Restoring Sharon Tate

Her closet may have been full of designer dresses, but Sharon Tate was a flower child all the way down to her toes. Most comfortable barefoot, she used to skirt the "shoes required" laws in snooty late '60s Beverly Hills by looping leather string around her toes and across the tops of her feet, and then tying the ends around her ankles. Voila: sandals. Even the Malibu Barbie doll, said to be inspired by the actress and her bikini-clad character, Malibu, from the 1967 beach comedy "Don't Make Waves," was barefoot in her box.

Details like these seem trivial when held up against the events of Aug. 9, 1969, when Tate, 26 years old and eight months pregnant with her husband Roman Polanski's child, was murdered by Charles Manson's followers in her Benedict Canyon home. Indeed, it's difficult to utter Tate's name without Manson's following close behind, and it will be even more so on this 40th anniversary weekend, as the face of the cult leader, now 74, looms large in the media.

Is it possible to remember her now as the free-spirited natural beauty who prided herself on wearing the shortest miniskirts in town, instead of as the victim of a horrific crime? Santa Monica artist Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell is attempting to tease apart the intertwined images with the exhibition "ICON: Life Style Love Sharon Tate," which celebrates, in his words, "a style icon, not a tragic headline." Taking over an 8,000-square-foot space in Culver City this weekend, the multimedia show expands upon a series of photographs Corbell shot last year of up-and-comer Lauren Hastings modeling pieces from Tate's wardrobe.

The clothes came courtesy of Tate's sister Debra, who shared them with the public for the first time on a 2008 episode of "Inside Edition." "No one ever really, in her opinion, cared to know about this other part of [Sharon's] life, her passion for clothing and her sense of style," explains the program's producer Esmeralda Servin, who had come to know Debra, now 56, through other stories (most related to Manson family parole hearings). Debra, she says, was immediately receptive to the idea of focusing on the clothes, with Servin and in the Corbell project that flowed from it.

For the cameras, Debra pulled plastic-wrapped pieces from a cedar hope chest, including the high-necked, puff-sleeved, micro-mini wedding dress that Sharon designed for her 1968 marriage to Polanski. News footage from the couple's reception at the Playboy Club in London -- attended by L.A. pals including Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, Mia Farrow and many others -- shows them looking like some kind of mod fairy-tale prince and princess; the diminutive auteur (only 5 foot 5 to her 5 foot 6) in a frock coat and cravat, feeding cake to his bride, fresh white flowers woven into her elaborate do. Her beauty -- which her husband claimed she was "embarrassed by" -- is timeless, yet she effortlessly embodied her time: glamorous starlet in heavy false eyelashes and fur one moment, haute hippie with beach-blond hair and languid gaze the next.

For the cameras, Debra pulled plastic-wrapped pieces from a cedar hope chest, including the high-necked, puff-sleeved, micro-mini wedding dress that Sharon designed for her 1968 marriage to Polanski. News footage from the couple's reception at the Playboy Club in London -- attended by L.A. pals including Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, Mia Farrow and many others -- shows them looking like some kind of mod fairy-tale prince and princess; the diminutive auteur (only 5 foot 5 to her 5 foot 6) in a frock coat and cravat, feeding cake to his bride, fresh white flowers woven into her elaborate do. Her beauty -- which her husband claimed she was "embarrassed by" -- is timeless, yet she effortlessly embodied her time: glamorous starlet in heavy false eyelashes and fur one moment, haute hippie with beach-blond hair and languid gaze the next.

It's that image that still resonates powerfully in the design world, where, at least in some quarters, she seems to survive in memory more as muse than martyr. "It wasn't only her looks, it was the way she carried herself," says Dear Creatures' Bianca Benitez, who invokes the "Valley of the Dolls" ingenue in her spring 2009 collection. There's even a pair of high-waisted denim "Sharon Shorts," although Tate herself was partial to dresses.

Each piece worn by Hastings captures a different side of Tate, and of the '60s: There's a short, black mink coat with the name "Sharon Tate" embroidered inside; an Ossie Clark tunic worn with an op-art Yves Saint Laurent scarf; a full-sleeved paisley minidress by British hippie chic designer Thea Porter (who famously put Talitha Getty in a caftan); the black lace, strapless Christian Dior gown Tate wore to the premiere of "Rosemary's Baby"; and the simple, flowered sundresses she wore around the house that fateful summer at 10050 Cielo Drive.

Resurrection Vintage owner and designer Katy Rodriguez, who lives nearby, has visited that address "many times." "She is a huge inspiration to me," says the designer, who has played with '60s silhouettes in several collections. "She is the ultimate L.A. woman. There is no other."

Rodriguez tells a story about visiting her friend Nils Stevenson in London. "He was the Sex Pistols' PR person in the '70s and his brother is the rock photographer Ray Stevenson. Nils had a black-and-white image that Ray shot of Sharon at a party in the '60s. She looked so glamorous in something shimmery with that big hair. We had more than a few drunken nights staring at the photo and saying the same thing: They just don't make girls like that anymore. Everyone loved her, even the punks."

Undeniably, the darkness of Tate's fate somehow throws her into brighter relief. But, Rodriguez asserts, "The Manson connection is only one part of her story. Her life and her promise was as compelling as her death. She traveled between light and dark. . . . It's what makes her so interesting. Other people died that night, but we gravitate toward Sharon."

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Tate's path certainly didn't follow the storybook fantasy of her wedding. By 1969 she was considering divorcing the womanizing Polanski, according to author Greg King, and lamented the direction her film career had taken. To her friends, Sharon disparaged her media image as "sexy little me."

"She did these movies that critics like Pauline Kael and others made fun of," notes Adam Parfrey, a book publisher whose catalog encompasses Hollywood history as well as the Manson Family. "She wasn't a star; she was a starlet. She never had a chance to demonstrate much acting prowess."

Star billing came only after her death, when "Valley of the Dolls" and the Polanski-directed horror spoof "The Fearless Vampire Killers" were rereleased within days of the murders, preserving her image in the bloom of youth and possibility.

Corbell spent more than a year pondering Tate's story as he reworked the photographs he'd shot with an old press Polaroid camera: enlarging them, painting on them, and embedding them in antique window frames. He believes our fascination goes deep, to a subconscious level. "Is she an icon just because of her death," he asks, "or is she an icon because she represented something -- some spirit of purity or love -- that was brought to light by the way she died?"

The 32-year-old, self-described "accidental artist" freely admits that when he was first approached by Servin about doing the shoot, he found the concept a little creepy. "I made that same equation, Sharon = Manson." But as he grew to understand Debra Tate's situation -- robbed of almost every positive memory of her sister -- Corbell "saw the potential to tell a story that was bigger. That's what I care about as an artist."

Asked why he chose the anniversary of Tate's death to celebrate her life, Corbell says that he'd actually considered having the show on her birthday, "but what I'm trying to do is change the equation on a day that acts as this launchpad to repeat the negative mantra of fear. I'm trying to turn fear into hope."

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ICON is open to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. today at High Profile Productions, 5896 Smiley Drive, Culver City.

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steffien@earthlink.net

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