Cleopatra & Egyptian Fashion in Film

Fashion inevitably looks to history to interpret and re-interpret previous fashion trends. At the recent SAG Awards, I noticed 2 Egyptian-influenced dresses, worn by Toni Collette and Nicole Kidman:

Toni Collette, SAG Awards 2010

Nicole Kidman wearing Oscar de la Renta, SAG Awards 2010

As I’m never content to stay in the current era for long, let’s go back 100 years to trace a century of Egyptia-mania….

The Egyptian style has been adopted and interpreted by practically every generation. Cleopatra (69BC – 30BC) has always held special fascination for people. Documented by writers Plutarch and Casius Dio, the lady was “a woman of surpassing beauty, and at that time, when she was in the prime of her youth, she was most striking; she also possessed a most charming voice and knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to every one. Being brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the power to subjugate every one, even a love-sated man already past his prime, she thought that it would be in keeping with her role to meet Caesar, and she reposed in her beauty all her claims to the throne.” The mythology of her man-seducing ways never gets old; she notoriously bedded Julius Caesar and his successor Mark Antony resulting in a Roman-Egyptian political alliance of unsurpassed breadth, and took her own life in a marvelously morbid manner. Having become an almost mythological creature, she’s been depicted in art ever since. With the dawn of the 20th century’s art form — the moving image — a new crop of Cleopatras have been etched into our collective consciousness. With each Cleopatra film, a new variation of familiar Egyptian themes rears its head. In spite of the common subject, virtually none of these films used historically accurate costumes. As always, the ideal female form, makeup techniques, and hairstyles are more indicative of the decade of film production rather than the period depicted.


The 1917 version of Cleopatra with the marvelously eccentric Theda Bara (see my post on Vamps for more on Theda) demonstrates how aesthetics were ripe for incorporating Egyptian motifs. Though it’s the earliest film I’ll discuss, in many ways it’s the most scandelous, with Bara wearing sheer, gauzy skirts and teeny, ornate bras that barely conceal her naughty bits (this was only legal pre- and post-Hays Production Code, 1934 – 1968). Fashion was just starting to move away from the corseted figure and Theda embraced the freedom in her Nile goddess:

Theda Bara as Cleopatra, 1917

Theda Bara as Cleopatra in transparant dress, 1917

Theda Bara as Cleopatra as firebird, 1917

This last one reminds me of “The Last Sitting” of Marilyn Monroe, photographed by Bert Stern in 1962 (Marilyn is clearly far more playful than Theda):

Marilyn Monroe, "the Last Sitting" by Bert Stern, 1962

The khol-rimmed eyes already popular in the 1910s and 20s were easily adapted to more accurate heavy Egyptian makeup:

Clara Bow in 1920s

In this outfit, the mythology of the Egyptian firebird and immortal Phoenix are translated into a more general symbol of Far East exoticism, the peacock:

Theda Bara as Cleopatra as peacock, 1917

The 1922 discovery of King Tut’s intact tomb of lost treasures rocked the world. The angularity of the Egyptian depictions of their garments played right into the visual fractures of the Futurism and Art Deco movements.

Here is one of my favorite Futurist paintings:

Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912)

Here is an elevator door from the Chrysler Building (built 1929-1930), monument of Art Deco architecture:

Chrysler Building


By the time Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934) starring Claudette Colbert was made, the bold Art Deco lines of the ’20s were starting to give way to the softer drapes of the ’30s. Colbert’s Cleopatra is a bit more smug, a bit cuter, a bit less vampy than others, as seen in her rather benevolent expressions. The first ensemble is one of the only film costumes I found that actually incorporated pleating:

Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon

The simple geometry is complimented by the extravagant gold lame skirt here:

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra on throne, 1934

Again, with vaguely exotic peacock imagery:

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra as peacock, 1934

The red lips and drawn on, razor-thin eyebrows were typical of the ’30s:

Marlene Dietrich, 1930s

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra, 1934


Though the movie was a box office flop — at least compared to its exorbitant, record breaking budget — Elizabeth Taylor as the 1963 version of Cleopatra is perhaps the best remembered today. They used the still-young Technicolor technology to great effect in her eye-popping monochrome outfits. While black and white certainly contributes to the bygone times feeling of the other films, color symbolism was important to the Egyptians. Taylor’s wigs are probably the most blatant of the 3 Cleopatras — no effort is made to maintain consistent hair length, texture or style. This is actually accurate; wealthy Egyptians had shorn heads and wore wigs to avoid lice and to be cooler (sans wig) in private.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in gold, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in blue, 1963

Liz Taylor as Cleopatra in red, 1963

The liquid-liner experiments of the mod 1960s and the geometric Vidal Sassoon hairdos come through in Liz:

Liz Taylor as mod Cleopatra

Peggy Moffitt with Vidal Sassoon haircut, 1960s

Interestingly, the cinched waists of the of the ’50s are still evident:

Liz Taylor as Cleopatra in yellow, 1963

I haven’t seen a lot of current Egyptian-inspired fashions, but I’m kinda hoping the two at the SAG Awards are going to turn into a full-blown trend. We’re about due for another incarnation of Egyptia-mania, don’t you agree?

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  • Ericka Basile February 02, 2010 09.31 pm

    lovely image to image connections tove! also check out vena cava’s “egyptomania” inspired spring 2009 collection.

  • Katy February 03, 2010 01.34 am

    Yay Egyptomania! I recently costumed a show set in the 1920s and I wish I had had the time, budget, and resources to incorporate some Egyptian stuff.

    Also, the theme of this post is actually the research I’m presenting at the CSA Symposium in May, only I focused on the 18th century.


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