In a curtain talk with costume historian Deborah Nadoolman-Landis prior to a TCM Fest opening-night screening of Cleopatra, Bob Mackie described an early influence. It was the amazing costumes Travis Banton made for Claudette Colbert in Cecil B. DeMille’s at-turns-camp, at-turns-sumptuous movie.
“I was thirteen, I lived in Inglewood, there were three movie theaters there. I looked at an old revival house, it was playing Cleopatra. Claudette was playing this woman, [the dress] had a strap this way, a strap that way. I saw things I never saw in my life.
“In the fifties, you thought all women’s breasts go outward to a point. Here you see jiggle.
“Nothing hangs over the edge. the body is smooth and lovely.
“But Cleopatra’s handmaidens look period. They were from the Burlesque downtown.”
Nadoolman-Landis noted that although the film is black and white, the costumes in Cleopatra were created in color: “We have one dress that we are putting in an upcoming display of Hollywood costume in London. It’s from the scene where Colbert is having her make-up done. It’s a heavy satin dress; it looks white, but it’s mint green.”
Mackie said that color was necessary for the actresses psychologically, even though it did not read in the final black-and-white film. “I worked in black-and-white television starting in 1963 with the Judy Garland show.”
Noodleman-Landis noted of Parmount’s gifted chief designer who dressed Mae West, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, and Marlene Dietrich: “His genius was apparent. People haven heard about him . If anyone wants to do a biography of him, now’s the time.”
Said Mackie, “When I first started designing for Cher, she didn’t want to look like anyone else. She wasn’t Sandra Dee. She was lean and long. She was a vamp.
“Recently, I went back and looked at Travis Banton’s fabulous Roman gowns for Colbert in Cleopatra. It was embarrassing it was so much like [my work.] And I thought, ‘I really knocked that movie off!’”
Travis Banton is a popular subject at arts·meme. Read more:
- Travis Banton turned tootsies into stars
- All hail Paramount costumer Travis Banton
- Travis Banton undresses Miriam Hopkins
- C.B.’s captivating “Cleopatra”
- Gaultier knocks off Bob Mackie’s thong for Cher