Revisiting “A Place in the Sun” and Its Costumes

Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures


It is the film that was hailed by Charlie Chaplin as “the greatest movie ever made about America”. George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun is certainly one of the bleakest tales of the American Dream. Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman, a restless young man who comes from an impoverished environment and dreams of making it big. We know this because he tells us so. Not in words, but through pure visual means. Dressed in a white t-shirt and black leather jacket – before it became the symbol of the new teenager and of rock ‘n’ roll rebellion and before Marlon Brando and James Dean made it an icon of cool, the t-shirt was just a standard piece of clothing, as it is in this case, but paired with the leather jacket here it already starts to question the place of the individual, of the teenager, in the American society – he is walking along a wide open road and stops for a moment to look towards a billboard that reads “It’s an Eastman” next to an image of a lovely smiling lady advertising products made in the factory of Charles Eastman, George’s industrialist uncle. It’s the promise of all the prosperity and social mobility achieved through hard work that is the American dream, a dream George aspires to when he starts working for his uncle.

But little does he know that he is doomed to remain an outsider looking in, in a society with far greater barriers than it advertises. He soon becomes reluctantly engaged to a young woman who works alongside him in his uncle’s factory, but after being invited to a smart soirée, George meets a beautiful, wealthy debutante, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). They fall in love with each other and George finds himself thrown into a life of privilege that his rich Eastman kin had denied him. But the ending is far from a fairy-tale end. It doesn’t even come close to a successful tale of the American dream.

Just as that shot of Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire encapsulated the clash of two different ages of Hollywood, the two opposing sides of American cinema, the intuition and revolution that Brando brought along and the theatricality of the old Hollywood that Vivien Leigh represented, this shot below from A Place in the Sun encapsulates the clash of classes in American society, all the yearning for the good life. He, in an ill-fitted suit, a slouched posture and a longing and eager look. She, radiant, smiling, unattainable, wearing a white dance dress and a white mink stole on top. He is a blue collar man. She comes from privilege. They are worlds apart. You root for him.

“A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures

Montgomery Clift was the first to play the vulnerable shy young rebel, the powerful fragile, the sensitive beautiful type, before James Dean and Marlon Brando. He was the first actor of his generation to bring such naturalness on the screen. He brought something exiting on screen. And he was making films with something to say. And Brando looked up to him, because, as William J. Mann remarks in his book, The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, “Monty’s career was evidence that quality work could be done in Hollywood“. Clift went to Hollywood before Brando. In 1948, he made two films, The Search and then Red River, and, with the latter, he became the first alienated rebel hero. Loneliness runs through many of Clift’s characters, but in no film is it so visible as in A Place in the Sun. The title of the film alone plays as a bleak comment on American capitalism. Despite his ambition, George Eastman remains a naive would-be social climber. He isn’t allowed to overcome the feeling of deprivation and exclusion he has felt his entire life.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures

February 27 marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Taylor. She was 19 when she made A Place in the Sun, the film that propelled her from family movies – she had been a child actor – to serious roles. She also became one of the most celebrated beauties in the world. The film was also the first out of the three movies Elizabeth and Montgomery Clift would make together. “I think that was the first time I started taking acting seriously, that was when I first began to act”, she said, referring to the impression Clift made on her on the set of A Place in the Sun, to the way he could transform himself completely to get into the George Eastman character. “All my teachers, because I never had an acting lesson in my life, were the people I acted with, the people I was directed by, the experience of my life one-on-one with the people on the set and that is how I learned whatever was my technique. It was purely instinctive.” The film also marked the beginning of a life-time friendship between the two.

Clift and Taylor appeared together in two other films, Raintree County (1957) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). In my interview with Christopher Willoughby, the son of one of the greatest Hollywood photographers, Bob Willoughby, he told me: “During production on Raintree County, Montgomery Clift was in a serious car accident coming home from a party at Elizabeth Taylor’s and the lower part of his face was badly damaged. It delayed the production for months, Monty never really got over it and became increasingly eccentric. My father was very impressed with how maternal and caring Elizabeth was towards him.” There is a line in A Place in the Sun when Elizabeth is trying to bring comfort to a troubled George, saying: “Tell mama… tell mama all.”

Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures

It was Edith Head who designed the costumes for Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Angela Vickers. The challenge of costuming George Steven’s A Place in The Sun (1951) was that it was not going to be released for more than a year from the time the costume designs had been completed. According to Jay Jorgensen, Edith Head went along with the newly launched New Look, confident that it would survive the fashion trends of the times. We get to see Angela in full skirts throughout the film and, as the story advances, her wardrobe keeps reminding us that she is a woman of privilege. But Angela Vickers not only comes from class, she is charming and bright and filled with a magnetism hard to resist. And her looks in the film set the trends that year. Edith credited Elizabeth with helping her understand the teenage point of view on fashion. With the advent of blue jeans for day and Dior’s New Look for evening, the rules had changed for young people. Even with the day-time outfits, Edith Head went for a fresh and youthful take on the New Look, depicting the carefree and fashion-conscious 1950s high society teenagers holidaying on Lake Tahoe.

As for Montgomery’s George Eastman, he wears a Hawaiian shirt with his leather jacket when he starts hanging out with the rich teenagers. It was a sign of rebellion against the buttoned-up postwar fashions. Monty would often sport one, off and on screen – in From Here to Eternity (1953) he will wear an Aloha shirt again when his character, Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt, stationed on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, is on leave.


Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures

Elizabeth was totally in sync with Edith Head’s designs and she kept trying to persuade Head into making the waistline of the dresses as tiny as possible to compliment her beautiful hourglass figure. Taylor’s costumes included “a terry cloth ’sunner’ with knit waist and bra bands accompanied by a matching fringed stole”, “a knitted boucle sweater, whose hood formed a collar when worn down”, accessorised with knit gloves, and “a sweater and stole of heavy white lace with double circular skirt of sheer white organdy”. There was also “a black velvet gown with a heavy lace that had been encrusted with pearl beads laced into ribbon bands cross the bust”. But it was the gown “employing six layers of white net over pale mint green taffeta, studded with single velvet violets and a bodice covered in white velvet violets” that would cause a sensation among prom-going young ladies the year the film was released. This dress is still considered one of the most iconic dresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. And the one wearing it was a star that had just been born.

Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in “A Place in the Sun”, 1951. Paramount Pictures


editorial sources: Edith Head, The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen / The Contender, The Story of Marlon Brando, by William J. Mann / The special features on the dvd edition released by Paramount Home Entertainment



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