The white one-piece swimsuit Elizabeth Taylor wore in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and based on the play of the same title by Tennessee Williams, is one of the most iconic swimsuits in the history of film. A nod to a glamorous past, a piece that will never go out of style. Even if the film is in black and white, the contrast between her tanned skin and the white tank suit is striking. While vacationing in Europe, Elizabeth’s character, Catherine Holly, is asked by her cousin, Sebastian Venable, to wear an alluring white maillot in order to attract his would-be lovers. Needless to say that she succeeds and, furthermore, this image of Elizabeth has stood the test of time to this day.
Before August is over, I wanted to turn to another movie that is great to gather summer style inspiration from, even if to a less extent than La Piscine and Bonjour Tristesse. As Catherine Holly, a young woman institutionalized for a severe emotional disturbance that occurred when her cousin died under questionable circumstances while they were on summer holiday in Europe, Elizabeth Taylor steals the show from both Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift and she is as glamorous and beautiful as only an old-Hollywood star could be.
Elizabeth’s costumes were designed by Oliver Messel. He is one of the most celebrated English designers, whose work as production designer overlapped the world of costume, set design and architecture. Messel was also the art director for this movie, having created those dramatic sets. Elizabeth’s style in the film is simple and enduring and I think Helen Rose’s words perfectly apply to her look here, as well as in many other films: ‘If you have a magnificent jewel, you put it in a simple setting – you don’t distract from it with a lot of detail.’
Above she is wearing a sheath dress, it might have been black. I love the slit neckline and the short sleeves: those details and the brooch are the only embellishments the dress needs. Below, in simple white blouse and pleated skirt cinched with a belt, accessorised with pumps and tote. Both looks are as classic as you can get.
But it’s the summer outfits that stand out. Besides the white swim suit, there is also this striped number that, although not having a statement status, is a classic. The clothes Catherine wore at the seaside pretty much sum up what summer beauty should be. Is there anything more you need that great bathing suits and a gorgeous sun dress?
And here is this dress with fitted bodice, A-line skirt and matching belt that came in a beautiful shade of green which can be seen in this publicity still. Green was a favourite colour of Oliver Messel’s and one of the legacies he left was “Messel green”, his trademark shade that he often used in his interior designs. This is one of those shots that I wish they were in colour, because of the beautiful contrast between the green of the dress and her tan. She wore the dress with simple bangles and hoop earrings and white flat sandals with thin straps. It’s one of the most iconic looks of the fifties and it has become an intrinsic part of screen history.
photos: screen stills captured by me, from the DVD edition included in this collection | production credit