The 1950’s and 1960’s were a golden age of cinema, home to some of the Western World’s most iconic classic films. They were known for their sweeping scenery, glamorous starlets, and elaborate costuming. Unfortunately, while the costumes were undoubtedly beautiful, they were not exactly historically accurate.
This week on History vs Media: Cleopatra.
Released in 1963, Cleopatra was an iconic historical drama starring the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor. Boasting lavish sets and costuming, the movie is listed in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most costume changes in a film, and was only beat out by Madonna’s Evita in 1996. The film follows the life of Ptolemaic Pharaoh Cleopatra VII, the last Greek pharaoh to rule over Egypt before it fell to the Romans in 30 BCE.
History paints Cleopatra foremost as a stunning beauty, and a seducer of wealthy and powerful men; most particularly Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. In truth she wasn’t what one would consider traditionally attractive. Rather it was her wit, her charm, and her intelligence that made her so incredibly striking. She was fluent in nine languages and only rarely relied on an interpreter when speaking with foreign dignitaries. Though the Romans continually threatened her country, her alliances with Caesar and Marc Antony helped keep Egypt remain an independent nation for more than twenty years.
Unfortunately it is impossible to tell what she really looked like. Each contemporary image of her was designed differently depending on the audience it was intended for. In Egypt she played to the people, commissioning busts and engravings in the traditional Egyptian style. On coins she played up her features, either in reference to her Ptolemaic ancestors, or to her husband Marc Antony.
What we can discuss with reasonable accuracy was the clothing that she would have worn during her reign. Let’s start with the most iconic costume of the film: the gold gown with the feathered cloak from her introduction in Rome.
Stunning, isn’t it? The gown itself is a showpiece of glamour and opulence, fitted in the style of a 1960’s evening gown. This style gets used a lot over the course of the movie. We see simplified versions of it in black, pale blue, green, purple, coral, and white later on. The feathered cloak, which sold at auction for almost $60,000 in 2012, was made from gold-painted leather and thousands of tiny beads. With costumes like this, was it any wonder that the production ran thousands of dollars over budget?
The real Cleopatra’s gown would have been much simpler. Though the Ptolemies had ruled Egypt for decades, they were not native Egyptians by birth. They were originally Macedonian Greek, and the first Ptolemy was installed as governor of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 305 BCE. The Ptolemaic rulers insisted upon sticking to their roots, choosing to wear predominantly Greek-style clothing. This meant that they wore fine linen robes and himations, like their contemporaries back in Greece.
Their jewelry was a combination of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles that blended with their more simplistic clothing. So while the beautiful headdress shown in the movie screencap is something close to what an Egyptian queen might have worn in a previous dynasty, it was not something that Cleopatra would have been seen wearing, except maybe in statuary or in painted murals.
This is probably the most modest thing that we see Cleopatra wearing over the course of the movie. During this section of the movie, she is trying to endear herself to the Romans by dressing like them. The length and bold color of her palla would be a mark of her wealth, the way she uses it to cover her head a sign of modestly. The snug sleeves of her gown are anachronistic for certain, as all Roman tunica and stolla were very loose and open, but what really makes a statement is the color. That rich violet would be a reference to tyrian purple, a hellaciously expensive textile dye that only the very wealthiest could afford. Also take note of her makeup here; she is wearing very bold eye paint and eyeliner, something that would have been considered very vulgar in ancient Rome. At this time, only courtesans and women of questionable morals wore face paint of any kind.
Women in Rome would have worn something like this: a tunic and stolla, pinned at the shoulders and belted at the waist. The woman shown in the Pompeiian fresco above is also wearing a violet palla, or shawl, wrapped about her waist and draped over one arm. You could tell a great deal about the rank and wealth of a Roman citizen purely by their clothing. For a woman, the length, color, and fabric of her palla could tell you if she were a freewoman, a merchant’s daughter, or a senator’s wife.
With the exception of the woman in white, the women in this scene are dressed with surprising accuracy, considering the rest of the movie. The style of tunica and stolla shown here would have been pretty typical of the time period, fastened at the shoulder with brooches and belted at the waist. Even the braided embellishment seen on the three women in the front row would have been fairly common. They are, however, missing their palla, which would have been worn by all Roman women outside of the home. Most Roman garments were woven from wool or linen — the finest of which was imported from Egypt. Very wealthy Romans could also have clothing made of silk.
I had to include this one just because of the almost cartoonishly garish designs. Most people in Ancient Egypt wore undyed or natural linen clothing in white or shades of pale yellow, but wealthier people often chose to wear colorfully dyed clothing to show off. Red, yellow, and blue were the most common colors used in the dye process, though again shades of purple could be created. In this case, the choice of aqua and orchid for the chamberlain appear to have been chosen in order to make him look as effeminate as possible. As if being singled out as a eunuch wasn’t enough, they had to make him as “unmanly” as possible in the eyes of the 1960’s public.
As for Pharaoh Ptolemy on the right, the costume department took equal liberty with his design. He too should have been clad in a Greek kyten or himation. The over-robe that they have him dressed in is massive on his small frame, and only make it look like he is a child dressed in the clothing of a much larger man. This may have been a deliberate choice, not only for aesthetic purposes, but to create a direct contrast between him and the Romans, and later to Cleopatra herself. Caesar and his men are all soldiers, dressed simply and for efficiency. Next to them, Ptolemy looks like a posturing child.
Even out of armor, the Romans’ clothing is simple. Caesar’s stolla has the gold embroidery and the rich red dye color as a symbol of his rank.
This later scene is much closer to what someone like Ptolemy would have worn. His tunic here is fairly accurate, but his belt and collar certainly belong in another century. They, like Cleopatra’s crowns in many of her scenes, would be something that was only worn ceremonially, or portrayed in paintings or on statuary.