For those of us who didn’t grow up during Elizabeth Taylor’s heyday, it can be easy to overlook what a stunning beauty she was. One viewing of the film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” will change all that, however.
In this steamy drama based on a Tennessee Williams’ play, Taylor is remarkable as the increasingly desperate Maggie the Cat.
Part of what made the performance so legendary is a white dress that was designed by MGM costumer Helen Rose to fit Taylor’s legendary curves to a T. Here is some background on the film and the sensation that the Maggie dress caused in the late 1950s, from “Classic Hollywood Style” by Caroline Young.
The Tennessee Williams Pulitzer Prize winning play that the film is based on is an erotically charged drama about a wealthy but dysfunctional family who gather for an afternoon birthday party for the patriarch, Big Daddy, who is dying from cancer.
His son, Brick, is alcoholic, impotent and in a leg cast, and grieving over the suicide of his close friend and homosexual lover, Skipper. Brick’s sultry wife, Maggie, is used to being wanted by men, but desperately claws for her husband’s affection.
The play was directed by Elia Kazan and premiered on Broadway in 1955.
MGM swiftly bought the rights for a screen version, but the story was changed to comply with production codes which objected to any suggestion of homosexuality.
This led to director George Cukor turning it down and Tennessee Williams calling for audiences to boycott it.
Nevertheless it was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director for Richard Brooks, Best Actor for Paul Newman as Brick and Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie.
As was typical for 1950s drama productions, the film was to be shot in black and white, but when Taylor, with her violet eyes, and Newman, with his bright blue eyes, were signed up, it was decided to shoot in color.
The Maggie the Cat Dress
- Helen Rose was the costume designer for MGM at the time of the film
- She had only three costume changes to work with for Taylor; a slip, a skirt and a blouse, and a short simple afternoon frock which was worn through most of the film
- Director Brooks and Rose agreed on the slip, blouse and skirt, but they had trouble coming to a decision on the dress
- Both wanted it to be white and ‘unobtrusive’ so it would not detract from the scene
- Brooks wanted a silk tailored shirtwaist dress, but Rose suggested a white chiffon dress with draped Grecian bodice and short, full skirts
- When Taylor came in for the costume fitting, she loved the Grecian dress and the wardrobe department worked through the night to get it ready for shooting the next day
- When Rose launched her own ready-to-wear clothing line, she replicated the dress, which became known as “the Cat dress” (Taylor’s character refers to herself as “Maggie the Cat” throughout the film)
- The $250 dresses flew off the shelves! They sold thousands of copies in different sizes and colors for ordinary women who wanted some of the Taylor effect
- As Rose said “Every woman who could afford $250 apparently wanted to look like “Maggie the Cat”
- Taylor loved the dress so much that she asked Rose to make replicas for her personal wardrobe
Check out the trailer for the film:
“Classic Hollywood Style” explores iconic looks from the golden era of Hollywood, covering 35 films from the 1920s to the end of the 1960s. Caroline Young looks at the history and social context of the costumes through stories from the production, photos, interviews and original costume design sketches, and tips on how to ‘get the look’ today.
While we celebrate the glacial elegance of Grace Kelly and the skin-tight sexiness of Marilyn Monroe, behind every look on screen was the costume designer who shaped the image. In the golden age of Hollywood, designers like Edith Head, Adrian and Travis Banton became stars in their own right. Women queued up to see the latest Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo release to lust after the glamorous costumes the stars would wear on screen. Department stores shamelessly mass-produced copies of gowns, film magazines would preview the new looks and women ran up their own versions on their sewing machines. In the 1960s women lowered their hems and sported berets to look just like Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Even today, an article on the little black dress will inevitably make mention of Audrey Hepburn.
Every one of these films has perfectly captured a moment of fashion zeitgeist or has become an indelible image of cinema, whether it is Garbo in a trenchcoat in A Woman of Affairs, Joan Crawford’s shoulder pads in Mildred Pierce, Rita Hayworth’s strapless dress in Gilda, James Dean’s red windbreaker in Rebel Without a Cause or Steve McQueen’s ivy league style in The Thomas Crown Affair. Through archived records, studio press releases, behind the scenes memos, costume designer sketches and notes, censorship records and articles from magazines of the time, this is a behind-the-scenes look at the classic costumes of the silver screen.