Claudette Colbert Costumes for Cleopatra (1934)

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It’s been a little while since I posted anything on film costume history. To that end, here are some tasty tidbits on Claudette Colbert and her costumes for the 1934 version of Cleopatra. Speaking to the often difficult task of costuming a mega-star Like Colbert, writer Leon Surmelian explained what happened in an article for a fan magazine in 1938:

“The toughest spot he [costume designer, Travis Banton] ever found himself in was when Cecil B. De Mille started shooting ‘Cleopatra,’ and Claudette Colbert refused to wear the gowns made for her. De Mille had his own staff at Paramount and Banton was in no way responsible for the dresses La Colbert didn’t like. He hadn’t designed them. When shooting starts on a picture of such magnitude, a delay of a few hours would cost the producer thousands of dollars. You can imagine the state of affairs when Cleopatra-Colbert did not choose to go on the set. Banton was called in to design an entirely new wardrobe for her, and the very next day he had the first dress ready. In fact, from day to day he produced the various items of one of the most extravagant wardrobes in the history of movies, while the cameras recorded scenes of ancient Egypt as conceived by De Mille.” (Surmelian, Leon. “Studio Designer Confesses.” Motion Picture. December 1938. 56(5): 67.)

(Claudette Colbert in a giant milk bath, Image via John’s Forbidden Blog)

It seems Ms. Colbert had specific ideas about how she should look in this film, and being something of a perfectionist her motives reveal some of her own insecurities. Author Annet Talpert explains this incident, and Colbert’s habit of being difficult (as well as a slightly different version of the story):

“During the making of Cleopatra, she insisted that Travis Banton bare as much of her bosom as possible. Though she had one of screenland’s best figures, she thought her waist was too thick, and she wanted Banton to place all the emphasis above her middle. By calling attention to her chest she also reasoned that it would divert attention from here unusually short neck. Banton gave in to her demands, but the day before shooting began she refused to wear the costumes she’d approved. Banton went back to the workroom. In 24 hours he had the first elaborate costume ready for filming.”  (Tapert, A., The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom, New York: Crown, 1998. 177)

(Costume Designer Travis Banton, Image via the Costume Designers Guild Hall of Fame)

“Banton wasn’t the only one who had problems with her. ‘She once slapped a fitter at Western Costume who kept insisting her costume fit properly,’ says Leonard Gershe. ‘Claudette knew it wasn’t exactly right and finally got exasperated with her. The woman had treated her as if she was stupid, which was a mistake . . .’ Edith Head, Banton’s successor at Paramount, suggested she find another costume designer who would be more willing to give in to her demands. Colbert brought in Irene who was then a fashion designer with her own salon and designed for Colbert off-screen.” (Tapert, A., The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom, New York: Crown, 1998. 177)

Despite these difficulties, the final product got quite a bit of coverage in the popular press, and Shadowplay suggests the designs had an effect on fashion trends:

“Already De Mille’s ‘Cleopatra’ opus is starting fashion trends. Around Hollywood, clips of burnished gold in Lotus flower motifs are worn on filmy lace evening gowns. An Egyptian collar effect is seen here and there. And most interesting of all, the winged bandeaus worn by Claudette Colbert promise to replace the tiara as an evening headdress.” (Whitney, Diane. “Designer’s Say Shorter Skirts!” Shadoplay. July 1934 3(5): 16.)

I’m happy to report that a costume from Cleopatra is currently was on view (along with many others) at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art until August 15. In case you missed it, BAM’s Blog has a lovely overview.

(Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille’s film Cleopatra. sources from, chuckpalahniuk.net, this image was also published in Life Magazine, Jan 01, 1934)

(Claudette Colbert Costume from Cleopatra by Travis Banton, Image via Newson6 and current exhibition at Oklahoma City Museum of Art)

(Image via BAM’s Blog and current exhibition at Oklahoma City Museum of Art)

If you’ve not seen the film,  I highly recommend it, it’s opulent and over-the top (watch a clip here at TCM). The costumes are especially beautiful to watch in motion.

*(Image via Vogue.com, John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

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8 Comments

  • Sarah Scaturro August 25, 2010 09.26 am

    Unfortunately, Jennifer Klos, the curator of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art exhibition on Hollywood costume history mentioned to me the other day that the exhibition has already closed.

     
  • Heather Vaughan August 25, 2010 09.31 am

    Thanks for catching that Sarah! I’ve updated the post accordingly.

     
  • Caryn Elizabeth Koch-Esterline August 26, 2010 01.30 am

    I really wish I could have made it exhibition. Great article, Heather. She is one of my favorites and this role is one of the reasons why I grew-up dressing as Cleopatra every Halloween!

     
  • Christian Esquevin August 26, 2010 06.55 pm

    Great review Heather. Cleopatra has always engendered the most dramatic of film costumes, this one and Irene Sharaff’s for Elizabeth Taylor being the best. We’ll see how Angelina Jolie comes out looking when she stars as the next Cleopatra.

     
  • Heather August 31, 2010 04.16 pm

    FYI: Cleopatra to reclaim the Egyptian Theater
    On September 22, following a screening of DeMille’s “Cleopatra,” (1934), at the Hollywood Blvd Egyptian Theatre, Leonard Maltin will interview author Scott Eyman about his new biography, “Emperor of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille.”
    http://artsmeme.com/2010/08/31/cleopatra-to-reclaim-the-egyptian-theater/

     
  • debra levine August 31, 2010 11.10 pm

    Heather, what a joy to find this post. You know that I have honored Travis on my blog, and I was clueless on his work in CLEO. What a strange coincidence that we both just wrote on this. You and I are destined to meet soon! Regards from Los Angeles, Debra L.

     
  • Jules Kliot March 18, 2012 12.29 am

    There was still of Claudette Colbert with an Asuit Cloth draped on her. This is an Egyptian cloth embroidered with this metal strips.
    Is there a way of locating this image and if so might we use it in our current Exhibit
    on the Asuit cloth?
    Jules Kliot, Director

     
  • Marilyn Richards September 13, 2012 11.40 am

    I am now 75 years old, have designed customes for several off Broadway shows. However, the most spectacular costumes I have ever seen were those worn by Claudette Colbert in “Cleopatra”. She was tiny, some outfits weighed a great deal. She will always be my favorite “Cleopatra”, the file the most outstanding, sticking to the historian Plutarch. Why can’t more of today’s viewers watch some of these older films and make the magnificent comparisons in film quality as well as costuming. What a glamor gal she was, along with Rita Hayworth, Liz Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Veronica Lake, Marlene Dietrich and the adorable Margaret O’Brien and Shirley Temple! What a fabulous group of talented women. WOW………How do you match it today? Marilyn Richards

     

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