Tag Archives: Elizabeth Taylor

FABULOUS 1950s IN FILM FASHION

The 1950s are presented in various and changing images as the years go by, bolstered by films and TV shows: suburban growth; stereotypical families; mass consumerism; the cold war and the threat of the atomic bomb;  rebelious rockers; and a seemingly simpler even idyllic time. In Hollywood the Production Code was still in force, and therefore the censor still prevailed in what was shown on the screen and how far a screenplay could go in subject matter and treatment.

In the post-war 1950s, the combined restrictions from film censorship and the lagging societal constraint on sex in general had the effect of unleashing an ever-present focus on the image of female sexual attraction on film. While beautiful movie stars with sex appeal had been around since the silent screen, the overt sexual magnetism of the 1950s stars is contrasted and often made contradictory by the wholesome image of the star. This role was played by several stars including the beautiful Esther Williams, and was perfected by Doris Day.

 

Sophia Loren (circa 1950s)

Photo Courtesy Photofest

 

The European movie-stars on the other hand provided the desired amount of foreign, and a perceived lack of restraint to play daring roles in film, while wearing provocative costumes and fashions. American G.I.s during World War II  already had a taste of their appeal. Sofia Loren, beginning her film career in Italy in 1950, virtually defined the post-war look of continental sexual allure. Such a look is not based on showing a lot of skin, nor is it entirely based on the French New Look in fashion. But in the dress above worn by Sofia Loren, the style shows off the contours of her body perfectly, and it does share with the New Look a reliance on corsetry to pinch the waist in order to accent the hips and bust, the latter the particular sexual fetish of the 1950s.

Another European bombshell exploded on the scene in the 1950s: Brigitte Bardot. She began making movies in 1952, but her beauty and looks typecast her in lightweight eye-candy roles. Her then-husband Roger Vadim, part of the French New Wave, cast her along with Jean-Louis Tintignant in And God Created Woman (Et Dieu Crea la Femme) in 1956, and an iconic star was born. Bardot was very much  a portent for the look of the coming 1960s (and later decades). She is pictured below in a costume from And God Created Woman. The outfit was designed by French couturier Pierre Balmain. It is a simple black shirt with a long center-buttoned skirt. Later in the film she dances in the outfit with the buttons undone to her waist. Brigitte Bardot had previously popularized the bikini bathing suit on the French Riviera.

 

Fab 50s Bardot God Created Woman Balmain

 

America’s swimsuit goddess was Esther Wiliams, a previous National champion swimmer who became a movie star at MGM. The studio created the wildly popular genre of “acqua-musicals” based on her skills and personality. Following years of the Great Depression and WWII, the smiling face and healthy physique of Esther Williams combined with the sunny skies of California made for a popular series of films. The costume and fashion designer Irene dressed Esther Williams in her early MGM movies, although Helen Rose designed for her 1950s films, including the classic Million Dollar Mermaid, 1952; Easy to Love, 1953; and Dangerous When Wet, 1953Both designers designed Esther’s unique swimsuits for the films.

 

Fab 50s Esther Williams

 

The fashion trend that defined the basic look of the 1950s started in Paris with the couture creations of Christian Dior. Following years of deprivation during World War II, French couture went on a splurge in the use of fabric, which had previously been rationed. The
“New Look” as it was dubbed by Life Magazine in late 1947, was based on a pinched waist, a full skirt with layers of petitcoats, and a full breasted-bodice, the whole based on foundation undergarments. The style was a return to the hourglass silhouette popular during the 1860s and earlier.

The model below shows a Christian Dior fashion. During the 1949-1950 period, both the New Look and the broad-shouldered, pencil-skirted look of the 1940s could be seen side-by-side. There were some groups of women that demonstrated against the New Look, asking why was Dior trying to hide women’s legs.

 

Fab 50s Dior new look

 

As would increasingly be the case, youth, led the way in starting the trend in the U.S. The movies continued to have a major impact through the combination of costume designer and star they dressed. One such combo was Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose. Helen Rose had been dressing Elizabeth since she was 15 and starring in A Date with Judy. Her violet eyes, dark hair and prominent eyebrows made for a beautiful impression on screen – and a star was born. Rose designed the Father of the Bride movie in 1950, and subsequently Elizabeth’s real wedding gown, and then the movie sequel. This was followed by Love is Better Than Ever, made in 1951 but released in 1952. In this film Rose dresses Elizabeth Taylor in New Look dresses. Elizabeth had become the model for teenage girls, and both the New Look and Helen Rose became hot.

 

Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952

Elizabeth Taylor in Love is Better Than Ever. In the film she plays a dance teacher. Photo courtesy Photofest

 

The New Look with its petticoats and prim attention to proper dress seems foreign to the last 30 years of teenage styles, but it was the trend of the day. As ever, teenage girls wanted to look different than their mothers. Shown below is a costume sketch designed by Mary Wills for the movie Teenage Rebel, from 1956. This design was for the teenager played by Betty Lou Keim, the “rebellious” daughter of the character played by Ginger Rogers. A teenage girl yearning for womanhood and showing decollete was the height of fashionable statements of the day.

 

Mary Wills - Teenage Rebel

 

Elizabeth Taylor matured quickly. The red dress that Helen Rose designed for her in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), caused problems with the on-set fiilm censor because of the amount of cleavage that was displayed. This caused a work stoppage and loud arguments by the director Richard Brooks. Brooks ultimately won.

Elizabeth-Helen-Last-Time-I-Saw-Paris

 

Elizabeth Taylor and Helen Rose teamed up on the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. Helen Rose created a dress that would become the fashion rage. The “Cat” dress it would be called, and garment manufacturers were knocking it off all over the world. The chiffon cocktail dress with full skirt and Grecian bodice became so popular that Helen Rose decided to start her own fashion line, and continued selling it in various colors for years. When dressing Elizabeth Taylor, her shoulders and chest were always emphasized to good effect.

 

Liz - Cat Dress

 

Another screen goddess from the 1950s was Grace Kelly. Her smashing entrance into Jimmy Stewart’s apartment in  Rear Window (1956) dressed in Edith Head’s stunning black and white evening outfit is unforgettable. The costume is a simple black decollete top and a full white chiffon skirt decorated with beaded twig decorations in black. It was one of Edith Head’s best designs. Grace wears black strappy heels with the outfit.

 

Grace Rear Window2

 

Edith Head also designed Grace Kelly’s costumes for To Catch a Thief (1955). Grace Kelly was the perfect embodiment of the 1950s sexual image: the wholesome and proper young woman with a lurking sexual appetite, waiting for the right occasion. “Do you want a leg or a breast” she asks Cary Grant as they go out on a picnic. Her rose-colored skirt and white-embroidered sleeveless top shown below is a beautifully-designed outfit for the occasion.

 

Fab 50s Grace-to catch a thief

Grace Kelly had worked as a model in her acting student years, and her poise shows in the photo below, wearing an Edith Head gown for the 1955 Academy Awards, where she won Best Actress for Country Girl.

Fab 50s grace-kelly-life-cover

Doris Day seemed to represent the ethos of the 1950s in America. She had started as a singer with big bands and became a hit with the movie Romance on the High Seas, in 1948. U.S. G.I.s in Korea voted her their favorite movie star in 1950. Her movies in the 1950s often had songs that became hit singles, and her teamwork with co-stars Rock Hudson and Tony Randall started in 1959 with Pillow Talk and continued into the 1960s.  Doris Day was always a great dresser in her roles, and she worked with the best: Jean Louis; Edith Head; Helen Rose, and she was especially close to Irene, with whom she worked on Midnight Lace, and Lover Come Back, two of the last three movies Irene designed before her death.

In the photo below Doris Day wears a popular leisure outfit of the 1950s, capri pants, called pedal pushers in the day, along with a long-sleeved, collared blouse.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a) Doris Day, circa 1945 Doris Day, circa 1945

Photo by Everett/REX_Shutterstock (1897985a)

 

Some actresses were more daring in their looks on screen, and film directors and producers pushed to accent their beauty and sexual appeal. Martha Hyer is shown below in 1957, showing the silhouette that emphasized the then-popular missile-cone bustline.

Photo courtesy of Photofest

Photo courtesy of Photofest

 

The movie star looks of Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Kim Novak in the1950s created a huge demand for a moulded silhouette emphasizing curves and a prominent bust line. What was achieved through foundation undergarments on film was now becoming increasingly available to the average woman consumer. Nylon was making bras lighter and cheaper, and conical stitching was providing that perfect “missile bra” look so desired in the mid 1950s.

The “Sweater Girl” look had also became popular, starting with the films of Lana Turner. In the 1950s there was a competition for the title of “National Sweater Queen.”  In the early 50s the tight sweater was worn with the very full circle skirts made popular by the New Look. Later in the decade and into the early 1960s, tight pants were joined with tight sweaters to make the very hot look as shown below by Kim Novak.

KimNovak001c1

 

And of course what would the 1950s be without Marilyn Monroe, star then and everlasting star. She had so many looks, but costume and fashion designer William “Billy” Travilla dressed her best in her films for 20th Century-Fox. Below she wears a gold lame gown from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). Travilla knew how to accentuate Marilyn’s curves while providing her glamorous and beautiful costumes. He was also daring with such outfits as the one below.

 

Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953)

Marilyn Monroe wearing a gold lame gown by Travilla from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

As the 1950s rolled into the early 1960s, fashions made no particularly big swings. The “revolutionary” styles were around the corner in 1963 and beyond. The sexual revolution of the 1960s was concentrated on the young. By then the sexual tidal wave in film fashion had already been crashing on the censor’s gates for years.

 

 

ELIZABETH TAYLOR & DESIGNER HELEN ROSE

Elizabeth Taylor: the last great movie star might be her epitaph.  One thinks of her great roles, both on and off the screen, and her jewels, and her costumes. One thinks of Edith Head when thinking of Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes, A Place in the Sun, perhaps. But it was Helen Rose at MGM that created Elizabeth’s formative and most striking gowns and wardrobe pieces. In this post we will explore some of these costumes and film fashions designed during Hollywood’s golden age.

This is another in a series of Silver Screen Modes dual portrais of stars and the unique relationships they developed with certain designers. See Marlene Dietrich and Travis Banton and Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy. An earlier post had appeared in my Silver Screen Modiste on Adrian and Garbo.

One almost forgets that Elizabeth Taylor began as a child star, not just in National Velvet, but as an eleven year old in Lassie Come Home (1943), a film that didn’t even  bother giving a costume credit. But it didn’t take long for Elizabeth (she never liked being called Liz) to grow into a teenage beauty and magnetic young woman. MGM costume designer Helen Rose knew how to make the most of her dark hair, violet eyes, and developing figure. In A Date with Judy (1948), Helen had her first chance to show Elizabeth off to the world as the new beauty in Hollywood.

Elizabeth Taylor a-date-with-judy

Elizabeth Taylor plays a spoiled rich-kid high-schooler (she was 15 at the time) her friend in the movie was played by Jane Powell, with a cast of Robert Stack, Scotty Beckett, Wallace Beery, Xavier Cugat, and Carmen Miranda.  From the cast you can tell it’s a musical, and it was old-fashioned even when it came out in 1948.  In the photo above Elizabeth’s hair and make-up are perfect for her, and in perfect harmony with her costume.  Her role in the movie was definetly designed to capitalize on her charms  The outfit she wears above is a perfect combination of modest and sexy: an off-white form-fitting bodice over a pleated skirt,  the white accented in red; buttoned securely but with a deep v-cut decolletage that actually highlights her face. Elizabeth’s waist was always tiny, but here, in 1948, she wears padded shoulders, a look I find flattering to her. Alas, the style would dissappear in the coming flood of the New Look.

Elizabeth-Taylor-in-A-Date-with-Judy-elizabeth-taylor 2

Jane Powell at left and Elizabeth are shown above at the high school dance. Although Jane Powell sang some nice numbers, it’s clear that Elizabeth was meant to be the star at this show.

And it wasn’t long before Elizabeth was getting married, in the movies and in real life.

Elizabeth & Helen Father_Bride_1950_

The “Father of the Bride” wedding gown for Elizabeth was made of ivory colored satin and lace. Photo courtesy Photofest

The movie wedding took place in Father of the Bride (1950), with Spencer Tracy playing the father and Joan Bennett playing the mother. The groom was played by an unknown actor Don Taylor, although his parents were the veteran actors Billie Burke and Moroni Olsen.  The movie was a hit, the box office smash helped by Elizabeth’s real wedding to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton on May 6, 1960, just before the film’s release.  And of course Elizabeth had wanted Helen to design her own wedding gown, similar to the one she would be wearing in Father of the Bride. And MGM even made Elizabeth a gift of the wedding gown, not a small matter since it took fifteen seamstresses and embroiderers three months to make it.

elizabeth-taylor wedding gown

 

Elizabeth Taylor's Wedding Dress For Sale

Photo courtesy Christie’s

Elizabeth’s wedding gown as it appeared  in preparation for auction by Christie’s in 2013, where it fetched $188,000. The gown was made of 25 yards of ivory silk satin, with “illusion” lace shoulders and all-over embroidered decorations of bugle beads and seed pearls.  The gown was previewed by good friend and fellow blogger Kimberly Truhler before it went to Christie’s London.  She confirmed that the  level of craftsmanship was so high for the gown that it would be virtually impossible to duplicate it today.

And so with Helen’s beautiful wedding gown designs for both Father of the Bride and Elizabeth’s wedding that preceded its release  by a month, Helen Rose was constantly in the news as the “it” wedding gown designer. Indeed, she would go on to design Grace Kelly’s wedding gown to Prince Ranier, an even more elaborate marvel of dressmaking, and again made at the MGM wardrobe Department.

In 1952 Love is Better Than Ever, was finally released,  directed by Stanley Donen. Elizabeth was cast opposite Larry Parks, who had been blacklisted, which resulted in delaying the release of the movie.  Elizabeth was at the peak of her youthful radiance, and was here playing a dance teacher attending a convention in New York and engaging in a romance with a confirmed bachelor played by Parks.  The movie is a light romantic comedy but it captured Elizabeth at a unique point in her ascent to super stardom. Her role in A Place in the Sun had already been shot and released by Paramount in 1951, where she was dressed by Edith Head. Love is Better Than Ever had actually been filmed earlier, and completed in January 1951. Even with the blacklist situation, MGM didn’t want to lose out on the hot streak of the radiant Elizabeth Taylor.  Helen Rose here begins to fashion her in the New Look that will dominate most American women’s fashion in the 1950s, especially that of young women and teenagers – a direct result of Elizabeth Taylor’s influence.

Elizabeth & Helen LoveIsBetterEver_1952

Photo courtesy Photofest

Elizabeth Taylor is shown above with some of her young students and with Larry Parks below in Love is Better Than Ever, where  Elizabeth plays a dance teacher.

Elizabeth Taylor Love is better than Ever

Photo courtesy Photofest

Helen Rose next designed for Elizabeth in Rhapsody (1954), another musical genre. In this movie she loves a self-obsessed violin player played by Vitorio Gassman while it’s really a pianist played by John Ericson who loves her. While the script and acting are of middling quality, the magneticism of Elizabeth Taylor at this stage in her career is riveting. She had a star quality at 22 that is unparallelled.

Helen Rose helped define her look, and for several years thereafter, the look combined a strong sexual appeal within a feminine and tasteful fashion style. Helen’s design elements emphasized Elizabeth’s beautiful shoulders, her small waist developing into a well-defined bust and an  evident decolletage, which the still- photographers usually shot from a high vantage point. Helen would also use the silhouette of the New Look to give Elizabeth a long full skirt  to further emphasize Elizabeth’s narrow waist and the feminine contour Helen liked.

Elizabeth Taylor is shown with John Ericson below. Helen Rose liked to emphasize Elizabeth’s shoulders. Since this became a focal point, Helen would always pay close attention to the fit and look of the straps on the gowns and dresses she designed. She liked to emphasize the shoulders and she knew they would always be a focus since they were so near the face. She carried this attention to detail for the other actresses she designed for as well.

Elizabeth Rhapsody

Photo courtesy Photofest

It was not a musical, but the words and music to the haunting song, The Last Time I Saw Paris, gave both the title and the theme to Elizabeth’s next movie, which co-starred Van Johnson and Donna Reed. Here Elizabeth and Van Johnson play tragic lovers in post-World War II Paris.

One of Helen’s gown designs for Elizabeth caused problems with the censor. It was a red chiffon gown with a deep decolletage and a very low back, a crucial costume for the plot. Apparently while on the set during production  the female censor got on a ladder to view the amount of cleavage showing and declared that the gown was “out.” Helen was devastated and the director Richard Brooks was so livid that he cursed up and down the set until the censor. Filming then resumed.

The costume sketch for Helen’s design for the Elizabeth Taylor gown that caused all the commotion in The Last Time I Saw Paris is shown below.

Elizabeth & Helen Last Time I Saw Paris

Elizabeth in  Helen’s dresses continued to light up the screen in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the 1958 movie based on the Tennessee Williams play, co-starring Paul Newman.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)Directed by Richard BrooksShown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

The film is based on the play of the same title. The more than obvious charms-yet failed attempts of Maggie “the Cat” played by Elizabeth to get her husband Brick , Paul Newman,  to take her to bed, gets her to say in frustration that she feels like a “cat on a hot tin roof.”  The film downplays the play’s more overt homesexual undercurrent, but maintains its mixture of mendacity, lies, jealousy and general “bad blood.” Nonetheless, Helen’s most famous design for Elizabeth, in her effort to entice her husband, has become legend, and was known for many years after as  the “Cat dress.”

It is shown below, a Grecian bodice with full but somewhat short  white chiffon dress. It became a best seller when she started her own  Helen Rose line in 1958.

Liz - Cat Dress

In Butterfield 8 (1960) Helen designed another costume that became a fahion winner for her own line. The dress was a black chiffon coctail dress with the usual decolletage that Elizabeth wears while seated on top of a bar as shown below.  It was costume designer Moss Mabry that suggested it to  Gayle and Fred Hayman of the legendary Giorgio’s of Beverly Hills for their store, where it became a best seller from Helen’s line.

 

Elizabeth & Helen Butterfield 8 1960 3

Photo courtesy Photofest

But the image that became iconic from Butterfield 8 is that of Elizabeth in a slip with a drink in her hand.  In 1960  this was still risque enough to be considered a bold image, especially for the movie advertisements and posters that were produced from it. It’s not so much what the image revealed, as what it implied. We were now entering the 1960s, where movies would be all over the spectrum in their degree of realism.  Helen Rose didn’t have to design the slip, it could be found in any department store.

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

Full length furs were still worn in 1960, convenient for wearing, like a trench coat, directly over a slip when one has nothing else to put on.  

Butterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann Shown: Elizabeth Taylor

Photo courtesy Photofest

This would be Elizabeth Taylor’s and Helen Rose’s last collaboration. At this pont Elizabeth wanted to exit her MGM contract, where she would soon be moving from $125,000 a movie to over a $1 million for Cleopatra.

Helen Rose left MGM in 1966. By that time, long term contracts were no longer being given to studio designers, or other skilled trades. Four years later the studio auctioned off thousands of its costumes, many of which Helen Rose had designed. The film library was sold also. Fortunately we can still see most of these film treasures on TCM and elsewhere.