Tennessee Williams’ plays are among the most successfully adapted for movies, covering a complexity of issues, from sexuality, Southern culture, raciality and the misfortunes of Hollywood (all very current in today’s world), and the performances in those films are among the best in cinema. “Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller were the vanguard of a postwar generation of young playwrights exploring the human condition in ways far deeper (and often darker) than ever before,” William J. Mann writes in his book, The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando. But I doubt they could successfully adapt one of his plays for the big screen today. Those films belong to the likes of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh. There are so many good actors today and I admire them tremendously, but that spark in the eye of the classic actor is forever lost. That undone elegance, that lack of vanity, that natural style, too.
In the commanding adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof for the big screen, Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes were designed by the talented Helen Rose, who was also a close friend of Elizabeth’s. Maggie’s wardrobe resumes to only three outfits, all in shades of white, but due to Helen’s smart choice of clean lines and her crafty, shrewd use of fabrics, they are more than enough to conjure up a timeless style and a harmonious standard of beauty, that, 55 years on, would still be able to fit the modern woman. Elegance is achieved by balancing proportions, colours and accessories, and helped by Elizabeth’s famous figure (made for form-fitting shapes), innate confidence and sexiness, it reveals femininity and seduction.
The orange belt and the stripes in the bag are two details skillfully used by Harlem Rose to infuse a casual, summery feel into this outfit.
Rolled up sleeves, even when it comes to short-sleeved shirts. It’s simply a style note.
The gorgeous waist-cinching white chiffon dress, with a Grecian bodice and short full skirt, became known as “The Cat”. Once again, a costume in a film set the trend in fashion in America and copies were made for women across the country. Elizabeth herself liked the dress so much that she wanted replicas for her own wardrobe. It’s again simplicity and the attention to details that make a dress stand out. That, and, as with the other outfits too, Elizabeth’s beauty, forms and body language: she’s so feline in her movements. Both the director and Helen Rose wanted the dress to be white and unobtrusive so as not to distract from the impact of the party scene. Maggie keeps the bangles and necklace from the previous outfit and only replaces the gold hoop earrings with a pair of pearl and diamond earrings with a shape resembling a little a grape cluster. They’re beautiful, and sparkle along with Maggie “The Cat”‘s passion and impatience.
By choosing pearly silver over white for the sandals, instead of the white of the gown, the look gains even more style points.
This piece may be aiming to cover Elizabeth Taylor’s film costumes, but I couldn’t leave Paul Newman out. He often played the nonconformist, in the form of failures or outcasts, as is the case here (a film that left out the homosexuality theme from Tennessee Williams’ play, to Newman’s disapproval), Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), The Hustler (1961), outlaws in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Sting (1973), he introduced us to a new type of detective in Harper (1966), marking the transition from the hard-boiled, trench-cladded, tilted-hatted private eye of Humphrey Bogart and paving the way for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt and Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and he took on diverse roles throughout his entire career.
He could have played the heartthrob in a tuxedo, but found a real pleasure in playing characters who were controversial and who lessened his looks. It didn’t matter to him, because he had the confidence of someone who was unassumingly wearing whatever made him feel good. And that quality came across whether he wore a sharp suit, double denim or an Ivy League inspired look, as shown here in corduroy trousers and button-down white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He made looking stylish a matter of attitude. He always looked like himself. This is a film to watch over and over again: for the superior talents of the actors, for the story, for the style, and for the fantastic chemistry between Paul and Elizabeth.
Photos: stills from the film, Classiq Journal. Credit: Metro Goldwyn Mayer
Editorial sources: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer, by Jay Jorgensen / The Contender: The Story of Marlon Brando, by William J. Mann
Update: This article was updated in November, 2021