Event Attendance: Diversity Seen in Hollywood Costumes

By Kcalnan

On Wednesday November 8th, 2017 I had the pleasure of attending a lecture presented by the SLA New York Diversity Committee. The lecture “Diversity Seen in Hollywood Costumes: Collecting, Curating, and Librarianship” featured guest lecturer John Davey. Not only is Mr. Davey the Library Manager at the law firm of Alston & Bird LLP, he is also an avid collector of vintage Hollywood costumes, vintage fashion, and Haute couture. After 18 years of collecting, Mr. Davey has become an expert in his genre of collecting and pieces from his collection have been exhibited throughout the U.S., France, Japan, and Korea. He displayed and discussed eight costumes from his personal collection:

  • Katharine Hepburn’s silver dress from “Desk Set” (1957)
  • Rock Hudson’s beige jacket from “Send Me No Flowers” (1964)
  • Ramon Navarro’s Navy jacket from “The Midshipman” (1925)
  • Salma Hayek’s red velvet dress from “Frida” (2002)
  • Penelope Cruz’s white flower dress from “Elegy” (2008)
  • Lana Turner’s pink dress from “Imitation of Life” (1959)
  • Halle Berry’s sparkle gown from “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” (1999)
  • Eddie Murphy’s silver suit from “Dreamgirls” (2006)

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Mr. Davey shared the curatorial aspects of his collection: how he acquires his costumes, how he determines the condition of each piece, how he verifies the authenticity of each item, and how he preserves the costumes. His lecture highlighted how each of the eight pieces represented diversity in Hollywood costumes. Mr. Davey selected Katharine Hepburn’s dress because it was featured in “Desk Set,” a film about an intelligent woman working in the library field. Since Katharine Hepburn was a Caucasian woman, her status as a librarian reflects the lack of diversity that we still see in the information field today. Rock Hudson’s jacket represents homosexuality, particularly because he was the first big star to die as a result of AIDS. His sexual orientation was hidden by Hollywood to uphold his image as a “heartthrob.” Ramon Navarro’s jacket represents diversity because he was Mexican and homosexual. His sexual orientation was also hidden by Hollywood in order to uphold the positive studio image as well as his image as a “heartthrob.” Salma Hayek’s dress represents Hispanic actresses and lesbians. The film “Frida” was about Frida Kahlo, who was married to Diego Rivera, but had lesbian interactions within the film and throughout her personal life. Penelope Cruz’s dress highlights race and age diversity. Not only is Cruz Hispanic, but in “Elegy” there was nearly a 40-year age difference between her character and her character’s boyfriend.  Lana Turner’s dress was another piece from Mr. Davey’s collection that represented race diversity. Turner was a Caucasian woman, however the movie “Imitation of Life” highlighted difficult race relations. Turner’s character befriends an African American woman and audience witnesses the struggles of Black America in the 1950s. Halle Berry is an African American actress who portrayed Dorothy Dandridge. Dandridge was the first African American actress to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress and Berry was the first African American actress to actually win Best Actress. Eddie Murphy’s suit represents African American males and race relations. The film “Dreamgirls” was set during the Civil Rights Movement and expressed racial tensions during that period.

Using eight costumes, Mr. Davey represented a diverse group of actors, actresses, races, race-relations, age groups, time periods, and sexual orientations. He did an acceptable job including as much diversity as possible throughout his presentation. Unfortunately, two aspects of his presentation detracted from his efforts to highlight diversity. The first aspect was that all eight of the costumes, particularly those from actresses, represented “ideal” body types. For example, there were no costumes representing plus-size actresses. Each dress, with the exception of Salma Hayek’s dress, was designed to fit a petite hourglass figure. Hayek’s dress appeared to fit a bit more loosely, but in the film it fit her perfectly. I would have preferred to see more body types represented among the costumes. The second aspect of Mr. Davey’s costumes that detracted from the diversity was that there were no culturally diverse costumes. Although “Frida” was a culturally diverse film, the costume did not specifically highlight cultural diversity. I would have enjoyed viewing a costume from another culture, particularly since Hollywood produces a multitude of movies that focus upon other cultures.

Mr. Davey’s presentation was educational and entertaining, yet I felt that it could have included more facets of diversity. Although Hollywood’s image may be a far cry from the image of libraries, the presentation reminded me of Jennifer Vinopal’s article “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” She invites readers to look critically at culture and suggests being aware of the impact of bias, privilege, and power differentials in the library field, a concept which I applied to Hollywood costumes. In Hollywood, the sexual orientations of Rock Hudson and Ramon Navarro were hidden in order to maintain their images as “heartthrobs.” This reflects the impact of bias, privilege, and power differentials in Hollywood because the studios utilized their power and privilege to present actors as heterosexual, despite being homosexual. The studios maintained this biased image since it was more profitable than featuring homosexual actors. Vinopal also asked, “How much ‘valuing diversity’ does the organization need to demonstrate in order for staff from the dominant culture to perceive it as sufficient?” (2016, Jan. 13) The “organization,” in this case Mr. Davey, felt that his representation of diversity was sufficient for his presentation. The “staff,” meaning the audience and myself in particular, felt that the diversity he presented was insufficient and could have been expanded upon. I would have enjoyed seeing more representation of body types and diverse cultures. I do not have the advantage of knowing the extent of Mr. Davey’s collection, but it is possible that he compiled the most diverse pieces that he owns. Since the presentation was created using his personal collection, the collection solely reflects Mr. Davey’s interests. If he is not interested in cultural diversity or body type diversity, logically they would not be included in his collection or presentation. Despite the two facets of diversity that appeared to be absent, Mr. Davey managed to include a wide range of diverse subjects using only eight costumes. Perhaps in his future presentations, Mr. Davey might consider including costumes which reflect more facets of diversity in Hollywood culture. All in all, attending his lecture and presentation was a pleasurable experience and exceptional opportunity to understand how others interpret diversity.

 

Vinopal, Jennifer. 2016. “The Quest for Diversity in Library Staffing: From Awareness to Action.” Lead Pipe. http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2016/quest-for-diversity.

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