film costume designer Deborah Nadoolman Landis

Deborah Nadoolman Landis (Ryan Miller / Getty Images / May 28, 2011)

"I was worried I would look inside the pinafore and it would be fancy or lined with French silk," Landis says. "But [MGM costume designer] Adrian was a genius. It was made on a treadle sewing machine, as Auntie Em would have done it, out of the cheapest Dust Bowl general store cotton. He didn't mix fashion and costume. This pinafore is an exquisite artifact. And everything I put my heart and soul and intellect behind was validated when I saw it."


Authenticity comes first

The treadle machine used to sew Dorothy's pinafore was probably not all that different from the one that sits on a side table in Landis' office on the leafy UCLA campus. An artifact of Landis' own life, it's the machine on which her grandmother taught her to sew.

Landis' interest in costume design seemed preordained from an early age. She grew up in New York City, standing in the back of the house at Broadway shows and poring over history books about Elizabeth I, whose many representations on film are explored in a segment of the Victoria & Albert show.

She is the daughter of Milton and Laura Nadoolman, a pharmacist and a teacher of the deaf. And it was while making costumes as a kid for "bunk nights" at Camp Laughton in Grahamsville, N.Y., a camp for the deaf founded by her parents, that Landis learned the kind of versatility that would prove valuable in her career.

"I could make anything out of a paper place mat — a ruff, a cuff, a tie, a shirt collar and any kind of hat."


Costume (not fashion) design

A self-described hippie who sat on her hair until she was 40 but now prefers a uniform of Armani and Lafayette 148 pants suits, Landis went to the freethinking Goddard College in Vermont. After failing to get a job at a costume house in New York City, she decided to go for her master of fine arts in costume design in Los Angeles.

She arrived at UCLA in 1973 and received a grant to study the influence of period detail on contemporary dress, an opportunity that gave her access to the inner sanctum of the fashion industry in New York City, including legendary editors Diana Vreeland, Carrie Donovan and Carmel Snow. The experience was fun but "made me realize I was interested in our field as material culture as opposed to a decorative art," she says. "Every discussion led me deeper down instead of closer to the surface."


Sometimes more is more

After graduating, she worked several years for Angie Jones, head of costume design at NBC Studios. It was a total education, Landis says. "Angie had me buying crystals, working on fat suits, assisting the cobbler. She made sure I saw everything." The experience set her up perfectly to become a film costume designer.

After taking time off to raise her kids — Max, 27, is a screenwriter, and Rachel, 30, a teacher — Landis went back to school at the Royal College of Art in London at age 46, traveling back and forth for five years to complete her doctorate in the history of costume design in 2003. That led to a teaching career at USC, the AFI and eventually UCLA, thanks to David Copley.

Landis met Copley in 2006. The two bonded at his La Jolla mansion over his lifelong passion for collecting costume sketches, which Landis was researching for her newest title "Hollywood Sketchbook." (Sketches were stashed everywhere in his house, including under the beds and in the backs of toilets, she says.)

Their friendship deepened when Landis was asked to be on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and invited Copley to sail his yacht to the South of France and accompany her to the festivities.


Tracking history never ends

Later that year, she approached Copley about endowing the first chair in costume design at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television. "It was like I was discussing it with my father," she says of her dear friend, who died, apparently of a heart attack, in November.

Now she is winding down her time in London. The exhibition, which features more than 100 costumes from 60 donors, is to run till Jan. 27 before traveling to Australia and, she hopes, Los Angeles. Next month she'll be back to teaching, writing and hunting down costume history, whether she's pursuing Edith Head sketches at the University of Wisconsin or Audrey Hepburn's white Ascot dress, designed by Cecil Beaton for "My Fair Lady," which sold at auction last year for $3.7 million and then disappeared.

As Landis tells it, "All this for these tired, old costumes. They are so much work, but they have so much intrigue."