We often associate film stars with their onscreen personas, which are inextricably linked to the costumes they wear while portraying their most iconic characters. Audrey Hepburn will forever be linked to Hubert de Givenchy’s black evening gown in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, just as Judy Garland’s blue gingham pinafore in The Wizard of Oz became a part of her lasting image. Identification between star and character can lead to typecasting and an audience expectation that a star will appear as a certain type of character. For example, Joan Crawford was the rags-to-riches girl. Crawford’s characters were often working-class girls who, through luck and hard work, were able to climb to the social ladder to their happy ending. One of Hollywood’s earliest manipulations of star into character, was Theda Bara.
Theda Bara, often cited as Hollywood’s first sex symbol, was one of the silent-film era’s most famous stars, second only to Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Her career last from only 1914-1919, perhaps the reason why her name is not as well-remembered today as some of her contemporaries. After her first film A Fool There was (1914) her image as the vampire, in this case a woman who destroys men using her sexuality, was cemented. Fox Studios was so committed to this image that they fabricated a backstory for Theda, in which she was an Arabian princess raised in Egypt, trained in Paris, saved by director Frank Powell from the horrors of war in Europe, and brought to America. This outrageous story concocted to support her onscreen image linked Bara to her characters in the eyes of the audience.
Bara’s most famous film, Cleopatra (1917), created a Queen of Nile that mixed popular styles of the day, Egyptian motifs, and burlesque costumes to display a Cleopatra who would be both irresistible to the public, and maintain Bara’s public persona. Her costumes reflected her mysterious image. Her costumes were extremely revealing, and accentuated her voluptuous curves. Theda Bara biographer notes that “The Cleopatra costume created quite a stir because it cost $1,000 a yard and Theda seemed to be wearing only ten cents’ worth…the Plain Dealer declared that ‘Of all the Vampires of Screen There’s None So Bare as Theda’”. While Bara strove for historical accuracy in her portrayal of Cleopatra, the revealing costumes did more to enhance her existing image than transport the viewer back to ancient Egypt. Fox carefully controlled this sexy, mysterious persona, even going so far as to contractually insure that she did not appear in public without a veil. While studios would regularly control a star’s story and persona in the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System, Bara presents one of the earliest examples of this deception. Through her costumes and characters Bara projected the image of the Vamp and the femme-fatale, and helped to define their look in Hollywood.
Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Dressed: A Century of Hollywood Costume Design, (New York: Collins, 2007)
Landis, Deborah Nadoolman, Hollywood Costume, (London: Victoria and Albert, 2012)