The Costumes of American Horror Story: Hotel’s Liz Taylor

Posted on November 05, 2015

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Darlings, despite our lack of interest in recapping it, this isn’t the worst season of American Horror Story. No, Freakshow is still at the top of that little list. In fact, we think we can call Hotel the third-best season of the show, behind Asylum and Murder House. And it’s not even the worst Ryan Murphy joint on the air right now, what with Scream Queens being the intelligence-insulting mess that it is. Seriously, that one’s like watching bad improv done at high volume for no reason.

Getting past all the extremely faint praise, we’ve found that our main reason for watching AHS these days is to get more glimpses of our favorite character, Liz Taylor, played exquisitely by the always-perfect Denis O’Hare. Last night’s episode gave us Liz’s backstory, which was beautiful and haunting and a bit of a surprise to anyone who might have assumed Liz was a gay man – or a man at all.  But we have to admit, it’s not the surprisingly poignant writing for the character or the actor’s highly enjoyable performance that makes each episode a must-see for us. It’s Liz Taylor’s fabulous costumes.

 

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That cape twirl was the magical moment we sat up and realized we were watching a capital-D Diva performance. It takes a special man to know how to work a pair of platform heels and a cape to maximum effect.

Clearly, Liz’s eye makeup is based on Taylor’s famous Cleopatra makeup, but this isn’t the only homage to an iconic Taylor movie costume, as we’ll see. The scarf detail is something the real Taylor utilized quite a bit during the period this character’s wardrobe is taking its cues from.

 

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Liz’s costumes aren’t based 1-to-1 on the real Elizabeth Taylor’s famously distinct wardrobe, but it’s a flawlessly loving homage nonetheless, incorporating all the classic elements of a very specific period of her life – mainly her forties, spanning most of the 1970s, a period when she never met a caftan  or turban she didn’t love. It makes a particularly appropriate choice because this period of Taylor’s life was marked by a persistent sense of her decline, both in her own eyes and in the eyes of the public. She barely made any movies at all in this period (and for the rest of her life, actually), her drinking had caught up with her, she’d gained weight, and the public started seeing her as a fascinating has-been with a colorful life rather than a viable star. In other words, it was her Tragic Aging Beauty period (which she would more than bounce back from in the 1980s, when she became an AIDS activist and found purpose and a newfound sense of glamour); a particularly apt choice for the character of Liz, who is herself an aging beauty and who knows what it is to feel overlooked or forgotten.

 

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As we said, Elizabeth Taylor LOVED herself a caftan during these years, and she had a special fondness for glittery eastern styles in colors that set off her own coloring, mostly jewel tones and the occasional lavender or periwinkle. Check out this shot from the Christie’s auction of her clothing to get an idea of her tastes. She even wore a caftan to her second Burton wedding.

 

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This is more like something Taylor would’ve worn poolside rather than in public, but it’s still working in that realm of comfy, eastern-inspired, glittery and turban’d, which was the entire Elizabeth Taylor playbook for most of the seventies.

 

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And when the middle-aged Elizabeth Taylor had to get dressed up or felt like being more conventional somehow, she favored the rather typical old lady glamor gowns of the period, which usually meant sheer sleeves and flowiness. Like we said, these aren’t 1-to-1 translations, but you can tell some serious research was being done to come up with Liz’s costumes.

And of course, it goes without saying that the ostentatious jewelry and huge earrings are a Taylor signature.

But interestingly, not all of Liz’s costumes are being inspired by this somewhat fallow period in Taylor’s life. Every once in a while …

 

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She gets her ’80s Liz on, and that means much more body-con dresses (because Taylor dropped a significant amount of weight at this time and loved showing it off), and more ’80s-like touches, like shoulderpads and a higher sequin count.

But by far, the most poignant of Liz’s costumes…

 

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… is literally one of Elizabeth Taylor’s costumes; quite possibly her most iconic: the slip and stolen mink coat she wore in Butterfield 8, which The Countess actually references in this scene because there’s no such thing as subtlety on this show. What makes this so poignant is that this is largely considered the hottest Elizabeth Taylor ever looked on film and the sexiest costume she ever wore. Liz doesn’t want to just feel like a woman or just feel pretty. She wants to look like one of the most beautiful women of all time specifically when she was considered at the height of her beauty. It’s that more than anything that the Countess must have responded to. Not just the pain of being a transgender woman who hasn’t yet come to terms with it, but the intense longing to be almost supernaturally beautiful, which is something the Countess can understand and relate to.

[Stills: Tom and Lorenzo/FX – Photo Credit: FX]

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