Designing costumes so ingrained in popular culture that they still inspire Halloween disguises 30 years after they were created — Michael Jackson's "Thriller" jacket, Indiana Jones' signature outback slouch look and the unforgettable "College" sweatshirt from "Animal House" among them — would be enough of a career accomplishment for most people.
But not for Deborah Nadoolman Landis, who has spent the last decade fighting for respect, recognition and a place in the Hollywood pantheon for film costume designers, establishing herself as the flagbearer for the profession in the process.
Her career on screen includes collaborations with filmmaker and husband John Landis (they started dating in 1975 and married in 1980), beginning with the cult classic "Kentucky Fried Movie" (1977) and continuing with "Animal House" (1978), "Blues Brothers" (1980) and "Coming to America" (1988) — for which she was nominated for an Academy Award — as well as Jackson's "Thriller" (1983) video and more. She also worked with director Steven Spielberg ("1941," "Raiders of the Lost Ark").
Off screen, she helped create the annual Costume Designers Guild Awards, and as a two-term president of the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892, which represents working costume designers in film, television and commercials, she campaigned for better pay and recognition for her colleagues.
"If you look at the hourly rate, costume design comes in right under craft services," says Landis, 60, who lives in Benedict Canyon.
"Our job is often confused with diminutive stuff like shopping. But if you talk to costume designers, they want to have an intellectual discussion. They want to make great movies, not necessarily great costumes," she says. "We design from the inside out, not the outside in. We bring characters to life."
Along the way, Landis has written numerous books on costume design. And she is the David C. Copley Chair and the founding director of the David C. Copley Center for the Study of Costume Design at UCLA, after convincing billionaire and former San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper publisher Copley to donate $6 million to establish the center in 2009. In that role, she is creating an area of academic scholarship around the subject, educating students and the public about what it is costume designers do and don't do.
"Her love of education and her dedication to her students is profound," says Teri Schwartz, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Most recently, in what may be the pinnacle of her career so far, Landis curated the blockbuster "Hollywood Costume" exhibition, which is drawing record crowds at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The enterprise had her navigating the cloak-and-dagger world of costume collectors to reunite Dorothy's gingham pinafore and ruby red slippers to display them together for the first time since "The Wizard of Oz" was completed in 1939.
The five-year winding yellow brick road she took to do that has provided many lessons. In any conversation of more than five minutes with Landis, the professor in her emerges.
LESSON NO. 1
Never take no for an answer
Since Hollywood studios have been notoriously bad at preserving history, securing costumes for the exhibition required a lot of detective work. When it came to obtaining one of four surviving pairs of the magical red shoes, all hope seemed lost. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined. Landis met with private collectors too. One offered the left shoe but not the right.
But as Dorothy says, there is no place like home, and it was an old friend from L.A. who came through: John Gray, former president of the Autry National Center of the American West and current director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., agreed to lend the museum's prized pair, one of the nation's most popular attractions, but only for four weeks. The slippers had to be returned in time for Thanksgiving. (And they were.)
"She is so dogmatic and driven in her passion for costume design. It's a never-ending thing," says costume designer Jeffrey Kurland.
LESSON NO. 2
It's about storytelling
That Landis, whose costumes must tell stories, is a good storyteller should come as no surprise.
The story behind how she obtained Dorothy's pinafore was that a mysterious caller rang her office in London, instructing her to meet at the Temple street tube station, bring her ID and follow the uniformed guards to a private English bank. "Everyone was in cutaways, like in 'Harry Potter,' " she says.
It was the first time Landis had laid eyes on the blue-and-white-checkered pinafore, which belongs to "Wizard of Oz" collector Heather Porter.