Masked superheroes parading around in spandex and capes may have ruled the box office in recent years, but sweeping period dramas like this season's "Anna Karenina" and "Les Misérables," with their spectacular costumes, are never out of style.

"CUT! Costume and the Cinema," a new exhibition scheduled to be at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana through March 10, celebrates the glamour of cinematic couture in period films with a collection of 43 costumes from 27 films, including "The Phantom of the Opera," "Howard's End," "Finding Neverland" and "Sherlock Holmes." Five centuries of fashion are represented, ranging from 16th century Renaissance court attire depicted in "Ever After" to an 18th century frock coat adorned with metallic gold trimmings for Heath Ledger's "Casanova" to the 20th century stylings of Maggie Smith's devore velvet party dress in "Gosford Park."

Visitors get a chance to closely examine the artistry and the luxurious handcrafted fabrics, embroidery and embellishments of original costumes created by the London costume house of Cosprop Ltd., which organized the traveling exhibition. Founded in 1965 by award-winning costume designer John Bright, the company is one of the main purveyors of period costumes.

"The biggest challenge for designers is walking a fine line between creating a character and what was actually worn in a particular period," said Holly Poe Durbin, guest scholar and head of costume design studies at UC Irvine.

Many British actors are known for transforming into their characters by working from the outside in, with makeup and costumes playing a vital role in that process. "Many actors such as Keira Knightley are known for loving period films because they get her to read about the history of that era and magically live in another time for a number of months," said the traveling exhibition's curator Nancy Lawson.

While costumes are an essential element in creating authenticity and must hold up to visual scrutiny when cameras zoom in for close-ups, actors still need to be able function and move freely.

Although most vintage pieces are too delicate to wear during a lengthy film shoot, many bits and elements have been recycled or referenced. "John [Bright] loves to incorporate original fabrics in the design, giving them another life," Lawson said.

"Vanessa Redgrave's heavily beaded dark green silk dress worn in 'Mrs. Dalloway' has a lot of its original 1920s beadwork," she noted.

"The Duchess," which won an Oscar and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for best costume in 2009, is represented by six of the most lavish ensembles in the movie.

The heroine, English aristocrat Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (portrayed by Knightley), was known for her expensive taste and was a fashionista who changed her clothes several times a day.

Costumes also reveal the division of distinct social classes. The modest yet romantic cotton frock worn by Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood in "Sense and Sensibility" reflects her place in society as one who is no longer part of the moneyed upper-crust.

In addition to costumes worn by familiar characters in blockbusters — such as Johnny Depp's Capt. Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean" — those from lesser known films are also on view. For instance, there's a gorgeous copy of a Christian Dior red silk taffeta ball gown overlaid with flowing frayed ruffles that Lara Flynn Boyle wore as the first lady in "Land of the Blind," a 2006 satirical political drama about terrorism.

liesl.bradner@latimes.com

CUT! Costume and the Cinema

Bowers Museum, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Weekday admission, $13 adults, $10 seniors over 62 and students over 12. On weekends, $15 adults, $12 seniors and students. Children under 12 free.