The Fashions of Cleopatra in Cinema

It was this month that Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic Queen of Egypt whose story has captivated scholars and history geeks for centuries, ended her life in 30 BCE. Her legacy has played out on the big screen by countless stars. Cinema’s version of the queen often emphasizes her exotic and lavish costumes, as any proper Hollywood spectacle would. We took a look back at the fashion-savvy depiction of Cleopatra in cinema to see how filmmakers have portrayed one of the most powerful women in the world throughout the years.

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Loray White, The Notorious Cleopatra, 1970

There’s ongoing debate and speculation surrounding the ethnicity of the prominent Egyptian queen — specifically, arguments that Cleopatra was or wasn’t black. There’s no denying that the role of Cleopatra in cinema has been dominated almost entirely by white women. Exploitation filmmaker Harry Novak’s 1970 movie The Notorious Cleopatra demonstrates how non-white women are often grossly sexualized even when playing figures who held positions of power. As author Sarah Hatchuel points out, actress Loray White’s version of Cleopatra is somewhat progressive in that she boldly declares her sexual freedom without hesitation. But it’s difficult for some audiences to appreciate that when her exoticism is blatantly used for sleazy and comic effect in the film — the star outfitted in a cheap and barely-there costume.

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Alessandra Negrini, Cleópatra, 2007

Brazilian actress Alessandra Negrini is another rare example of a non-white actress to portray the queen. Her costume consists of basic, sheer gowns. While the naturalism is to be applauded, the character sometimes reads as a generic gladiator princess or nondescript “ancient” figure.

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Leonor Varela, Cleopatra, 1999

Chilean actress and model Leonor Varela’s sexiness and exoticism is played for effect in this television version of Cleopatra.

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Tina Turner, makeup by Kevyn Aucoin

Tina never played Cleo on the big screen, but this photo is so amazing that we had to include it.

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Vivien Leigh, Caesar and Cleopatra, 1945

Caesar and Cleopatra was adapted from a George Bernard Shaw play, starring Gone with the Wind actress Vivien Leigh. Shaw said of the actress: “She’s not right at all.”

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Theda Bara, Cleopatra, 1917

There are no known prints of Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, but photographs of her risquée costume have survived. The film holds the record for the greatest costume changes by one performer in a silent film (50).

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1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.Claudette Colbert, Cleopatra, 1934

Claudette Colbert’s costumes for Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra didn’t fit properly, so the film faced some delays due to refittings. Costume designer Vicky Williams even left the movie, because she found the disorganization extremely frustrating.

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Sophia Loren, Two Nights with Cleopatra, 1953

Sophia replaced Gina Lollobrigida in a last-minute casting move that finds the Italian actress slinking around in very little clothing.

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Piper Laurie, Caesar and Cleopatra, 1959

Piper Laurie (yes, really!) wears a chic, long black bob for her Cleo — a white kitten her only real prop.

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Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra, 1963

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra was a lavish production and became the most expensive film ever made up to that point. Star Elizabeth Taylor was the talk of the town after becoming romantically involved with Richard Burton, her co-star, creating a tabloid frenzy. Taylor had a record-holding 65 costume changes in the movie. The budget for her opulent gowns (one made from 24-carat gold cloth) and headpieces was almost $195,000 — the highest ever for a single actor.

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Helen Gardner, Cleopatra, 1912

Actress Helen Gardner designed her own costumes for the 1912 production of Cleopatra. She also served as the film’s editor. Her Cleo is known for being filmed in the great outdoors (of Tappan, New York) rather than a sound stage.

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Pascale Petit, A Queen for Caesar, 1962

A little on the Halloween shop side of the spectrum.

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Amanda Barrie, Carry on Cleo, 1964

Fun fact: the costumes and sets in this British comedy were originally intended for Liz’s Cleopatra before the production moved to Rome.

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Janet Suzman, Antony and Cleopatra, 1974

“I’m more fascinated by Cleopatra as a political animal trying to survive in a savage world than in a tragic love affair. Is she in thrall to Antony? I find that not to be so,” said Janet Suzman of her Cleo (the film co-stars Patrick Stewart). Her costume seems to reflect this attitude.