Elizabeth Taylor: Tribute to a Supernova

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I recently overheard someone complaining about the overuse of the word ‘iconic,’ especially as it related to fashion and style. Elizabeth Taylor’s passing has caused me to reflect somewhat both on what it means to be an icon and the notion of stardom. I think, Elizabeth Taylor was a rare case where those two words, ‘star’ and ‘icon’ on their own each seem inadequate to describe her role in this world. A journalist once referred to Taylor as something beyond a ‘star’ – calling her instead, a “supernova among stars.”[1] I think that is the best possible description, and that is how I will remember her.

Taylor was well known for her personal life and humanitarian efforts, but she also left a significant mark on the history of fashion and popular culture. She developed a line of perfumes and many will remember her love of diamond jewelry, but much of her impact on fashion comes directly from her work in film. Her acting range was impressive and she excelled in both comedy and dramas – National Velvet, Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cleopatra, Butterfield 8 and many, many more. Though one could easily discuss any number of her familiar screen styles, this brief post will focus on her sex appeal and appearance in A Place in the Sun –  one of my personal favorites.

Sex Symbol

Elizabeth Taylor starred alongside some of the most attractive male stars – such as Rock Hudson, James Dean, Paul Newman and Montgomery Clift – but her sex appeal rivaled or surpassed theirs on the screen. Some of her most memorable, sexy and daring ‘looks’ were designed by the Edith Head.

Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958 (Image via Daily Mail)

Taylor was not ignorant of her influence, but at first it took her some getting used to. She said, “I’m just a normal girl with the average faults and virtues, but being a movie actress I wasn’t allowed to develop on normal lines. I’ve been able to wear a plunging neckline since I was fourteen years old, and ever since then people have expected me to act as old as I look.”[2]

Later, she reflected: “I am not a ‘sex queen’ or a ‘sex symbol.’ I really don’t think that’s why people come to my movies. I don’t think I want to be one. ‘Sex symbol’ kind of suggests bathrooms in hotels or something.”[3] Despite her desire to ‘not’ be a sex symbol, directors continually cast her in that role – often coupled with a ‘rich girl’ persona. A classic example of that is her role in A Place in the Sun.

 

A Place in the Sun and Fashion History

After George Stevens, who directed A Place in the Sun, cast Taylor in the role of Angela he said, “The part calls for not so much a real girl, as the girl on the candy-box cover, the beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy sometime or other thinks he can marry.” [4]

Image via CaddyInfo

This role in particular helped solidify Taylor in the American public as an ideal of femininity and beauty – despite her characters flaws. Even the other actors in the film were not immune. Shelly Winters went so far as to ask the director if Elizabeth Taylor really needed to be that beautiful in the movie, “I was kidding, but I wasn’t,” Winters said. “I mean, with that beautiful black curly hair, enormous violet eyes, tiny waist, and gorgeous bosom….Besides that, she kept driving an enormous white convertible Cadillac through the picture.”[5]

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun” (1951) Image via FanPop.

The gowns Taylor wore in A Place in the Sun have developed something of a life of their own in fashion history – as it was the first time that Edith Head had designed for Taylor, and Head would go on to win an Oscar for her work on the film.[6] Edith Head remembered “I’ll always remember Elizabeth saying, ‘You can make the waist a little smaller.” I’d tell her I’d already made it smaller, but she’s say, ‘You can make it even smaller.’ She had a nineteen-inch waist at the time, and she was always trying to get us to make the waists as small as possible.”[7] Edith Head later reflected on her design, “When Elizabeth moved, she looked like sunlight moving over water.” [8] Much of “Middle America” agreed – and similar gowns flew of the shelves.

Edith Head illustration for A Place in the Sun (Image Via Stitch Bitch)

This was just the beginning of Taylor’s impact on the fashion world. Others of her films would influence fashion, especially Cleopatra, and later her love of fine jewelry would spawn the perfumes White Diamonds, and Black Pearls. Currently, the Los Angeles County Museum has an exhibition of fashionable photographs featuring Elizabeth Taylor’s visit to Iran in 1976.  She leaves behind an incredible legacy that will inspire generations of designers to come. I’d love to know how you remember Elizabeth Taylor, and how she might have inspired you?

Additional Resources:

Kelley, Kitty, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, New York: Simon And Schuster, 1981.

Maddox, Brenda, Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?, New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1977.

Spoto, Donald. A Passion For Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor, New York, Harper Collins, 1996.

Taylor, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir. New York: Avon, 1965.


[1] Jackman, Philip. “BOOK REVIEW A PASSION FOR LIFE: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor Elizabeth Taylor shines as a supernova among stars,” Toronto Globe & Mail, May 23, 1995.

[2] Kelley, Kitty, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, New York: Simon And Schuster, 1981, 80.

[3] Taylor, Elizabeth. Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir. New York: Avon, 1965, 202

[4] Kelley, Kitty, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, New York: Simon And Schuster, 1981, 50.

[5] Kelley, Kitty, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, New York: Simon And Schuster, 1981, 52.

[6] Maddox, Brenda, Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?, New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1977, 73-4

[7] Kelley, Kitty, Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Star, New York: Simon And Schuster, 1981, 56-7

[8] Maddox, Brenda, Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?, New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1977, 73-4

 

 

*Image via Flicker

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4 Comments

  • Ali B. March 23, 2011 03.53 pm

    The rustle of that dress! I’ve only seen her most famous movies and I love her in A Place in the Sun. She certainly was larger-than-life.

     
  • Christian Esquevin March 23, 2011 07.16 pm

    Elizabeth Taylor (she never liked Liz) has always had our love and admiration because, however big a star and however beautiful she was she always conveyed that sense of vulnerability and connection to the ordinary person. Her unique beauty and the designs of Helen Rose and later Edith Head on film did more to popularize the “New Look” among young women and teenagers than any fashion designer. Her magnitude of influence comes only once every generation – only hers lasted for several.

     
  • Worn Through » Fashion Bytes
    March 29, 2011 - 5:02 am

  • FFF Posters February 17, 2012 11.47 am

    Elizabeth Taylor tribute with video commemorating what would have been her 80th birthday. She will be missed.

    http://blog.fffmovieposters.com/2012/02/elizabeth-taylor-tribute-she-lit-up.html

     

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