It was a simple white slip – an everyday undergarment for women in the 1960s. But in “Butterfield 8,” one of Elizabeth Taylor’s most memorable films, the violet-eyed actress – playing the tragic, fiery Gloria Wandrous -- made the staple seem like the sexiest getup in the world.
Making mundane clothes seem magnificent was one of Taylor’s most potent onscreen powers. Her heyday on the big screen – which spanned from the mid-1940s to the late 1960s -- is rife with such moments. The white Edith Head-designed debutante dress that showed off her impossibly tiny waist in “A Place in the Sun”; the rustic Western wear designed by Marjorie Best for “Giant”; and the Grecian-goddess-esque white dress designed by Helen Rose for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” are among Hollywood’s least-complicated and most iconic looks.
“You really could put something plain on her, and she filled it out in every way,” said Deborah Nadoolman Landis, author of “Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design” and founding director of the David C. Copley Center for Costume Design at UCLA. “Because she had these extraordinary features, because she’s one of the world’s great beauties and had this fantastically small waist and raven hair and iris eyes, you didn’t have to put much on her. It was actually hard for costume designers. It took a lot for them to not gild the lily.”
But off-screen, the Elizabeth Taylor “look” would be defined by glitz and excess. Her famous love of jewelry – kumquat-sized diamonds and emeralds in particular – paired with a penchant for flowing, dramatic dresses (notably from Halston, Valentino and Versace) and elaborate up-dos practically set the template for modern movie star glamour.
“Enough is never enough,” is how the actress and fervent humanitarian described her style in November 2009 to More magazine (only a month after undergoing heart surgery to repair a leaky valve). “My love affair with jewelry began when I was a girl…. The first beautiful piece of jewelry I ever purchased was for my mother. It was costume, but so finely made and so gorgeous that we still have it in the family treasures.”
A born magpie, Taylor’s fascination with all things sparkly was stoked by Richard Burton, whom she married twice, in 1965 and 1975 (she was married eight times in total).
Burton lavished Taylor with jewels, and among his glittering gifts were the 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond, which she had set into a ring, and the 69.42-carat pear-shaped Taylor-Burton Diamond, which was set into a dazzling necklace (Burton paid Cartier well over $1 million for the rock after underbidding on it at auction).
Taylor, whose passion for bling would ultimately manifest itself into a self-penned book on the subject, “My Love Affair with Jewelry” and a jewelry company, House of Taylor, even named her most famous perfume, White Diamonds, for her obsession.
“Her mother loved jewelry too,” noted William Mann, author of the latest of many biographies on Taylor, “How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood.” “And she passed that love on to her daughter. She was always living so larger than life – she would throw on a mink stole, an emerald necklace and a slip and she looked like a movie star. She loved it.”
J. Randy Taborrelli, author of the Taylor biography “Elizabeth,” said, “She was famous for one thing: She was famous for being fabulous. She wasn’t the greatest actress in the world -- she was certainly a good actress -- but she was really famous for being fabulous.”
But despite Taylor’s outsized look and lifestyle, her image, “was always one of a good old gal having a good old time,” said Mann. “You knew she was eating fried chicken even though she was wearing her diamonds. There was never that grande dame thing. She was always one of the people in a strange way.”
When asked if she considered herself a style icon, Taylor was quick to set the record straight. “Fashion icons are the geniuses I was fortunate enough to work with,” she said, citing Valentino, Halston, Gianni Versace, Rose, Irene Sharaff and Head as the real geniuses. “I never worried about good or bad taste,” she said. “I dressed to please myself, the man in my life, or the character onscreen.”
Sharaff’s Egyptian-cum-'60s mod costumes for Cleopatra were among Taylor’s favorite onscreen looks. “Cleopatra changed so many wonderful things about my life and fashion was only one of them,” she said. “Certainly the enormous gold headdress was one of the most spectacular pieces of drag ever captured on film. After Cleopatra, eye makeup and hats were never far away.”
Nadoolman said, “When she comes into Rome on the sphynx with gold headdress, you can literally feel the air being sucked out of the theater.”
Taylor was also fond of her Irene Sharaff-designed costumes she wore as the hard-edged Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “They were so essential to the character – such sloppiness,” she explained. (“Ms. Sharaff padded her for that role,” noted Landis. “She could not make her ugly enough. It was very difficult. You couldn’t play Liz’s beauty down.”
“She had such an organically strong look that she always came through the costumes,” said Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero. “It’s like with Marilyn Monroe -- they both naturally had such a strong look. The makeup and hair and body shape made costume designers work in a certain direction.”
It’s true that Taylor’s face, a heart-shaped feat of genetic engineering, was forever stealing scenes. But a big part of her beauty was her reluctance to deem it significant.
“I never believed I was a great beauty,” she said. “Lena Horne is. Ava Gardner was. My daughters Liza and Maria are. I’ll be 78 in February and all I see when I look in the mirror is a face that needs to be washed. My personal philosophy of beauty is to always believe something wonderful is about to happen.”