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Liberace extravaganza!

For two costume designers, our visit to the Liberace museum in Las Vegas in 2009, before it closed its doors in 2010, led to a journey we could not have imagined. As we entered the magnificent costume gallery with Liberace's music playing in the background, we were mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colors reflecting off the glittering costumes. It reminded us of the magic of opening a beautiful, ornate music box. When we'd seen all of the fantastical costumes, we rushed to find the gift shop to take home a keepsake, so we could relive this glorious experience again and again. Much to our surprise, there was no book to be found. We stood there for a moment, stunned. Then we looked at each other. We knew we had found our next project.

Shortly after the visit, we approached the Liberace Foundation with a proposal. We asked for and were given permission to photograph all the costumes housed at the museum. With a research grant from USITT, we embarked on what at times would be an overwhelming project but also a consistently and extraordinarily inspirational one.

Neither of us knew much about Liberace at the outset. Who was this man who had entertained and delighted audiences for more than four decades? How had he remained relevant to the public for forty-six years? Who helped in creating Mr. Showmanship?

In our process of discovering the answers to these questions, we sorted through photographs of Liberace, fan letters, and cards that he had exchanged with other entertainment icons. We also went through his lavish collection of costumes and jewelry. We photographed everything, from every angle, and we painstakingly scribbled notes about what we saw, describing the little details about his costumes: the many kinds of beads that were used and their colors, the threads, and the way each costume was created, all those things that only we costume geeks would notice. We also talked to those who had been closest to him: his longtime stage manager and producer, Ray Arnett; furrier Anna Nateece; designer Jim Lapidus; and designer Michael Travis, who also contributed the foreword to our forthcoming book.

Ultimately, we discovered a man whose life story is a tale of rags to riches, a man who had against all odds realized his wildest dreams. His flamboyant stage persona changed the world of show business, and his designers provided the razzle-dazzle.

MICHAEL TRAVIS

In 1973, Arnett, Liberace's road manager at the time and a good friend of Travis's from New York, called Michael Travis. "Lee needs a new designer," he said (Karras 2003). Frank Ortiz, Liberace's designer in the early 1960s, had retired from the business, and Anna Nateece was primarily a furrier. Liberace needed a designer capable of conceptualizing the fantasies he wished to wear onstage.

Travis was up to the challenge. In preparation for the meeting with Liberace, Travis created a variety of sketches to show him. As Travis recalled, Liberace said, "I'll take this one, this one, and this one .... Now you're not going to charge me too much for these, are you?" It was a comment made in jest, for as Travis attested, "Liberace was incredibly generous, and money was no object in order to obtain the [desired] results."

Travis was a master at creating an attractive silhouette for Liberace: making his chest appear broader, his waist slimmer. His first design for Liberace was a chauffeur's costume that coordinated with one of his cars. The costume was all blue, fashioned with splendid beading and dazzling rhinestones and trimmed with blue mink. In 1975, inspired by nineteenth-century designs, Travis created a Chopin-style jeweled suit. The ensemble was in honor of the United States Bicentennial celebration and was a jeweled red-and-blue suit topped with an all-white ostrich cape.

Travis designed the outfits and all the beading patterns himself. After Liberace approved a design, Travis would oversee all aspects of the costume's creation: tailoring, beading, trapunto, stoning, and sequin application. Costumes would take months to manufacture and require the skills of a tailor, four to six experienced seamstresses, and four to six people to do the beading, stoning, and sequining.

The base fabric was typically a polyester gabardine; such a durable fabric was required to support the weight of the embellishments. The tailoring was done in Los Angeles by well-known shops, such as Primo Costume Tailors. Then the outfit would be taken to Getson D. Eastern Embroidery Company to execute the design. Costumes had both machine and hand embroidery. Heavily embroidered coats could easily weigh forty-five pounds, but Liberace never complained about this. Travis recalled that once during a fitting, he had trepidations about the weight of a coat. He asked if Liberace could lift his arms. Liberace looked at him, took a drag off his cigarette, and responded, "Don't worry about it." Liberace wasn't one to worry about such things.

After a costume was tailored and jeweled, it was often marked with thread for the fur placement. Nateece would suggest fur types, and she and Travis would collaborate to pick the best ones. Then she would execute the fur application, deciding how the fur should be patterned and applied. Great skill was required so that it would lie properly. The skill of the two designers ensured that few costumes would require more than two fittings.

As Travis told the Buffalo News, "It takes about two months planning time to allow for cutting and fitting and the tremendous detailing required in finishing touches for such elaborate costumes. It means I have to wear roller skates just to get around to fabric people, cutters, furriers, beaders and embroiderers, to have the work come out on time. I do the original sketches from my home studio, and the rest is then processed through various workshops.... As for Liberace, he's a pussycat. He's sweet, wonderful, very kind, and thoughtful. His popularity is incredible. He never ceases to amaze me" (Ott 1979). For more than twelve years Travis's designs took Liberace's costumes to new levels of grandeur and unparalleled extravagance.

COSTUMES

HAPSBURG EAGLE SUIT AND CAPE

The jacket is lavishly appliqued using gold lame with metallic-brown stippling outlines. Bands of gold bugle beads outlined with a row of small copper bugle beads trim the edges of the coat and cuffs, extending into the coat's body and sleeves. Further embellishments to the applique include gold seed beads, rim-set crystal AB (aurora borealis) rhinestones, crystal AB sewn-on jewels, crystal lochrosen rhinestones and gold metal beaded rims. Beading and applique cover the top of the coat, narrowing to a point at the waist, then spread over its bottom third.

On both sides, a rounded yoke effect is created by using a darker shade of matte satin than the jumpsuit. On the back, the yoke area is heavily beaded, appliqued, and embellished, and covers approximately one third of the coat. The bottom third is heavily patterned and extends up from the split in the coat. The design is worked to slightly above the waist.

On the sleeves, similar applique, beading, and embellishments reach from the top to above the elbow and around the slit cuffs. There are also white gathered lace cuffs and a stand up collar, which is edged at the top with gold seed beads. Solid rows of dark gold bugle beads outline it and create the main beading pattern. Gold bugle beads, crystal lochrosens, sewn-on crystal AB navettes, and sewn-on crystal AB jewels, the larger of which are framed with a gold metal beaded rim, complete its embellishments. The coat closes with a zipper and is edged with gold seed beads.

The pants are narrow. From the waist to several inches below the knee, matching appliques and beading are applied to the sides and narrow down the leg.

Matching Di Fabrizio boots are constructed from the same matte satin and feature complementary trapunto appliques, metallic brown stippling, and beading. They are also embellished with gold bugle beads, gold seed beads, rim-set crystal rhinestones, and sewn-on, teardrop-shaped AB crystal jewels. To finish, gold seed and bugle bead tassels dangle from the center of the cutout scallop, and black heels are covered in rim-set crystal rhinestones.

The Hapsburg eagle costume was first worn by Liberace in his 1983 performances. It can also be seen on Liberace's 1985 video, Liberace Live, which was filmed at the Wembley Centre in London.

The cape features a double-headed eagle on each shoulder and takes its name from the crest of the Hapsburg family, the rulers of the Austrian Empire. A child of the Great Depression, Liberace was drawn to images of royalty and wealth. To him, the costume symbolized how he had made it.

The coat, pants, boots, and cape trimmed with sable fur are brown matte satin with pink undertones. The floor length cape is decorated from shoulder to hem with a twining pattern, reminiscent of vines and leaves, executed in gold lame and trapunto applique.

Each applique, including the eagle crests, is outlined with a heavy metallic-brown thread stippling, which accents and raises the trapunto appliques. The appliqueing is narrow at center front, extends wider at the front edge, and continues around the entire bottom. The applique areas have crystal lochrosens and rim-set crystal AB rhinestones. The largest rhinestones are framed with a gold metal beaded rim. Radiating vertically and at a slight angle from the wings of the eagles are rows of gold bugle beads. These are stitched end to end with staggered spaces in each row. They extend to the appliques at the bottom of the cape.

On the back of the cape, a band of gold lame and trapunto appliques is accented with metallic-brown machine stippling and continues to the hem. The appliques cover the shoulder areas and meet the eagles' wings. As on the front of the cape, they are embellished with and surrounded by rim-set, crystal AB rhinestones. The largest of the surrounding ones are, again, framed with a gold metal beaded rim.

The back of the stand-up collar repeats the gold lame trapunto appliques, metallic-brown stippling, rim-set crystal AB rhinestones, and lochrosens. Honey-brown sable fur trims the front and bottom edges of the cape and lines the collar.

The inside of the cape is worked entirely in gold lame trapunto appliques. Its metallic-brown stippling creates an overall pattern of rows of overlapping feathers.

Faberge Costume

The Faberge costume was worn by Liberace during all twenty-one of his Radio City Music Hall performances in 1985. He would make his entrance in this flamboyant costume, emerging from a twelve-foot replica of a Faberge Easter egg that was specially constructed when Liberace was asked to be part of Radio City Music Hall's Easter show. It became one of his most spectacular and memorable shows and costumes.

Underneath a fabulous cape, the costume, constructed from pink gabardine and silk, consists of a tailcoat, jumpsuit, ruffled cuffs, ruffled jabot, bow tie, broach, and matching boots. It is encrusted with silk satin appliques, pastel seed and bugle beads, AB crystal sewn-on stones, hanging AB crystal pennant jewels, AB-finished clear paillettes, and pearls.

The cutaway coat begins with an underlayer of silver bugle beads embroidered in a moire pattern. On this are appliqued flowers in peach, rose, and red lame and red silk satin. These are enhanced with rocaille and seed beads in the same colors with the addition of lavender and aqua. The jacket is further embellished with silver bugle beads surrounding large AB crystal, pear-shaped, sewn-on jewels and rhinestones. Pearls and hanging AB crystal pennant jewels complete the design.

Pink silk satin lapels are embellished with a matching beaded and appliqued pattern using the same stones, beads, and pearls, but on a smaller level. The ruffled cuffs and jabot are accentuated with sewn-on AB crystal rhinestones. An oversize pink bow tie and band collar hold a rhinestone, heart-shaped broach. Interior shirt sleeves are attached to the coat's lining, but are removable.

The vest is worked overall in a loose paisley pattern of silver bugle beads surrounding large AB crystal, pear-shaped, sewn-on jewels, and rhinestones. The pattern is accented with pearls. The separation between "vest" and "pants" is created with two rows of silver bugle beads and a row of sewn-on AB crystal rhinestones. The pants also have silver bugle beads in a moire pattern. Down the side of each leg are bugle bead, rhinestone, and applique patterns, which match those found on the jacket.

Matching boots by Di Fabrizio were constructed from the same pink gabardine as the jumpsuit and feature the same embroidered and rhinestoned pattern.

The cape is made predominately of three shades of pink turkey feather boas stitched onto a heavy pink cotton duck fabric and lined in shiny pink lame. Clear paillettes with an AB finish are scattered over it. From center back, the cape measures nine feet long and twenty-six feet wide. The cape's back yoke has the same applique and beading patterns as the coat. Its large, detachable collar is embroidered in a leaf motif comprising silver bugle beads and crystal rocaille beads. The rest of the collar is filled in with the same bugle-bead moire pattern, AB crystal rhinestones, and pearls. The collar is edged in several rows of long coque feathers in three shades of pink. Christmas Suit and Cape

Liberace first wore this festive red-and-white costume in 1980 at the Las Vegas Hilton during Christmas season. It was worn again during his performances in 1985 at Radio City Music Hall and his last performance ever, which was in 1986 at Radio City Music Hall. The costume can also be seen on his 1981 Christmas card.

Constructed from red polyester gabardine, the costume consists of cape, tailcoat, and jumpsuit, white shirt and collar, gathered cuffs, and a bow tie. Utilizing a moire-style pattern, the tailcoat is beaded overall with red bugle beads, siam-colored crystal lochrosens, and siam crystal navette-shaped sewn-on jewels. The coat edges, lapels, cuffs, collar, pocket flaps, shoulders, and back yoke have flame-like motifs that are compatible with the "tree limb" patterning found on the cape. These are worked solid in milk-white and silver bugle beads, creating an applique effect.

On top of the flame are crystal lochrosens and sewn-on jewels. Several crystal lochrosens are also scattered among the flames. The coat's outermost edges are finished with a row of silver bugle beads and a row of silver seed beads. The jacket is closed with two crystal rhinestone buttons and a red beaded and stoned tab located between them. The center back of the tailcoat is finished with two crystal rhinestone buttons at the waist.

The matching pants and vest jumpsuit receives the same red bugle bead and siam crystal jewel and lochrosen patterning as the coat. The vest is defined by outlines of milk-white and silver bugle beads and crystal lochrosens. Extending down the outside of each leg is a wide band of crystal rhinestones in Tiffany mounts.

The densely ruffled jabot and detachable cuffs are pleated chiffon edged in clear sequins. A white shirt with a banded collar and a large satin bow tie, which is accented with a rhinestone broach, are also worn with the costume.

Matching boots by Di Fabrizio repeat the use of red bugle beads. Flames extend up from the toes, using the same white bugle beads, crystal lochrosens, and sewn-on jewels as found elsewhere on the costume. The heels are set solid with rim-set crystal rhinestones.

The massive red-and-white gabardine cape has a small train in back. It is extensively beaded and appliqued and features lavish amounts of white fox fur. The entire cape is lined with Cornelli-stitched silver sequins. The base fabric is embellished with rows of red bugle beads, flat red sequins, cupped red sequins, crystal and siam lochrosens, and siam crystal sewn-on jewels. Elongated teardrop-shaped red paillettes and crystal or milk-white jewel-tipped dangling strands of red bugle beads provide swing and movement.

On the back and sides of the cape, an appliqued white multi-limbed tree is made from Cornelli-machine sequining with milk-white sequins. This is outlined in milk-white and silver bugle beads and finished with crystal lochrosens and crystal jewels sewn-on top of the sequins. Five or six petal flowers are Cornelli-stitched using clear, white, cream, and light rosy-pink sequins. All petal edges are finished with a row of white sequins and stiffened and stitched to be slightly cup-shaped. A rim-set crystal AB rhinestone is set at the center of each. Fox fur boa trim goes around center front, up both sides, around the stand-up collar, and across each shoulder. It is applied around the entire arm opening from shoulder to hem and extends around the hem.

Purple and Pink Phoenix Costume with Ostrich Feathers

Some of Liberace's greatest stage entrances were in this purple and pink phoenix costume with ostrich feathers. It was created for the 1986 season at Radio City Music Hall. Wearing it, Liberace would circle down to the stage from a twenty-five-foot wire. As Liberace swung his arms, the cape became shining "wings," as if he were flying.

The tailcoat's base fabric is purple polyester gabardine. It has an underlining beading of broken, slightly curving, purple AB-finished bugle beads and clear bugle beads. Crystal lochrosens are stitched in short rows between bugle bead rows. Crystal teardrop-shaped jewels dangle from white pearl loops.

Glittering phoenix appliques adorn the shoulders and front of the jacket. They have chain-stitch embroidery in white, dark purple, and gray thread and are outlined in crystal seed beads. Each bird is enhanced with white, silver, AB purple and pink bugle beads and crystal lochrosens. The tails culminate in pink French-curled ostrich feather fringes.

Leaf and vine sprays cover the lower two-thirds of the coat's front. They are fashioned from white bugle beads, pearls, and glass beads. Sewn-on crystal navettes are at the center of each leaf. Large AB crystal, teardrop-shaped jewels dangle from loops of white seed pearls and are scattered throughout the vine and leaf motifs.

Edging the coat, tails, and cuffs is a band of crystal lochrosens, white pearls, AB crystal jewels, and two rows of silver bugle beads and crystal seed beads. Continuing around the tails is a row of white leafs and vines. Curving around the sleeves are staggered rows of long, loose feather appliques extending from the top of the costume to the slit in the cuffs. Each applique is created from a base of purple, dark purple, or pink threads. They are embellished with pink, silver, AB purple, and dark eggplant AB-finished bugle beads, and crystal lochrosens. The edges are finished with crystal seed beads. The feathers would radiate outward as Liberace spun around. As he did this he smiled brightly at the audience. "I hope you like this," he would tell them, "because you paid for it!"

On the back of the coat, the phoenix appliques continue across the shoulders. Here they are sewn with pink, purple, dark purple, white, and gray threads and outlined with crystal rocaille beads. The feathers are detailed with pink, silver, AB purple, and dark eggplant AB-finished bugle beads, and crystal lochrosens. The coat is lined in pink silk satin. The stand-up collar is embellished with dark purple bugle beads, crystal lochrosens, white pearls, crystal seed beads, and AB crystal jewels.

The jumpsuit is purple polyester gabardine. Its beading consists of broken, slightly curving rows of purple AB bugle beads, clear bugle beads, and crystal lochrosens, with scattered crystal teardrop-shaped jewels dangling from white pearl loops. The upper edge of the V-neck has white pearls, crystal lochrosens, clear rocaille beads, and AB crystal tear drop-shaped jewels, which dangle from white seed pearls. Near where the coat's edge falls are vine and leaf motifs created from white bugle beads, pearls, and glass beads. Crystal navettes are at the center of each leaf. AB crystal teardrop-shaped jewels dangle from loops of white seed pearls and are scattered throughout the vine and leaf motifs, as well as over the entire jumpsuit. On the outside of each leg, the vine and leaf pattern trails from waist to hem. A white banded-collar dickey with attached pleated, ruffled chiffon jabot and cuffs, are edged with pink sequins. A bow tie completes the costume.

Matching boots by Di Fabrizio are also purple gabardine. Their beading echoes the decoration on the pants. The silver heels are rim-set closely with AB crystal rhinestones.

The white polyester gabardine base of the cape is almost invisible under its five tiers of fluffy French-curled ostrich fringe, rhinestones, sequins, and findings. Creating an ombre effect, the fringe tiers begin as a light pink shade and then progress through darker pinks to a pinkish violet at the bottom. The sequins are gently curving rows alternating white and silver and are Cornelli-machine stitched. Dangling and spaced around their edges are silver pailletes.

The cape's upper tier is a cape with a standing collar heavily decorated with sequins and rhinestones and topped by a row of snowy white sprouting coque feathers. The feathers nearest to the front are tipped in a bright pink dye. As they continue around the collar, the tip color graduates to a medium violet. The inside and outside of the collar are machine-stitched silver sequins and rim-set AB crystal rhinestones. Atop the collar and near its edges, silver and pink sequins are glued onto the feathers.

The back of the cape is encrusted using white pearls, rimset AB crystal rhinestones, Tiffany-mounted crystal rhinestones framed with gold metal rim and sewn-on beading, and half-round, faceted silver-colored metal findings. Additional color is added with machine-stitched silver, pink, and fuchsia sequins. The cape is lined with light silver lame and the same sequin pattern of sprays of lavender sequins dominating a field of white and silver sequins as on the front of the cape. Vine patterns are machine stitched on top and use both light and dark shades of violet cupped sequins.

A SHINING LEGACY

Through the sparkle of the jewels and rhinestones, the legacy that Liberace left to the world shines the brightest. He'll forever be remembered as one of the world's most outlandish, flamboyant performers. He experienced hard times, a rough childhood, a career crash, a million-dollar lawsuit filed by his former lover, and tough critics, but he always overcame the challenges. In prevailing, he embraced a flamboyant showmanship and artistry that remains unequaled today.

Editor's note: this article is excerpted from the upcoming book Liberace Extravaganza! (Harper Design, April 2, 2013).

SOURCES CITED

Karras, Athan. 2003. "Michael Travis, Designer for the Superstars." Greek American Review, December.

Ott, Betty J. 1979. Buffalo News, August 23.

Connie Furr Soloman, an associate professor at Arizona State University, has worked extensively as a costume designer in such theatres as Actor's Theatre of Louisville, The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies, Syracuse Opera, Orlando Opera, and Georgia Shakespeare Festival. Her designs appeared in the 2003 and 2007 Prague Quadrennials as well as the 2005 World Stage Design exhibition. Her puppet designs were part of the Emmy award-winning children's television series Salsa.

Jan Jewett has worked in the costume industry for more than thirty-one years, manufacturing costumes for such clients as Bette Midler, Cher, and Donny and Marie Osmond, as well as for Disney parades. She has overseen the creation of costumes for Broadway musicals, Carnegie Hall concerts, national commercials, corporate events, galas, television shows, and films.
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Author:Soloman, Connie Furr; Jewett, Jan
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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