adds to the sensory overload.

With a costume designer at the helm, the show feels staged rather than curated—calculated for visual impact, not narrative logic. Some of the cinematic touches succeed brilliantly. Spiderman climbs the wall; a phalanx of Queen Elizabeth costumes glitter before a montage of her various film incarnations. Famous directors and their costume collaborators converse on life-sized screens: Martin Scorsese and Sandy Powell, Tim Burton and Colleen Atwood, Quentin Tarantino and Sharen Davis. A suite of costumes from Ocean’s Eleven—surrounding an animated “desk” on which the costume designer’s notes and sketches shuffle around—neatly demonstrates how to differentiate between characters in an ensemble while creating a unified look. (Too bad many of the mannequins were hidden by the desk.) Similarly, a group of ten costumes belonging to Meryl Streep (a costume design major in college) illustrates Edith Head’s remark: “We ask the public to believe that every time they see a performer on the screen, he’s become a different person.” Costume is not wholly responsible for this transformation, but it plays a starring role. As Streep’s longtime costume designer Ann Roth says about their fittings: “We wait for the third person to arrive.”

Other filmic flourishes are failed experiments, at best. Videos transposing familiar characters into incongruous settings and costumes come across as heavy-handed and silly at the same time. Mannequins have headshots instead of heads. Didactic labels look like pages torn from a script, and consist entirely of dialogue-like quotations from costume designers, actors and directors. Some of these reveal juicy tidbits; after reading that No Country For Old Men costume designer Mary Zophres wanted Anton Chigurh’s cowboy boots “to look like a weapon,” it is impossible to see them as anything else. Others are maddeningly vague, or have nothing to do with the costume on display; a description of Kim Novak’s iconic gray Vertigo suit accompanies an entirely different suit, worn by a different actress. All the labels are difficult to read in the dark. Despite the obvious investment in cutting-edge technology, there are several missed opportunities. Issues like the transitions from silent films to talkies and from black and white to color; the double-edged sword of historical accuracy; and the need for multiple copies of the same costume are raised in the labels, but not borne out by the objects on display or the interpretive gadgetry.

This is not a retrospective of Hollywood’s Golden Age; historic pieces are few and far between, with costumes from more contemporary, crowd-pleasing films dominating the lineup. The exhibition claims to “celebrate 100 years of cinema,” but it mainly celebrates the last two or three decades. This partially testifies to the sad fate that befell many costumes when MGM and 20th Century Fox sold off their wardrobe department archives in the seventies; other studios never kept their costumes in the first place. Security in the galleries is tight, a reminder that the same garments that were once considered disposable are now worth millions. The most valuable pieces—the ruby slippers and Marilyn Monroe’s Seven Year Itch dress—are displayed behind glass.

Thanks to private collectors, many classic costumes were rescued from the dustbin of history. Thus, Travis Banton’s mint green, bias-cut, satin Cleopatra gown for Colette Colbert stands alongside one of the sixty-five gowns Irene Sharaff designed for Elizabeth Taylor to wear in the 1963 version. Hedy Lamarr’s costume from 1949’s Sampson and Delilah is here; Edith Head decorated it with hundreds of peacock feathers Cecil B. DeMille collected personally on his ranch, where he raised the birds. But some of the most interesting costumes are the most modern and least flashy, like Jason Bourne’s “functional and forgettable” gray windbreaker. The logo on a humble Gap sweatshirt from The Social Network reads PAG, because it was worn in a scene shot using mirrors to recreate an unavailable location. Tucked among the superheroes and aliens is a gray motion capture suit—a grim preview of what Hollywood costume exhibitions of the future might look like.

With its mix of iconic costumes, classic and contemporary, and its high-tech wizardry, it is easy to see why “Hollywood Costume” was a smash hit in London. Whether it will impress a more jaded L.A. crowd remains to be seen. For better or for worse, though, the tourists are going to love it. They have until March 2, 2015 to check it out.