Released in 1963, the film Cleopatra, which chronicled the life of the eponymous, cunning Egyptian Queen, made history. This success can be partially attributed to Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction of Cleopatra. This role helped establish Elizabeth Taylor as a global sex symbol and style icon, due to her stormy onset romance with lead actor Richard Burton, as well as her masterful performance.
The costume designs created for Elizabeth Taylor, helped her portray Cleopatra on screen. The character is famous for her bold eye makeup, ornate gold jewellery, stunning 24 carat gold cape and both chiffon and silk clothing in vibrant hues, allowing Taylor to communicate Cleopatra’s ostentatiousness and manipulative nature skilfully on screen. Shedding more light on this seminal character, Helen Beaumont reveals five facts about Elizabeth Taylor’s costume designs in Cleopatra.
There are some huge numbers associated with Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes in Cleopatra, according to Another Mag. The actress’ costume budget alone came in at a staggering £123,000, a sum which was even more significant in the 1960s. The film itself boasted a mammoth budget, so despite the fact that Cleopatra was the highest grossing production of 1963, it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
In order to reflect the lavish nature of Cleopatra’s life, Elizabeth Taylor was required to complete a colossal 65 costume changes throughout the production. This set a world record at the time, only beaten in 1996 by Madonna’s unbelievable 85 costume changes as the eponymous character in Evita.
In Cleopatra, we can see the importance of materials and colours, as well as cut and style, in costume design. The film’s costume designer, Renie Conley, opted to create stunning, risqué gowns, in sumptuous shades and fabrics like Chiffon. Conley took this approach to emphasise Taylor’s beauty and sexuality, prioritising these traits over historical accuracy, an approach which bagged her an Oscar.
The gold cape worn by Taylor in Cleopatra is the most famous piece of clothing throughout the whole film. Conley designed the cape to resemble the wings of a Phoenix, using thin strips of gold leather and thousands of seed beads, bugle beads and bead-anchored sequins for embellishment. The cape was eventually sold at auction in 2012 for US$59,375, illustrating just how effective Conley’s concept was.
The costumes of Cleopatra had a massive influence on global fashion during the 1960s. The snake rings, arm cuffs, geometric haircuts and maxi dresses worn by Taylor all became popular. Her character’s ‘Cleopatra eye make-up,’ was especially influential, inspiring Revlon to create an ad promoting ‘Cleopatra Sphinx Eyes,’ ensuring the style became a staple make-up trend in the 1960s.
About Helen Beaumont
Helen Beaumont’s career started at Camberwell College of Art, where she studied the History of Art and Design, specialising in costume during her final year. After completing study, Helen became a costume buyer for theatre and opera. She has since become a professional costume designer, with a keen interest in period clothing. Throughout her career, Helen has created authentic costumes for prestigious companies such as the Universal Studios, Disney, BBC, Tiger Aspect and the Young Vic Theatre.