Elizabeth’s Caftan… Timeless

August 18, 2011 Posted by admin

I met Elizabeth Taylor in the hallways of the Billancourt Studios in the leafy western suburbs of Paris. It was my first job, having just graduated from Parson’s School of Design only three months before. I was twenty-one and hired to design the youthful costumes for What’s New Pussycat, Woody Allen’s first film.

Elizabeth was filming The Sandpiper in the next sound stage. While the film was set in Big Sur, California, it was shot in Paris so Elizabeth could eat French food. She knew how to be famous and invented the perks that went with fame. The downside of fame, however, was being locked in endless hotel rooms.

The caftan was the ideal garment for an imprisoned movie star who loved to eat, and was also the perfect carefree, exotic ensemble to entice her handsome, sensual husband, Richard Burton, into bed… or at least to entice him to put down his book.

The Kaftan, a Turkish word, originated in Mesopotamia (today Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey) and later spread to Russia and Africa. This timeless garment, a long straight tunic with full sleeves, has been worn by women and, at times, men for more than 5,000 years since the Bronze Age in 3000 B.C.

When Elizabeth and I first crossed paths, I was wearing a transparent, white lace thigh-high mini caftan that Twiggy had recently been photographed in for English Harpers. When Elizabeth looked my way wearing her classic, knee-length sheath, she realized she had to change her look, and quickly.

Later that day Richard Burton spotted me in the hallway and said, “What do we have here, a nightgown? We must have one for the missus.” And so I made Elizabeth’s first mini in white crepe encrusted with baby pearls. Thus began a 25 year working friendship.

After The Sandpiper, Elizabeth went to Africa to film The Comedians, where she gave the Arab souk in Dahomey, now Benin, my mini to copy. She returned to Victorine Studios in Nice wearing electric-colored, cotton batik African minis that became her signature look for walking the streets, holding her dog while being followed by the paparazzi. The rest of the world caught on, and the caftan came out of the Arab souk and into the mainstream.

A similar trend occurred earlier in the 1930s when English and American women, taking a cue from British writer and archeologist Gertrude Bell, fell in love with Orientalism, freeing their bodies from corsets and hoop skirts by adopting loose caftans. Coco Chanel introduced sportswear at the same time and both were forerunners to our modern clothes.

Yves St. Laurent in Paris, James Galanos, my Parsons teacher in New York, and Valentino in Rome presented elaborate beaded lame and feathered caftans and took them into the seventies, as the caftan went from the street to the palaces where a real princess, Grace, opened her yearly ball in Monte Carlo wearing a gold lame caftan. Today, the caftan has made another comeback with the awakening of Arab consciousness and blending of beautiful, Arab-inspired designs with Western clothing.

My contribution to this style occurred in the late sixties when Liza Todd, Elizabeth’s daughter, arrived at my Normandy mill house with her brothers on a bicycle tour of France. She showed me a hippy skirt with bias chiffon points sewn together on an elastic band she found at Antiquarius, one of the oldest and most famous antique centers on Kings Road in London, and I said, “This is a dress.” I put my caftan creation, originally constructed in pastel ombré chiffon out of eight points, in Henri Bendel and called it “the Liza.”

The difference between the Liza and an ordinary caftan was an empire seam under the bust that pushed up the breasts into a décolleté v so no bra was needed. There is a classic 1980 photograph of French publicist, Yanou Collart, wearing the Liza at the Perrier Champagne estate, with an excited Prince Charles staring down at her voluptuous breasts. This was the year before he met Diana.

The Liza is still available in Neiman Marcus, where it has been selling for forty-two years. Sadly, Liza Todd’s original pastel ombré chiffon’s hem was eaten by mice at her horse farm in the mountains, but she recently received a replacement in zebra chiffon — very short so it won’t touch the little country beasts on the floor.

Presently, in Bergdorf Goodman’s couture department, where my gowns are still sold, the caftan has reappeared with panache in the collection of Amy Zerner, a fine artist and dress designer. Her caftans are floaty collages of color and texture. Women wearing her art are transformed as their true natures radiate in these timeless, romantic designs.

Vicky Tiel began designing clothes forty years ago in Paris and still owns a boutique there. Her couture dresses are available in Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, and her perfumes are carried in Perfumania. Her memoir, “It’s All About the Dress: What I Learned in 40 Years about Men, Women, Sex, and Fashion” will be published by St. Martin’s Press in August 2011.