The girl who had everything

Published: 27 November, 2011 09:58 IST | Meredith Etherington-Smith |

When she died, Elizabeth Taylor left a lifetime's worth of couture clothes and jewels, now to be auctioned off. Meredith Etherington-Smith, who curated the star's clothes for the sale, takes you behind the scenes

When she died, Elizabeth Taylor left a lifetime's worth of couture clothes and jewels, now to be auctioned off. Meredith Etherington-Smith, who curated the star's clothes for the sale, takes you behind the scenes

In my job as a fashion curator for Christie's I have been lucky enough to see close at hand the private clothes of some of the 20th century's most famous women. When I went to see Diana, Princess of Wales, to discuss a sale of her clothes for charity, her butler let me in to Kensington Palace and left me waiting nervously in the Equerries' Room before I was taken up to the Princess's drawing-room, filled with several racks of ballgowns, and the Princess, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt.

A Christie's auction house employee poses for photographers in London
on September 23 with a jacket called 'The Face' that belonged to actress
Elizabeth Taylor. The jacket forms a part of an exhibition entitled The
Collection of Elizabeth Taylor which will be auctioned in New York and
London in December 2011 and January 2012. Pic/ AFP photo

When I started to curate the Marilyn Monroe sale in 1999, I descended in a freight lift to a high-security lock-up four storeys below Christie's New York HQ in the Rockefeller Centre, which held the entire contents of Monroe's bungalow, boxed up after her death more than 30 years before, including a set of yellow Le Creuset cooking pots and the 'Happy birthday, Mr President' sequinned dress.

Now here was my latest rabbit-hole: a tiny black door framed in black granite, puncturing the windowless facade of an art-handling warehouse in Long Island, New York. I was Alice again, diving down to explore the possessions of another 20th-century icon: the soon-to-be-dispersed jewels, fashion and memorabilia of the last of the great Hollywood Golden Age superstars, Elizabeth Taylor.

What met my eyes was rack upon rack of Taylor's clothes, stretching into the far distance. These racks were packed so tightly that hems, frills, collars and belts stuck out; her collection had been unpacked from her house in Bel Air and her chalet in Gstaad. Handbags - more than 200 -- emerged one by one from many crates.

Elizabeth Taylor was born to American parents who lived in England. Her father, Francis, was an art dealer and her mother, Sara, had been an actress before giving up the stage to marry. Elizabeth spent her early youth here, improbably in Hampstead Garden Suburb during the week and at the weekend in a cottage rented from the MP Victor Cazalet on his estate outside Cranbrook, Kent. When I was, coincidentally, growing up in Cranbrook in the 1950s, the Taylor family and particularly Elizabeth were still a topic of excited conversation, even though they had left for America at the beginning of the war.

So Elizabeth went to Hollywood. Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s was an ultra-conservative town. Studios and their bosses, most of whom had no taste, ruled the film roost, young starlets signed morality clauses, went out on carefully orchestrated dates arranged by the studio and were home by 10. They were dressed off-screen like dour, upper-middle-class, middle-aged housewives at a tea party in the Midwest. Elizabeth Taylor was brought up on this scene, a child at the charm school of MGM, soon to become a child star after she made National Velvet, being whirled around the studios by her ambitious mother.

At the time stars mostly dressed for formal Tinseltown events and even private parties in clothes and fake jewels they borrowed from studio backlot wardrobe departments, because no couture designers were then remotely interested in clothing red-carpet celebrities for nothing. Couturiers dressed private clients, the emphasis being on private, in virtually handmade clothes. Stars might call upon the services of a leading costume designer, as Marilyn Monroe did with William Travilla. Taylor was different.

She didn't use the services of stylists to present 'Elizabeth Taylor' because there weren't any; nor did she raid MGM's wardrobe; as soon as she could afford to, when she was about 20, soon after her first marriage, to Conrad Hilton, she chose and bought everything herself from couture designers in Paris and, later, Italy.

Elizabeth must have been one of the greatest couture clients of all time. Once she had bought from the collections, she carefully kept these exquisitely made pieces in superb condition on the top floor of her house in Bel Air.

My first trawl through the racks in the art-handling warehouse was adding up to a major voyage of fashion discovery. Frankly, I do not know how she stored everything because there were more than 1,000 pieces, not to mention the handbags and an avalanche of costume jewellery. It is fortuitous for us -- the wider public -- that she did, as a large proportion of these pieces will now be offered in an online auction with accessible estimates from $100, giving people around the world the opportunity to take part.

Also on this voyage of discovery, at a temporary cataloguing desk, Christie's staffers, headed by Pat Frost, the head of textiles and fashion, were working against the clock to be ready for the 'world tour' of Taylor's possessions, which started in Moscow in September and will end in New York with a 10-day exhibition followed by the four-day sale at Christie's Rockefeller Centre HQ in December.

Locked in the high-security vaults at the centre, experts were also cataloguing Taylor's other passion, her jewels. This collection, starring the Elizabeth Taylor diamond, a whopping 33.29 carats, given to her by Richard Burton, one of the two greatest loves of her life, spans more than 50 years of collecting jewels at a pace and to heights previously achieved only by royalty such as Marie Antoinette, who lost both her crown and her head over the affair of the cardinal's diamond necklace.

Mike Todd, Taylor's third husband, may be said to have built the foundations of her jewellery collection; first he gave his wife, even then in the late 1950s laying just claim to the 'Queen of Hollywood' tag, an antique diamond tiara, in which she not only went out to dinner and to formal events but also wore swimming or washing up, as the mood took her.

The superb collection of couture Dior we discovered dated from the very early 1960s, the period in Taylor's life after Mike Todd had been killed in an air crash, just over a year after they had married. We also discovered her last Dior couture dress: scarlet chiffon, bugle-beaded in ruby beads, designed for her by John Galliano; it will be sold with his sketch of the dress.

'Liz and Dick', as they became known to the world's press, married in 1964. Richard Burton once described Taylor as being 'beautiful beyond the dreams of pornography'. She married him in a short multilayered chiffon dress of her favourite primrose-yellow, designed by Irene Sharaff, the costume designer for Cleopatra. Its wide collar was obviously inspired by costumes she had worn in that film, two of which are in the sale.

The 1970s saw a sea change in the Elizabeth Taylor 'look'. She discovered the New Age and abandoned Hollywood formality in favour of kaftans, notably made for her in precious antique Middle-Eastern fabrics by the London-based Thea Porter, who ruled her international rock star and aristo clientele from a salon that looked like a 19th-century opium den in Greek Street, Soho.

The Prince of Wales's feathers, a diamond brooch given to the Duchess of Windsor by the Duke, had always fascinated Taylor, for she often saw the Duchess wearing it when they met for lunch in Paris. She bought it at the sale of the Windsor jewels in Geneva in 1987, bidding for it on the telephone while sitting in a white swimsuit and white towelling turban on a lounger by her pool in Bel Air. She just had to have it. Of course she did.

And there were surprises -- many surprises -- hidden on the racks. The second Burton wedding dress, for instance: a tie-dyed kaftan by Gina Fratini, which Taylor wore to remarry Burton on the banks of a river in Africa. And then there was the white tunic top by Dior couture with matching daisy-embroidered hotpants that she wore to celebrate becoming a grandmother for the first time at the age of 39.

And dating from the late 1970s to early 1980s was a glorious capsule collection of very avant-garde designs by the illustrator-turned-designer Michael Vollbracht. Taylor encouraged him in his fashion venture and wore his advanced fashion pieces. They are fascinating because they are an almost-remaindered chapter in the bridge-building story between fashion and art at that time, forged by such designers as Stephen Sprouse; Vollbracht's graphic approach is strongly reminiscent of the work of the artists Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring: low-life inspiration, high-life fashion.

The art in Taylor's collection is a reminder that her father, Francis, was an art dealer, and moreover one of Augustus John's dealers before the Second World War. He introduced many collectors in Hollywood to John's work and left Taylor some very beautiful portraits that hung in her drawing-room, together with a self-portrait by Degas and landscapes by Pissarro and Van Gogh, which she bought herself in the 1960s.

So what did rack after rack of couture, the handbags, the shoes, the cowboy boots and the costume jewellery tell me about the private life of this extraordinary phenomenon? It told me that she was independently minded and courageous, wearing clothes by emerging designers as well as their more conventional couture peers.

Clothes were an essential prop to whatever part she was playing in real life. And it told me that though she had a grand passion for jewels, she also had a passion for living life to the hilt in couture fashion undimmed in more than 50 years.

Elizabeth Taylor was still buying clothes right up until she went into hospital for the last time, more often than not in her favourite sunflower-yellow, red or lilac. In a black-and-white world of flickering images, Elizabeth Taylor, the beauty with the lavender eyes, was always a technicolour star. The auction takes place from December 13-16 at Christie's New York, Rockefeller Plaza. The public can view the lots from December 3-12.

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