She exuded beauty, she enchanted men both young and old, she was a woman worth a thousand suns, she was Cleopatra.
The legend of Egypt’s last pharaoh has enthralled our imaginations, history books and silver screens for ages. An overlooked cinematic version of the events that lead to her demise and reign prior to that was the 1934 classic ‘Cleopatra’ directed by Cecil B. Demille, starring Claudette Colbert as the notorious Egyptian Queen.
The black and white visual piece is a treat, but one in particular for the fashion senses. So there’s no doubt that in addition to her regal splendor, Cleopatra would have had killer style and when Travis Baton got the brief for costume design, he truly honored this. The pieces worn by Colbert are pure works of old Hollywood art, reeling with the magnificence of the golden age of cinema and ripe with the exuberance of ancient Egypt. A wild and exciting costume spectacle that engages you throughout the film.
Banton was chief costume designer at Paramount Pictures for many years, and his forward yet brilliantly chic designs were groundbreaking. With Colbert in Cleopatra, he seamlessly created a look that was way ahead of its time but still rooted in the silhouettes of the era, a sort of structured grandeur. An art deco minimalism that entirely reshaped our understanding of the ever mysterious Cleopatra.
The head pieces are a millinery work of genius and were designed closely with the film’s art director, with Banton carefully crafting an aesthetic of a Hollywood that was slowly coming out of the great depression, an homage to the woman of the time. It’s said the film’s director briefed them to celebrate the idea of a phoenix rising.
While you don’t get to see the gowns in color on the screen, the iconic costumes frequently go on display today as part of various private and permanent traveling collections of the Costume Institute and the Smithsonian Museum. A few of Banton’s sketches, like the watercolor and pencil of the bias-cut gold lamé gown with gilt and emerald green scarab headdress and jewelry, are part of Christie’s catalog.
Claudette Colbert’s version of Cleopatra is definitely a refreshing inspiration fix. From Banton’s sketches to the richness of every scene in the film, move over Elizabeth Taylor.
Text by “Bedouin in Furs”