Curators planning a recent exhibit about the queen of Egypt at Chicago’s Field Museum unearthed an interesting fact. When museum patrons were polled about the femme pharaoh, it was Elizabeth Taylor’s image they recalled most.
Rather than shun this Hollywood makeover of the ancient ruler, organizers of the exhibit “Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth” embraced the star’s portrayal as a jumping-off point.
“If you want to reach the audience, you have to find out what their reference is,” says curator Barbara Ceiga. “Elizabeth Taylor was Cleopatra and Cleopatra was Elizabeth Taylor for the American audience, and we had to factor that in.”
Egyptologist Robert Ritner of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute describes Cleopatra as “not just a femme fatale, someone who seduced men and had that as her only route to power. She was actually very politically astute. She was a good administrator.”
Though Irene Sharaff’s costume designs for Taylor’s Cleopatra are not the most historically faithful (she wears fitted waists, zipper closures, cleavage-revealing necklines and bouffant wigs), they reveal her dual nature with their strong, clean lines and beguiling hints of sexuality. There have been several screen versions of the Egyptian queen, and each tells more about society’s mores, its views of women and the fashions of the day than life in ancient Egypt.
“The costumes were very much suited to the styles of the times in which the films were made, and to the figures of the leading ladies,” says Ceiga.
In pre-Hayes Code 1917 Hollywood, Theda Bara vamped it up as a voluptuous Cleopatra in see-through skirts and coiled cobra breastplates. Bara is believed to have created Cleopatra’s first popular screen image with trademark heavy eye makeup, revealing gowns and ornate accessories.
Travis Banton’s costumes for Claudette Colbert’s 1934 take on Cleopatra feature elegant draping, bias-cut fabrics and art deco embellishments popular in ’30s evening gowns.
Costume collector Larry McQueen, who owns two of the Banton designs exhibited in the Field Museum show, says Colbert’s flawless figure was central to Banton’s creations. “Colbert had an incredible body, because what you see in that film is her,” he says. “In the one dress where she rolls out of the carpet, she’s just about ready to roll out of the top, and it cuts — and then she’s stuffed back in. There is nothing but two little pieces of material, and that’s it.”
Legend has it that Colbert either pushed Banton to make the costumes sexier or was enraged at the studio for exploiting her body. Either way, McQueen says she and Banton argued so much about the costumes that she reportedly threatened to kill herself if he didn’t remake them to her satisfaction, cutting her finger and sending him a note written in blood.
Controversy also surrounded the 1963 production in which Taylor starred. Numerous costume designers made thousands of outfits for the film, helping costs soar to $37 million.
Anthony Powell made 3,000-4,000 pieces for the film as a student working for costume designer Oliver Messell. Messell, who had designed gowns for Vivien Leigh in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” labored on the Taylor version at its original location in England, where freezing temperatures and fog delayed shooting and made skimpy costumes a health hazard.
“They would wait until the fog lifted for one day and then they’d all rush out and try and shoot something,” says Powell. “And of course it was so cold that they were all purple and had goose bumps and every time Rex Harrison or Elizabeth Taylor opened their mouths and spoke, little clouds of vapor came out.”
Cleopatra’s most recent, but surely not her last, screen incarnation was Hallmark Entertainment’s 1999 TV version featuring Leonor Varela in Enrico Sabatini’s artful interpretation of ancient dress, including pleated silk gowns and sheer colored caftans.
But despite a huge budget, lavish touches and more skin than any other production, this TV version is all but forgotten. Diva that she is, Cleopatra demands a grand theatrical presentation.