Rate the dress

Rate the dress: Fritz Lieber Sr as Ceasar

Last week most of you loved our heavily accessorised Regency beauty.  You rated her an 8.4 out of 10.  While I loved the overall painting, I have to agree with Stella: the accessories made the ensemble, and without them the dress would have been lucky to get a 2 out of 10.

I wanted to do something really different and exciting for Rate the Dress today, and I though “ooooh….ancient costume!  Greek or Roman or something”.  And then I remembered the whole “there aren’t any extent ancient costumes” issue.  Blast. Blah.  Icky ick.

So I present the next best thing: 20th century costume designers do ancient costume.  Or, more specifically, Fritz Leiber Sr as Ceasar from the now lost 1917 Cleopatra, opposite Theda Bara.

I was going to show you Theda’s costume, but that seemed too easy.  We’ve seen variants of 1910’s and 20s sexy exotic before.  So manly warrior-emperor it is.

Fritz Lieber Sr as Ceasar challenges Bara's Cleopatra

Ceasar seizes Cleopatra

Ceasar and Cleopatra share an awkward moment

Lieber’s Ceasar has it all: Greek wave patterned boots, an elaborate tunic, wristbands, a Babylonian gryphon across his chest, swooping cloak, and a laurel wreath on his brow.

Did the costume designers err in taking every classical reference ever and mashing it on to one costume?  Or is the blatant and elaborate imagery necessary in a black and white film?  Aesthetically, how does the costume compare?

Rate the dress on a scale of 1 to 10


  1. Stella says

    Oooh, now this is really difficult! It’s difficult because I think if this were in colour it’d be way too full on and garish, but it works much better in black and white. With black and white film, contrast is very important and the focus is on pattern and outline. It’s also not particularly historically accurate, but in this context that’s not the point. Nothing about the decor and costumes here is particularly historically accurate, and I’m guessing it’s not supposed to be. They could have been historical if they’d wanted to. My guess is they were shooting for an interpretation of a look, rather than a reproduction. That would have been more sensible and pragmatic anyway, given the time pressures (and presumably other constraints) involved in making films back then. In context it works really well and I’m giving it 9/10.

  2. I’m flipping out here because Theda Bara, it turns out, looks like one of my best friends from university.

    I too am giving this a high rating, 8 out of 10, because I looked at it and nothing felt out of place. It convinced me. I bought into the actor as the character. Cleopatra’s is less successful for me because I’m looking at her flying headpiece (are those wired ribbons?) and finding it amusing, but distracting.

    • You noticed Bara’s headdress! I did too – there are close up images of it, and it is hilarious! It’s also really modern though – it looks like something many costume designers I know would have used onstage.

  3. “Oooh, now this is really difficult! It’s difficult because I think if this were in colour it’d be way too full on and garish, but it works much better in black and white.”

    Thanks for pointing that out, Stella; that probably is why the armor was done so garishly.

    My impression is that the Dreamstress is not interested in whether we think a particular movie image (when she uses them) is accurately historical, but in whether we think it’s attractive in any sense. I think the image above works to convey a sense of antiquity and exoticism, but flatters neither actor, particularly not Leiber, whose costume underscores all that was originally awkward looking about Roman military costume in reality. I’ll give it a 5, because despite my aesthetic judgment I agree with Stella that there was a plan and purpose in dressing Leiber that way.

    • I’m interested in whatever you have to say about the costume – I don’t have an agenda except to spark comment and discussion. Whatever comes out of these posts is awesome by me 🙂

  4. By the way, although there are not many early costumes that survive (though there are a few; Bishop Timotheus comes to mind), there are always reconstructions (such as of the popular Egtved girl), which could be made the subject of “Rate the Dress”.

    • Excellent idea for a rate the dress! I do actually know about the early costumes that survive – but I feel I get caught up in diversions far too much when I blog, so I didn’t mention them!

  5. Zach says

    I’m not so sure about this one either. I agree with all those above about it looking better in black and white than it might have in color, but I can’t help myself–it seems like there is just way too much going on with his gettup. It’s so busy! Part of me does favor it, however. It’s like I’m having a mental battle. I think, without the disgusting boots, the ensemble may look halfway decent though…

    Seven and a half out of ten, though I’ll probably think the outfit to be better looking tomorrow.

    By the way, Sadie, that headdress was the first thing I saw too–I almost fell out of my chair laughing at it!

    • Zach says

      That and her face. It seems to be saying, “I look down upon thee!”

  6. Daniel says

    I think the most eloquent response I have that sums up my feelings is all of two letters.


    I’m just totally indifferent to this one – tried to find anything I felt strongly about, but sorry, no. I don’t like or dislike it, I Just Simply Don’t Care. Which makes rating it difficult.

    Ooh, actually, after looking at it again and trying really hard, I guess I’d rather like to wear those boots if I thought I could get away with them. Let’s say 5/10, that’s neither here nor there.

  7. Boots. Blech. I think the whole think looks like a Halloween costume one could buy for about 50 bucks.


  8. Kim says

    For a black and white movie with no sound, Leiber’s costume conveys a sense of grandness and opulence, with the exception of the boots. Those just look silly. (I am not sure if there is a zipper in the back of the calf or not). I give him an 8 out of 10.

    The Bara costume leaves me cold. Maybe if I saw a snippet of the movie and Bara moving in the costume I’d like it better. I really don’t like the snake leg ornament in the first picture, telegraphing Cleo’s end. But this may be a personal quibble as I don’t like snakes at all. Bara’s costume is a 3 out of 10 for me.

  9. It’s ridiculous and campy and over-the-top and I LOVE IT. I never love OTT, but for a black-and-white, dramatic film…I heart the classical mashup that is this costume. Plus he looks so serious that he can wear a nearly-garish costume and make it look like he meant it that way, darn it. That said, it loses points for being a touch clunky in spots, and not in the good “it’s armor” kind of clunky, but the oddly proportioned kind.

    And hey, who doesn’t love a mashup and, er, borrowing from other cultures? The Romans did…so I’ll consider this an homage, rather than a literal reproduction. 😛

    Plus Leiber gets props for not having unnecessary amounts of eyeliner on.


  10. I know this Rate the Dress is closed, but I was abroad without internet… so I comment now.
    It works for me. Probably because it reminds me of Ceasar in the Asterix comics, which was about the first protrayal of Iulius Ceasar I became familiar with… So it’s cartoonish and over the top. But it works for me.

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