Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Switched at Birth? Princess Amidala and the Cobra Woman

At the Hollywood costume exhibition at the V&A I bought a book 'Hollywood Movie Star Paper Dolls' by Tom Tierney. Flicking through I was struck by an image of Maria Montez in the Cobra Woman, looking remarkably like Princess Amidala. Here is the same picture on the cover of another book in the series.

Ok, let me make this clear upfront: I'm NOT saying Princess Amidala's costume is a direct copy of the Cobra Woman's costume, there are enough differences. It could perhaps be 'inspired' by it though. There's a long and glorious tradition of artists appropriating ideas from others. The similar use of colour placement, the triangle shoulder pad detail, circular gold head-dress and the overlong trimmed drapey sleeves seem to be more than coincidental. I'm pretty sure Phantom Menace designer Trisha Biggar was aware of this costume when designing her own. But while the Cobra Woman is pacific islander-esque, Princess Amidala's costume has a much more formal, oriental, futuristic feel. Its a great of being inspired by a design and translating it into your own vision.

I reckon if Princess Amidala and the Cobra Woman were at the same party they'd make damn sure not to be photographed standing next to each other.

A little bit of research into this online made me aware I'm not the first one to think this. It's mentioned in The Padawan's Guide blog as well.

Princess Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, needs no introduction but this costume is the first we see her wearing in George Lucas' Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The costume was designed by Trisha Biggar.

The Cobra Woman (1944) is directed by Robert Siodmak, a famous film noir director, who was presumably more interested in making money than art when he made this kitsch masterpiece. Dominican Republic born, Maria Montez, is one of those very beautiful, very white women who old Hollywood call 'exotic' and get to play 'foreign' roles. (Although recent films like Prince of Persia, Sands of Time (2010) show that perhaps Hollywood hasn't changed as much as we'd like to think it has). I can't even begin to summarise the highly complicated and dramatic plotline, but Montez plays two roles, twins Tallea and Naja. Naja is the evil high priestess of Cobra Island in the pacific, where intruders are killed on sight and islanders are sacrificed to the volcano god. When Naja is kidnapped on the eve of her wedding and taken to the evil isle of her birth, her handsome fiance Ramu (Jon Hall) pursues her with a friend and a chimp (of course!). Wicked Naja not only wants to protect her position from rightful heir Tallea, but has wanton designs on Ramu, and will stop at nothing to get her way.
The costume design is credited '(gowns)' to Vera West, a prolific costume designer of the 30s and 40s who seems to have regularly just costumed 'gowns' as often as entire films. The uncredited costume jeweller was Eugene Joseph. I think I'm going to have to do some more research into this guy. Look him up on IMBD. He's uncredited as costume jeweller for countless films in the 20s-40s including Gone With The Wind, Rebecca and Casablanca.

Other Switched at Birth Costumes

I tried to think of other costumes that resembled each other but I think it's more often fashion or film making a conscious homage to a famous costume, whereas the Cobra Woman has been all but been resigned to the cult film scrapheap.

Nicole Kidman recently wore L'Wren Scott dress and Stephen Jones hat to the races in a very concious nod to Eliza Dolittle's stunning Cecil Beaton races costume in My Fair Lady (1964). I guess even world famous film actresses like to play fancy dress once in a while.

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