Monday, November 5, 2007

Cleopatra in Bias-Cut Lamé

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra. Photo from

One of the many cultural artifacts I am incorporating into my new play is Cecil B. DeMille's 1934 movie of Cleopatra starring Claudette Colbert. After all, the premise of my play is Hallie Flanagan and a bunch of Vassar girls performing Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra in 1934, so how could I not mention it?

The movie is a rather bizarre mix of tones. Sometimes it's very stilted, the dialogue clumsily "rhetorical," too much emphasis placed on DeMille's eye-popping spectacle. At other times, the characters are very modern and earthy--sometimes jarringly so. In one Roman party scene the dialogue could pass for 1930s cocktail banter and the ladies' "togas" could pass for stylish Art Deco evening gowns.

But this made me think of the intriguing website The Cleopatra Costume, which investigates what the real Cleopatra might have worn, and how she has been costumed in movie and stage versions of her story. The conclusion? Cleopatra's costume nearly always reflects the fashions of the day. Colbert's Deco-style gowns are just one example.

Hallie Flanagan definitely would have approved of this. In her 1934 production, Cleopatra wore a sleek turquoise velvet sheath dress, and the soldiers wore white uniforms based on the uniforms of Mussolini's troops in North Africa. Hallie scorned "historical or archaeological" designs, and wanted to make the play immediately accessible to her audience. She preferred to capture the essence of "Seductive Queen" or "Soldier" rather than getting trapped in irrelevant historical detail.

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