Maybe it was the wardrobe department of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra" that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. With over 65 costume changes they certainly contributed to the $44 million budget. Going broke for fashion is something any fashionista can understand with over 400 costumes created for the epic film. Elizabeth Taylor’s outfits are the focal point of the whole film, complete with a dress made entirely of 24-carat gold cloth going down in Hollywood fashion history.
Joan Collins, Audrey Hepburn, and Susan Hayward were all considered as replacements for Taylor, whose illness delayed production, but production exec Spyrous Skouras was insistant that Cleopatra be buxom to draw an audience. As result Taylor’s cleavage makes an appearance in every other scene. [hubba hubba -Ed]
The dramatic hairstyle changes seem superfluous today, but actually are an accurate representation of rich Egyptian women who mostly wore wigs in public and kept their hair shorn close to the head to keep lice at bay. Maybe Taylor would have won the Oscar if she went all G.I. JANE and buzzed her head on camera instead of the even longer wigs she sports in the bathing scenes.
But the opulence paid off, Renie Conley, Vittorio Nino Novarese and Irene Sharaff scored Oscars for costume design. Awards for wardrobe were separate for colour and black and white films from 1939 to 1967, and in this year Fellini’s film 8 ½ was the other costume winner. Strangely enough, when you look at the two films together, the hair and makeup are at times uncannily similar. Taylor manages to look like a contemporary mod with her blunt bangs and thick black eyeliner and the cinched waists are definitely there to show off her figure, not for historical accuracy.
We can look forward to yet another interpretation of the epic fashion icon when Stacy Schiff’s Pulitizer Prize winning novel, Cleopatra: A Life will be adapted into a feature film in 2013. Angelina Jolie will take the role of Cleopatra, continuing the Hollywood tradition of the famous African Queen being played by a non-African American actress (Dorothy Dandridge lost the role to Elizabeth Taylor in this sixties version). If Brad Pitt indeed takes on the role of Marc Anthony, I may just have the same reaction that Liz Taylor reportedly had when she saw the finished version of her film - and throw up.
Here’s hoping that some notable actors and actresses of colour get
some larger roles than in the 1963 version, where a group makes brief
appearance in a feather-clad dance number. Or do we need to make
another CLEOPATRA JONES?
Karina Griffith is a Carribean Canadian with a Bachelors in Journalism and a Masters in Feature Film. She came to Berlin in 2004 to produce a short documentary for the Berlin Today Award. In 2007, she came back to stay, and started working in the designroom for a German fashion brand, scouting trends and curating collections. Since then, she has been trying to make sense of the switch in her blog, www.filmisfashion.com.