Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Famously worn by Elizabeth Taylor, is this Edith Head design the most copied dress in cinema history?
Letty Lynton had nothing on Angela Vickers.
Joan Crawford caused a fashion craze as the titular Letty in the 1932 MGM drama directed by Clarence Brown, in which she played a socialite who must hide a secret while falling in love with Robert Montgomery during a South American cruise. In one scene, Crawford wears a dramatic gown by Adrian, crafted of white cotton organdy and featuring oversized ruffled sleeves. Women watching Letty Lynton fell in love with the design, and the newly minted “Cinema Fashion Shop” at Macy’s reportedly sold 50,000 copies of the dress.
Fast-forward 17 years, and Elizabeth Taylor was about to smash that statistic. The actress had signed on to play Angela Vickers in Paramount Pictures’ A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens and based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, itself inspired by the true story of a sensational 1906 murder case. Stevens eliminated much of the book’s early plot, instead focusing on the love triangle between a young man, his clandestine relationship with a fellow factory worker, and the beautiful socialite he falls in love with, which leads to the factory worker’s drowning, an act that may or may not have been an accident.
Stevens and screenwriters Michael Wilson and Harry Brown changed all the names from the novel: the young man, Clyde Griffiths, became George Eastman; the factory worker, Roberta Alden, becomes Alice Tripp; and the socialite, Sondra Finchley, is renamed Angela Vickers. The film also gained a new title, not only because Stevens didn’t care for the name An American Tragedy, but also because it was already the title of a 1931 film that had performed poorly at the box office, and Paramount Pictures didn’t want the association.
Paramount executives also expressed their doubts about Taylor, who in 1949 was just 17 years old and had only begun to transition into adult roles. But Stevens was adamant; she was his Angela Vickers. For her part, Taylor was thrilled with the role, even as she was nervous about playing opposite Montgomery Clift, who had been cast as George Eastman, and Shelley Winters as Alice Tripp. Both were considered serious, “New York” actors, and such thoughts dredged up Taylor’s insecurities about how own talent, even as she had resided atop the box office since the age of 12, when her role in 1944’s National Velvet turned her into MGM’s number-one child star. Just five years later, after widespread acclaim in films like Cynthia, A Date with Judy and Little Women, Taylor nonetheless was eager to leave girlish roles behind.
Working with a director like Stevens indeed gave the actress a chance to evolve both her acting career and her onscreen persona, so she threw herself wholeheartedly into preparations for A Place in the Sun, and that idea extended to the costumes. According to Edith Head’s Hollywood, in 1949 the famed costume designer was juggling a group of projects that today are considered wholly iconic, though her comment detailing this period also revealed a complaint about Hedy Lamarr, for whom Head was creating sultry looks for Samson and Delilah. “She never registered any enthusiasm at her fittings,” Head said. “Since I was fitting Olivia de Havilland for The Heiress, Bette Davis for All About Eve, Gloria Swanson for Sunset Blvd., and that sweet, young Elizabeth Taylor for A Place in the Sun during the same months, the contrast made it all the more difficult to enjoy working with Hedy Lamarr.”
In Head’s eyes, Taylor was only a delight, also because she brought her dog to her fittings, and the pair discovered their mutual love of animals. But, eager to learn, Taylor also paid attention to everything Head discussed, and surely the designer enjoyed that MGM’s most stunning star held her in such regard.
Knowing that Taylor would be playing a society debutante, Head started with a silhouette she knew would be perfect for the star. “She was a bewitching debutante who was to attend her coming-out party,” Head reasoned. “The dress had to be white and important. Dior’s New Look employed very slender waists and full skirts; I knew that when I was working on the costumes. I also knew that the only time something is out of fashion immediately is if the public doesn’t buy it.”
Though Christian Dior had debuted his New Look collection two years earlier, Head felt confident that women would continue to embrace his style, particularly the combination of a small waist and full skirt, for the foreseeable future. And it didn’t hurt that Taylor loved to show off her figure. “Elizabeth prided herself on her tiny waist and was always willing to wear her gowns very tight to achieve a waspish look,” Head said. “I can still hear her telling me, ‘Tighter, Miss Head, tighter.’”
With such thoughts in mind, Head created for Taylor’s entrance scene a gown that would dazzle audiences. “For the debut gown, I relied on flowers, little violets, to accent the bodice, and I sprinkled them on the skirt,” she explained. “The dress became especially dramatic because I made the skirt exceedingly full, with yards and yards of tulle over a pastel underskirt, and the flowers made the bust look fuller. The combination of the full bust and wide skirt accented the waist, making it appear even smaller than it was.”
“Elizabeth prided herself on her tiny waist and was always willing to wear her gowns very tight to achieve a waspish look. I can still hear her telling me, ‘Tighter, Miss Head, tighter.’ ”
By all accounts, Taylor loved the dress. As completion on A Place in the Sun was nearing, the publicity departments of both Paramount and MGM, Taylor’s home studio, kicked into high gear, eager to promote the beautiful starlet’s upcoming films. For Photoplay, celebrated gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell wrote a fawning cover story titled, “The Most Exciting Girl in Hollywood,” in which she predicted that Taylor would “live in the tradition of great beauties who lived lives more colorful and romantic and exciting than any role they ever essayed on screen or on stage.” (Time would prove Maxwell correct.) Paramount also staged a publicity contest that awarded Taylor as the prom date for the evening to the UCLA student named the school’s “Great Lover.” The winner of the contest: a blond sophomore named Bob Precht, who escorted the actress to a prom staged on the Paramount lot; Bob Hope served as the evening’s emcee. What did Taylor wear that night? Her violet-splashed debutante dress, designed by Head.
When filming wrapped in December 1949, Taylor went straight from her role as Angela Vickers into production on Father of the Bride, co-starring Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, while behind the scenes, decisions were being made about the release of A Place in the Sun. Paramount Pictures also had Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. on its 1950 release schedule, and studio execs were concerned that the two films would compete against each other, both at the box office and during awards season. With that in mind, A Place in the Sun’s release would be delayed until 1951. Stevens was only too happy for the extra time in the editing room.
Meanwhile, the Elizabeth Taylor publicity machine rolled on in earnest. With eager prodding from MGM, Taylor (after a quick succession of boyfriends and broken engagements) fell in love with hotel heir Conrad Nicholson “Nicky” Hilton, Jr. The couple was married at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills on May 6, 1950; Father of the Bride premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall just 12 days later, on May 18. Notably, New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther barely mentioned Taylor in his review, instead focusing most of his thoughts on Tracy. His only reference to the bride in the film was to call Taylor “the happy little lady.”
Fifteen months after Father of the Bride’s release, and after a successful showing at the Cannes Film Festival, A Place in the Sun premiered in Los Angeles on August 14, 1951. A fw weeks later, this time it was A.H. Weiler who reviewed the film for The New York Times: “Elizabeth Taylor’s delineation of the rich and beauteous Angela also is the top effort of her career,” he wrote. “It is a shaded, tender performance and one in which her passionate and genuine romance avoids the bathos common to young love as it sometimes comes to the screen.”
Women of every age, meanwhile, were falling in love with Taylor’s costumes, her debutante dress in particular. “That dress was such a success; it was beautiful on camera,” Head said. “And Elizabeth was radiant. Some clothing manufacturers copied it – ‘knocked it off’ as they say in their trade – and the dress was mass-produced to hang in every department store in the country.”
In this instance, Edith wasn’t exaggerating: The strapless necklace, nipped-in waist, tulle skirt and silk-flower accents of her design combined to become the most popular formal dress of 1951, and well into 1952. As David Chierichetti notes in Hollywood Costume Design, one fashion writer commented of the copied dress, “Go to any party this summer, and you’ll see at least 10 of them.” Never one to shy from the idea of embellishing a story, Head would note in interviews that anywhere from seven to 37 girls had been spotted at the same party wearing Taylor’s now-famous dress.
Head, of course, would realize no financial gain from the myriad knock-offs of her design, but she did reap at least one reward: A Place in the Sun captured the Academy Award for Best Costume Design at the 1952 Oscars. Paramount’s strategy of delaying the release indeed had paid off, as the film scored a total of nine nominations and six wins, with Stevens also taking home a trophy as Best Director.
And if Edith Head’s goal had been to create a gown that felt both stylish and timeless, she succeeded in that idea as well. The tulle-skirted silhouette she conceptualized continues to reign as the ultimate in princess dresses, while her original design continues to spark interest almost 70 years later. With duplicates of costumes often created to account for wear and tear on a set, two versions of Head’s dress have come up for auction in recent years: at Bonhams in 2005, and another at Julien’s Auctions in 2012, where it sold for $28,125. One of those two dresses reportedly will be on view to the public in April 2021, as the Academy Museum in Los Angeles has announced that “Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic dress designed by Edith Head” would be among the key pieces in its costume-design collection.
Surely Edith would like that.