Cape Cod LIFE, May 2016

Dressed to inspire, astonish & impress

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2016 / , ,

Writer: Joe O'Shea

Dressed to inspire, astonish & impress

Cape Cod LIFE, May 2016

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2016 / , ,

Writer: Joe O'Shea

Heritage Museums & Gardens unveils fabulous movie costume exhibit for 2016

Johnny Depp has played Jack Sparrow in several Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Movie still courtesy of Photofest

Love him or hate him—and most people love him—one of the most memorable movie characters of the 21st century is Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Brought to life by Johnny Depp, the charismatic Sparrow is a cross between an inebriated Keith Richards, cartoon character Pepe Le Pew and gentlemanly “Black” Sam Bellamy, the famous pirate captain who died in the Whydah Gally off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717.

While there is no doubt that it’s Depp’s deft dramatic touch that makes the roguish Sparrow such an endearing—and enduring—character, some might argue that the good captain’s wardrobe has infused Sparrow with as much life as the actor.

This year, fans of Depp, the Pirates movies, and the fascinating art of costume design can get an up-close look at one of the good captain’s costumes at “Cut! Costume Design and the Cinema,” a traveling exhibit on display at Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, from April through October 10.

In addition to Sparrow’s costume from the first Pirates movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), “Cut!” will shine a klieg light on more than 40 stunning period costumes worn by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, including Nicole Kidman, Heath Ledger, Colin Farrell, Scarlett Johansson, Keira Knightley, Angelica Huston, Ralph Fiennes, Natalie Portman, Kate Winslet, Renée Zellweger, Daniel Craig and Vanessa Redgrave, among many others.

“When you think about it, the clothes we put on each morning are costumes for a role that we’re going to play that day,” says Ellen Spear, president of Heritage Museums and Gardens. “Clothes say so much about us and our culture, and these costumes on exhibit will provide our visitors with a window to other times and cultures.”

Organized primarily by theme—with the exception of a males-only corner that will be addressed shortly—the exhibit is designed to encourage and support family discussion and learning. A season-long series of events, lectures and family activities will support the “Cut!” exhibit as well.

Youngsters might recognize the man who wore the exhibit’s Sherlock Holmes costume because the actor, Robert Downey, Jr., also portrays billionaire, wise-cracking inventor Tony Stark in Marvel’s Iron Man and Avengers series. A costume worn by Vanessa Redgrave may encourage grandma to reminisce about her first date with grandpa, while the costumes of Depp and Kidman may quicken the pulses of the middle-aged set.

 Jack Sparrow costume used in several Pirates of the Caribbean films

Costume photo courtesy of Cosprop Ltd., London, England

Speaking of sets, each outfit will boast a mini-set of its own. “We’ll create visual experiences around the costumes with printed or painted backdrops and props for the platforms,” says Jan Crocker, Heritage’s exhibits manager. The exhibit also features movie clips of the actors, as well as photos of the actors out of costume, Spear says, “so we may see how the costumes help the actors to ‘become’ their characters. We’ll also feature quotes from the stars about their experiences in the film, and how the costumes influenced their acting.”

Of all the costumes on display, none helped an actor transform himself into character more completely than the Captain Jack Sparrow outfit, which transformed Depp into a wily, carousing buccaneer. While Sparrow’s costumes and props have evolved as the series has progressed—reflecting the character’s personal journey and adventures—this exhibit displays what the good captain wore when moviegoers first met him more than a decade ago in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

In addition to Sparrow’s well-known tri-cornered leather hat, visitors can view a mannequin sporting the captain’s frock coat, deep-cuffed boots, white shirt, wide black belt with a large buckle, long sleeveless vest, a large scarf worn at the waist, and diagonal leather belt with a buckle that holds his sword. All the clothes bear a distressed look, emphasizing the rugged life of a pirate. Sparrow’s costume—created by British costume designer Penny Rose in very close collaboration with Depp—is a textbook example of how costume design can play a key role in the making of an iconic movie character.

“Costumes are one tool that can bring a director’s vision—and a character—to life,” says Jennifer Varekamp, a Boston-based theatrical costume designer and associate professor of fashion design at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. “Like reading a good book—or enjoying any piece of great art—a quality film transports a moviegoer to another place and elicits a strong emotional reaction.”

“A good movie can be entertaining, but it can also help you look more deeply at your own life,” adds Varekamp, who will deliver one of two lectures about the art of costume design at Heritage this summer. “And when done right, costume design pulls you into the world of the film,” she adds, “and you don’t even notice.”

So it’s by design—if you’ll pardon the expression—that the impact of costume design is an often-overlooked contribution to movie-making magic.

“Costumes set the scene by providing details about where and when the movie takes place, as well as clues about a character’s status, age, class and wealth—as well as their role in the story,” says Jennifer Madden, Heritage’s director of collections and exhibitions. “The costumes in this exhibit are one of a kind and wouldn’t usually be seen outside of a major metropolitan area, so it’s very exciting to bring them to the Cape.”

While the majority of the costumes on exhibit are women’s period dresses and gowns, what the men’s wardrobe lacks in quantity it makes up for in star quality. “The wonderful thing about this exhibit,” says Spear, “is that we have a few men’s costumes in what we’re calling our ‘Bad Boys’ Corner’.”

New World Costume

Costume photo courtesy of Cosprop Ltd., London, England

In addition to Sparrow’s outfit, the men’s costume highlights include the flamboyant scarlet frock coat—trimmed in gold metallic embroidery—that the deceased Heath Ledger wore in Casanova (2005); the weathered brown leather bomber jacket Daniel Craig donned to fight Nazis as the Jewish freedom fighter, Tuvia Bielski, in Defiance (2008); the simple leather-and-velvet explorer’s outfit sported by Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith in The New World (2005); and the bohemian black corduroy frock coat ensemble Robert Downey Jr. wore in Sherlock Holmes (2009).

Each costume is designed to convince moviegoers that the character is authentic and had lived a life before the film begins. One of the most fascinating costumes in the exhibit, ironically, is also among the simplest and least flamboyant. At first glance, Craig’s jacket looks like something from a vintage clothing store in Cambridge. But when seen in the film, the brown coat does its job, and viewers are convinced that Craig’s character, Tuvia Bielski, has indeed been fighting Nazis for the past few years in the forests of Belarus.

“The designers made six versions of this leather jacket to demonstrate the distress it would have endured during the course of the film,” says Madden, noting that Bielski’s jacket had to “age” as the movie progressed. To transform some of the jackets, the designers used hammers and sandpaper to roughen the leather, and then wet the jackets and balled them up to dry in a dark place. “It’s this attention to detail that most movie-goers won’t understand until they’ve seen this exhibit,” Madden says, “and I think Craig’s jacket tells a fascinating story.”

While the men’s costumes are impressive, most of the women’s dresses are stunning. “In addition to speaking to a character’s personality or a particular culture, the costumes are also works of art and fine examples of design,” says Spear. “Creating these costumes required tremendous amounts of historical research on the part of the designers.”

Not only can clothing speak volumes about a people and their culture, but it can also enable the wearer to make a bold statement. One such costume is the late-18th century military-style dress worn by Keira Knightley in The Duchess (2008), when she played Georgiana Cavendish, duchess of the English county of Devonshire. At age 17, the beautiful, outgoing Georgiana Spencer was married off to the older, reserved William Cavendish, fifth duke of Devonshire, who proved to be a distant, unfaithful husband.

While Duchess Georgiana was initially known for her extravagant tastes and an appetite for gambling, she also left a lasting impression as a fashion icon, devoted mother and shrewd political operative. The dress on display—a blue, orange and buff leather suit—demonstrated the duchess’ support of the Whig Party, which boasted the same colors. The duchess also wore a fox-fur muff (hand warmer) and a fox-pelt hat with the dress, which telegraphed that Whig candidate Charles James Fox was her choice for office.

“This costume is one of my favorite pieces,” says Varekamp. “It’s a great example of how a costume can exemplify the character. Although the public adored her, the duchess really couldn’t voice her opinion, so she used fashion as a way to publicly demonstrate political support.”

Finding Neverland, 2004 Kate Winslet

Movie still courtesy of Photofest

One of the exhibit’s most fantastic costumes is the silk night dress and robe worn by Kate Winslet as the bohemian Sylvia Llewelyn Davies in Finding Neverland (2004), the story of how author J.M. Barrie’s friendship with a family inspired him to write Peter Pan.

Set in 1903 London, Winslet’s character wears this cream-colored ensemble, which was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. The long, flowing robe, which is trimmed in dark red velvet and gold lamé, adds an appropriate dream-like quality to the film. “The shape and the embroidery on this robe are just beautiful,” says Madden. “While it would be very impractical to wear, it’s certainly beautiful to look at.”

Another dress that caught Madden’s eye was Nicole Kidman’s costume from The Portrait of a Lady (1996), when she played Isabel Archer in Henry James’ timeless tale of Victorian betrayal. Designed by Janet Patterson, and nominated for an Academy Award in costume design, this costume demonstrates the character’s newfound wealth. “The beaded front panel of the skirt is a historical textile that was adapted to this costume,” notes Madden. “The use of actual historical fabrics in some of these costumes is fascinating to me.”

The one costume that captured the imaginations of both Madden and Spear isn’t a period costume at all, but a dramatic and flowing red gown worn by Lara Flynn Boyle as an imaginary “first lady” of a dictator in Land of the Blind (2006), a dark political satire set in an unspecified time. “It’s an absolutely lovely fantasy dress that most women would love to wear,” Madden says.

“It’s the centerpiece of the exhibit,” adds Spear. “It’s an absolute tour de force in terms of couture. Lara Flynn Boyle actually teared up when she had to take it off for the final time.”

To learn more about “Cut!” and other Heritage Museums and Gardens events, lectures and activities, visit

Joe O’Shea is a freelance writer from Bridgewater.