After being signed by MGM at the age of 12, Elizabeth Taylor transformed from a plucky and precocious child star during the 1940s to a bonafide sex symbol by the early 1960s, racking up Academy Award statuettes and Golden Globe awards in the process for her roles in Butterfield 8, Suddenly Last Summer, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. As her paycheck and Hollywood might increased, Taylor cemented her status as an enviable style icon, famously working with Coco Chanel herself, who was doing Taylor’s fittings in her own apartment. Taylor’s penchant for lavish evening-wear, bold use of color, and unapologetic love of jewelry (her most famous gem, called the Taylor-Burton Diamond, was a 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond worth million and gifted to her from then-husband Richard Burton) left an indelible mark on the fashion world long after her passing in 2011. On what would have been the starlet’s 87th birthday, CR spoke with Tim Mendelson, a trustee of her current estate and her former assistant of over two decades, about the legendary actress’ fearless approach to personal style.
What kind of style did Taylor often gravitate toward?
“Jewelry was a huge thing. She wore jewelry in her hair and on her waist, but particularly in her hair in these elaborate styles. She worked with hairstylist Alexandre de Paris and he created these amazing things for her. I met him once, but I wasn’t around in the ’60s and ’70s when she was doing all of those really magical and bold things. She wasn’t like [Coco] Chanel, who would, say, put everything on and take one piece off. Taylor was all about more is more. She just relished the whole experience. In terms of style, color absolutely, and she didn’t wear a lot of black. She certainly didn’t wear grays and beiges, but she liked clear colors. Anything that made her feel good, because she wasn’t afraid at all to express her spirit and her style was an expression of that.”
What was her approach to fashion?
“[Taylor] worked with Helen Rose, who was the costume designer at MGM, designer Edith Head, and Eileen Sheriff from Cleopatra. They also made clothes for her outside of films, and Rose was like a second mother to her. She learned the foundation of dressing and fashion and what worked on her. By the time she was a grown woman, she had an incredible amount of experience with the basics and her own sense of how she wanted to dress. Once she got away from the studio system and starred in Cleopatra, she was independent. She was with Burton by then, and he was buying her extraordinary jewelry. Taylor learned to do what she wanted, she didn’t use stylists, and she worked with designers, but she told them what she wanted. It wasn’t the other way around. She wasn’t one of those women who said, ‘Please, tell me what to wear or what should I do.’ She was not influenced by what trend was going on. She influenced it.”
What inspired her love of jewelry?
“She was not a minimalist, we know that. With the jewelry, if she was going to have something designed, she would say, ‘I want to wear my emeralds with this, and I’d like to wear a green dress.’ Or she’d wear rubies with a red dress. It wasn’t about her shying away from things, but about whatever worked for her. She certainly wasn’t interested in the tastemakers or the fashion critics; those people didn’t matter to her. She stayed away from being inauthentic.”
Did she ever regret a fashion choice?
“She really didn’t. Because of her approach to it in the first place, as long as she was true to herself, how could she really regret? Even looking back on things, she could make fun of herself a little bit. There’s a photo in her jewelry book where she has these little braids, a lot of stuff going on with her hair, and she did say, ‘Oh god, Elizabeth, that’s too much.’ She wore this pink dress with a beaded vest and we have it still. She used a pink piece of fabric, tied it into a turban, and it went down her back. She didn’t say she regretted it, but she pointed it out to me and said ‘I just took a piece of fabric and put it on my head and went out.’ Regretting wasn’t her style.”
Who were her favorite designers?
“She had this amazing Chanel ball gown, that was made for her, that she wore in the late ’60s when she was with [Burton]. She discovered Christian Dior early. She went to Paris, she had a huge Dior shopping trip, and we could see it in her Christie’s sale when everything was looked at and analyzed. [Dior] was definitely a big thing for her. She discovered [Garavani] Valentino in Rome when she was shooting Cleopatra, and basically, he had a little shop and she went there and put him on the map. She launched his career by wearing his clothes. Halston was a big thing in the ’70s and she had a friendship with him. In the ‘80s, she wore a lot of Nolan Miller and Versace, who she was friends with. [Gianni Versace] made that Faces of Liz beaded jacket for her, which was really cool. She took trips with him and stayed in his house in Lake Como.”
What do people not understand about Taylor?
“I think there’s a misconception that she was the ultimate diva, had this charmed life, got everything she wanted, and was spoiled. She had to fight from a young age for everything she had, from the studio system and to standing up to Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, when she was 15. She always talked about how unfair the studio was to women, because they would put them on suspension when they got pregnant, which obviously wasn’t something that happened to men. She got a weekly salary, which isn’t how it is today, and she felt like she was an indentured servant. And then fighting for gay men as they were dying of AIDS in the ’80s. She had the biggest spotlight on her, and she stepped into that fight. We carried that on with The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and she co-founded amfAR. The way she was with her friends and her family, she would never stop protecting and fighting for those she loved.”
Do you think her beauty has something to do with that misconception?
“It’s true. Because she was so beautiful, people didn’t take her seriously as an actress. She was able to do specific things in regard to her relationship with the camera and her sense of stillness. She was nominated for an Oscar five times and she won twice for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [and Butterfield 8]. I think that her beauty got in the way of her as an actress, but she had fun whenever she could. She always looked to the future and she didn’t live in the past. If she had lived in the past, she would have had a really hard time but she always found things to look forward to.”
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