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At Cooper-Hewitt

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But what colour is it? Model wearing coat designed by Sonia Delaunay, 1926–27

As a child formed by classic studio films – I didn’t realise when I was six that The Philadelphia Story was made and took place in the past – I spent a lot of time wondering what colour the black-and-white stars’ clothes were. Edith Head had glasses with blue lenses to give her a sense of the way colours would look in shades in grey, but there was no magic device to reverse the process. (From 1948, when Costume Design was added to the list of Oscar categories, until 1957 there were separate awards for black-and-white and colour films.) Costume was one of the many areas where realism went out the window: actors on screen wore whatever photographed well. No matter how delusional Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond gets, when she snakes towards the camera for her close-up at the end of Sunset Boulevard, she’s wearing a black dress with a pale beaded shawl draped across her right shoulder: the craziness of the effect comes from the way it’s worn, not the outfit itself.

In real life, and until the end, Swanson was a much wackier dresser – look at this hat. The first item in Color Moves, an exhibition at Cooper-Hewitt in New York of Sonia Delaunay’s textile designs, is a coat made for Swanson in 1923-24. Delaunay’s patterns for fabric grew smaller and more detailed over time but Swanson’s coat consists of large interlocking rectangles of brown, camel and rusty red, totally unsuitable for the screen. The lighting for the exhibition is dim to protect Delaunay’s designs on silk or wool jersey and crêpe-de-chine, and the once startling block and flower prints are bolder on the pages of a catalogue, or on screen, than they are behind glass.

Coat made for Gloria Swanson, designed by Sonia Delaunay 1923-24

There’s no shortage of light in the other show at the Cooper-Hewitt, a large promotional display for the work of Van Cleef & Arpels: powerful spotlights are trained on gigantic diamonds. It’s also a promotion for the jeweller’s clients, past and present, and I more than like the sound of Marjorie Merriweather Post, ‘a fervent collector of fine jewellery’: clearly a sensible hobby – ever since Jane Russell died I haven’t been able to get ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ out of my head. The last pieces in the gallery display belong – belonged – to Elizabeth Taylor. The coral, amethyst, diamond, platinum and gold bracelet and earrings that Richard Burton gave her are so garish that they’re almost ugly up close, but they are of course unfaded and still here.

Lamartine bracelet owned by Elizabeth Taylor, designed by Van Cleef & Arpels, France 1970

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