Monday, 14 January 2013

Costume of the Week

There is nothing I love more than a frock in an old movie. The army of designers, seamstresses, makeup, hair and jewellery experts (not to mention the set, lighting and cinematography) that work together to create perfection on a person that lets face it, is pretty close to perfect already, has always intrigued me. The reason we can never acheive the heights of glamour acheived on celluloid is quite simply because we cannot afford the time or money that it takes, even if you are lucky enough to be born with the looks and grace of Grace, Marilyn, Audrey or Elizabeth.So this page will be dedicated each week to a different piece of cinematic perfection.

For my first week I'm going to start with a dress and a movie that until 6 months ago I'd never heard of before but am now an enormous fan. The VIPs (1963) has a true superstar pedigree. It is written by playright Terence Rattigan, inspired by the real life story of actress Vivien Leigh leaving her husband Laurence Olivier for lover  Peter Finch, but when fog stranded them for hours in the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport, she changed her mind.

The VIPs stars Elizabeth Taylor as Frances Andros and Richard Burton as her emotionally stunted husband Paul. She is leaving him for aging gigilo Louis Jordan (who provided his own wardrobe and is always immaculately dressed). When the VIPs filmed Taylor and Burton were the height of their tempestous passions and astronomical fame, immediately after Cleopatra. During production Burton was still dithering between his wife and Taylor, and it was in the middle of filming that he finally left his wife and proposed to Taylor.
While the film was costume designed by an uncredited Pierre Cardin, Elizabeth Taylors wardrobe was provided by Givenchy.  Taylor was a keen business woman who knew how to brand herself. For an actress she had unheard of control over the films she made, nowhere more so than her appearance and always ensured control over her hair, makeup and wardrobe, prefering to do her own makeup. True to her style, this dress shows off her greatest assets with a low cut neckline and tight fitting bust and waist. As a famous hourglass shape of fluctuating weight, Taylors skin tight clothing was as important as highly structured underwear to emphasise her waist and make her shape elegant and sexy, rather than frumpy.

Taylor is playing a character so similar to herself that one almost hesitates to call this costume design, although Frances is much more passive character than I imagine Taylor would have been. But playing a famous, wealthy socialite wearing the height of fashion is no stretch for Taylor. Like many old school Hollywood actors, the lines between on and off screen persona were blurred, and despite her infamous personal problems, she knew how to present herself as an immaculate product.

In this scene she has a major confrontation with her husband, injures her wrist on broken glass, and then is comforted by her lover. It is very important then that she wears the dress and is allowed to take centre stage, rather than the dress wearing her. In the rest of the film Taylor wears extremely showy jewellery, but in this scene the styling is underplayed as to be almost non-existant.

In many ways dress is a typical hostess gown, an essential item of clothing for any 1960s woman of class. It was designed to be worn at home only, although in this case it is worn in the privacy of a hotel suit. It is typically empire line to ensure more comfort as you wouldn't have had to wear your girdle with it. It was relaxed but elegant, making an occassion of quiet entertaining at home. 

But this deceptively simple dress is a masterpiece of construction. The flimsy fabric fits like a glove around her bodice and the collar provides a frame for her face and decollatage, esential for on screen close ups. On most other women this very 1960s shade of lolly pink would appear overly girly, but the simplicity of shape, texture and colour, combined with the subtle sheen of the fabric, give this dress a subtle strength. The dress does up with a simple self covered button at the front and the collar is a single rolled piece of bias cut fabric that sits with amazing smoothness. The complementary dark pink sash adds a flash of interest to an otherwise plain, but by no means simple dress.

Below is shot of Taylor in the same film, again wearing a stunning Givenchy dress. The jewellery is a copy of the emeralds Burton presented to her on their engagement, the real ones being to expensive to wear on a film set.

No mention of the VIPs can be complete without giving credit to the supporting cast, including Orson Welles, Margaret Rutherford and Louis Jordan. But the sexual repression between Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith in only her third onscreen role is electrifying. Burton famously said that Smith not only stole the scene they were in together, she "committed grand larceny."

Maybe I shouldn't have a mere tea gown as my first 'Frock', but when it's designed by Givenchy and worn by Taylor, I think that is enough to promote any 'Dress' to 'Frock' status.

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