In a TCM Fest curtain talk with UCLA costume historian Deborah Nadoolman-Landis (she's married to film director John Landis) prior to a screening of Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra (1934), designer Bob Mackie (pictured at right) described an early influence. It was Travis Banton's amazing costumes for Claudette Colbert in the at-turns-camp, at-turns-sumptuous Roman romp.
"I was 13 I lived in Inglewood, there were three movie theaters there. An old revival house was showing Cleopatra. Claudette was playing this woman [whose dress] had a strap this way, a strap that way. I saw things I never saw in my life.
"In the '50s, 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 shot in black and white, the costumes in Cleopatra were created in color. She said, "We have one dress that we're 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 film.
"I worked in black-and-white television starting in 1963 with the Judy Garland show."
Noodleman-Landis described Paramount's gifted chief designer who was reknowned for dressing Mae West, Carole Lombard, Miriam Hopkins, and Marlene Dietrich: "His genius was apparent. People haven't 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 Cleopatra. And I thought, 'I really knocked that movie off!'"
Photo courtesy Turner Classic Movies, by Bauer Griffin
Debra Levine is a Los Angeles-based arts journalist blogging about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.