There is a reason why I usually do not review movies from the "golden age" of Hollywood (which means any movie prior to the 1970s), and that is because back then they cared even less about historical accuracy in costuming than nowadays, which is saying a lot. Because of this, most of the "historical" movies generally ignored the period and just did whatever was fashionable at the time with a spice of the supposed period.
This is something that usually makes me laugh, rather than angry, because it results in very funny outfits (peplums particularly created a lot of funny imaginary). And Cleopatra, 1963's epic about the Egyptian queen, was for most of my childhood one of those movies. I knew the costumes were not accurate, but they fascinated me anyways in their ridiculousness. That is until I heard that the movie had won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design, the same year that "Il Gattopardo was nominated for Best Costume Design. And they chose to give it to the fun-camp that is Cleopatra. I sometimes wonder why do I even care...
Well, today I feel like poking fun at things, so let's go over the designs for the epic of epics that is Cleopatra.
ABOUT THE MOVIE
Cleopatra is a 1963 epic directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and, to this day, stands as one of the most expensive movies ever made. Its production became famous for its massive cost overrun and production troubles: such as changes in director and cast, a change of filming locale, sets that had to be constructed twice, lack of a firm shooting script, and personal scandal around its co-stars. Because of this, the movie almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
It also was never supposed to be only one movie. It was meant as two movies: a first part called Caesar and Cleopatra and a second part called Anthony and Cleopatra. But when it came the time to premiere, such hype had been played on the Burton-Taylor real-life drama, that the studio was afraid that no one was going to see the first part (where Burton did not appear) and so, turned the two movies into one mammoth of a four-hour movie.
Cleopatra also happens to be the height of Elizabeth Taylor's career and the beginning of the never-ending Burton-Taylor drama.
Because of all these, the movie is often more remembered for its context and significance than for the actual movie. Which, no surprise, is not that good.
ABOUT THE STORY
The movie chronicles the struggles of Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII, starting with the Battle of Pharsalus until her death. The movie focusses on her intrigues in order to resist the imperial ambitions of Rome and her conquests of Caesar and Marc Anthony. And it covers the period between 51 BC and 30 BC.
ABOUT THE COSTUME DESIGN
The costume design for the movie was created by Renié Conley, Vittorio Nino Novarese and Irene Sharaff and, as mentioned in the intro, won an Academy Award for it. The approach to the designs is pretty similar to the approach the movie has to the story: it has to be big and it has to be flashy. And above all, it has to make Elizabeth Taylor the star of it all.
All of this means that their take on design is not really very historically accurate. It's more like the Las Vegas version of Cleopatra. And to top it all, it doesn't really stand the test of time.
The biggest bummer is that most of the designs are straight up 60's fashion with an Egyptian flair to top it. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves, and in order to put everything into perspective let's take a little history class.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Ptolemy, one of his Generals, was appointed as governor of Egypt as the Great Alexandrine Empire fell to pieces. In 305 BC, he set aside the title of governor and crowned himself king, becoming Ptolemy I giving birth to the last dynasty of Egyptian rulers before the conquest of the Roman Empire.
Therefore, the Ptolemaic dynasty, as it would come to be known, was actually Greek, not Egyptian. But in order to be accepted by the Egyptian people, they adopted many of the traditions and aesthetics of the Pharaohs of old, including the one where they married brother to sister in order to keep the divine bloodline pure.
In their official representations (mural paintings, coins) meant for the Egyptian people, they would pose as Egyptian gods, but on their representations towards the outward world, they would pose as Greeks. Playing a double game.
Cleopatra VII was the last of these greek rulers to take the throne of Egypt and she played the popularity game better than any of her ancestors. Any woman previous to her that had wanted to rule Egypt, had had to dress up as a man because Egyptians believed that the Pharaoh was the earthly incarnation of Horus and therefore had to be a guy. But Cleopatra changed that and presented herself as the earthly incarnation of Isis (the most important female divinity). And so, she appeared in front of her people dressed as her.
|Representation of Cleopatra dressed as Isis.|
But despite all this, she was still Greek and the most well-known bust we have of her shows us how she actually dressed in privacy.
I can understand that the Egyptian version is much more appealing and entrancing and that many movies ignore that double game, but if you are going to embrace the whole Isis thing, could they at least not have turned it into this?
It should be, actually, something like this:
|Isis is the one with the white dress, |
the other is Neftis
But here lies the main problem for me; they ignored the actual historical fact that she was Greek and only dressed as a "typical" Egyptian to impress and keep the popularity going and actually dressed her as if she was Egyptian. But then chose to ignore actual Egyptian fashion and dress her as a 60's Las Vegas showgirl.
They basically took the 60's cut for dresses and tried to give it an overall Egyptian feel. This is especially noticeable in the costumes for Cleopatra herself.
The cut of the bust is completely 60's, especially the corseted under-bust that creates the typically pointed breasts of the late '50s. Most of her dresses are variations on that dress shape, which is totally wrong for an Egyptian dress. The traditional cut was actually closer to these:
It's pretty sad that paper dolls get it right when movies can't. Actually, there is only one dress that is historically accurate when it comes to cut and it appears barely for a second and it's worn by a maid:
This brings us to the second enormous beef I have with the designs: there are way too many synthetic materials and gold lamé and way too little cotton and linen.
That dress is, cut-wise, a bit more historical. It's a decent attempt at a Greek dress until you notice the fabric..... I doubt ancient Egypt had synthetic materials. It should be either cotton or linen (both materials were actually made famous by Egyptians, so it's ironic they ignore it), not this horrible looking synthetic material. Also, she is clearly wearing a corset underneath, which gives her the complete wrong bust line for Greek fashion. But that is a lost battle with 50's and 60's Peplums.
And, behold the gold lamé! Which, of course, did not exist until the 1930s, but who cares... right?? This dress really makes me mad because aside from the corset-type bust it's actually one of the most "historically correct" gowns in the movie. But once you notice the gold lamé there is no coming back. It actually ruins the complete look for me. Was it so difficult to do this dress in white linen?
The thing is, apparently, that they wanted to dress Cleopatra in gold because it looks more regal. Except that no Egyptian royalty ever wore gold lamé. She would have worn a white linen tunic decorated with lots of gold jewelry.
This whole gold affair leads up to what probably is the most iconic dress of the movie, and of Elizabeth Taylor's career. The Gold Gown she wears on her entrance in Rome.
As iconic as it is, it's actually the second most "historically accurate" design in the movie, except for the gold lamé, yet again.
It takes inspiration from the traditional representation of Isis especially on the wings, and the crown is actually really good, except that it looks like plastic, but that's fairly normal when looking at productions back then.
All in all, this is a pretty good design, probably the only one in the movie. Especially when the movie has the balls to dress her in a 60's leopard print coat later in the movie.
|Really? The movie is trolling us... it has to be that|
Last but not least in my tiny list of beef with these designs is the absolutely horrendous way in which everything has to sparkle and ruin the few things that were actually decent, to begin with.
The cut of the dress is completely wrong, true, and the material is also wrong. But that crown is not, except for the fact that it has glitter on it (the dress also has glitter by the way). Just to clarify; glitter did not exist in 30 BC Egypt. Not for clothes, not for crowns and definitely not for makeup.
Look at that... glittery makeup. It's true, Egyptian wore a lot of makeup (both men and women): they used kohl and they painted their eyes (heavily). It's actually one of the few ancient cultures that was not shy about makeup. But they generally used heavy basic colors. Why? because glitter was not a thing back then.
Actually, the overabundance of glitter is one of the things in the movie that helps immensely to highlight the Las Vegas feel of the whole production. Some of these designs look as if they raided a Las Vegas dance show. And that's not ok.
The whole thing is that they are making all those changes to create a sexy, exotic vibe, when the Egyptian fashion, as it was, was already sexy and exotic. More so than what they create here. So why did they do it?
|So much glitter...|
And to top it all, let's have a look at the hairstyles, which are a very eclectic mix that ranges from "oh, that's pretty nice and accurate" to "what on earth is she wearing on her head". Because I like to see the positive in everything I'm going to start with the first category.
Aside from the god-awful coat, the crown is actually nice and accurate, as is the following crown.
It's a really historic design and the plastic is not actually that noticeable. Good for you, movie.
The beaded-ringlet wig is also accurate and looks really nice on her. And for once the makeup is not glittery, which helps the look a lot.
She has several variations on the beaded-ringlet wig, and the vast majority of them are really good. But occasionally, they mess it up a bit.
Like here. I think they went a little overboard with the beads. Just a tad.
Here the beads are ok, what bothers me is the "thing" she's wearing as a... crown? your guess is as good as mine. I've you squint, you might say it's a Roman laurel crown, but if it's that, then it's really badly done.
That seems to be a category in and on itself on this movie; the "if you were going for this... well, it's close enough I guess" category, which includes masterful pieces such as this:
You can tell what they were going for, but it's not quite there. It actually looks as if she's forgotten to unwrap the back of the wig. It's weird at best, ugly at worst. But at least it has good intentions.
I guess this is also the case for this silver crown. The shape is alright, but the materials... it looks as if they sprayed it with silver paint. Which makes it look cheap, which I doubt was the initial intent.
The same goes for this wig. I guess they were going for the Nefertiti wig (I'm pretty sure it's not called that, but it was very popular during her reign and so, I call it that).
But once again, it's close, but not really. And it also looks cheap.
This wig is another prime example; I'm pretty sure they were trying to do the jagged cut wig, which consisted in a wig cut at three different levels (like a Christmas tree), but it's not close enough. This wig doesn't have jagged cuts, the change of length is too smooth and they actually look like waves.
But this is nothing, literally nothing, once compared to the "what on earth is she wearing on her head" category, also known as "please kill me now or I will stab my own eyes", which includes beauties such as this:
Vegas much? The shape is sloppy and the materials are cheap and awful and so is the fabric of the dress, which looks like my grandmother's drapery.... and it's just terrible to look at. Unfortunately, it's not as bad as the "floral bath cap".
Once again, this is more 60's than anything. And even by 60's standard, it's awful, terrible and disgraceful. Why would you put that on her head? But apparently, the trend caught on.
One bath cap was not enough, Cleopatra needed two different versions of the same horrible fashion. Only this time, it looks like a furry wig, which makes it even worse. It doesn't even look that good on her, and she's bloody Elizabeth Taylor. She's gorgeous, so if she doesn't look good with one of your designs, you're doing something very wrong.
As for the last category of hair-dresses, there's the "we are not even trying anymore, this is the 60's" material. This, basically, consists of the many times when they just rolled cameras with her day to day style of hair. Watch out for those beehives!
For those who don't know, the beehive was one of the most fashionable hairstyles of the '60s and it looked something like that:
Which is exactly what she's wearing! And it appears in a lot of scenes.
Here it is coupled with the most forward-fashion statement ever. Apparently, Cleopatra wore pants. That's a good one. But, back to the beehive. Look at this:
This is the least Egyptian thing I've seen in a long time, and I've spent the last three days writing about this movie. So go figure. It actually reminds me of the Beehive Audrey Hepburn sported in Breakfast at Tiffany's, down to the shiny jewelry.
Add a little curled fringe and you have the Cleopatra look. This should be a crime. But it gets worse, look at this:
The Who's afraid of Virginia Wolf vibes are strong with this one.
Then, there's the one that really bothers me, but no one seems to get why; which is the straight, shoulder-length wig.
This is what she wears in the movie whenever she's in private, so let's back up a bit. Cleopatra was of Greek descent and she looked something like this:
So, on her private time, she would not be wearing an Egyptian-style wig. She would wear her natural hair and it would look something like this:
Compared to all the horrible styles I've shown before, this should be a minor beef. But it's not. The devil is in the details, more so in movies. And this was an easy detail.
But I suppose I should be wrapping up. The rest of the cast is also dressed in a similar mix of "oh that's decent" and "god, stab my eyes" wardrobe, so there's little to say there without getting repetitive. I guess, then, that it's time to lay down and let the asp loose so that we can all die knowing the disgrace that it is that such a movie has an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
What pisses me off the most is the fact that these designers were not bad designers. Irene Sharaff, in particular, has some amazing work to her credit; An American in Paris (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Taming of The Shrew (1967) and Hello! Dolly (1969). So it amazes me that they turned out such a result.
But it's nothing out of my range of expectations to see an early 60's Peplum with such designs; it's actually the norm. Most of these big epic Peplums of the time were awful in regards to costume design. What does not enter in my range of expectations is that the Academy Awards would bestow the title of Best Costume Design of 1963 to this movie when it was competing against Il Gattopardo (designs by Piero Tosi), which to this day stands as one of the best (and more historically accurate) costume designs ever made.
With that said, I thoroughly apologize for the rant. I was going over the list of movies that had won an Oscar for Costume Design back when I was preparing the Oscar retrospective for our Tumblr (here) and just got really mad at this fact. And sometimes you just need to get it out.
I hope you enjoy the night and hope I don't get too upset about who wins in tonight's Oscars Gala.
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