Theda Bara

Just a Nice Jewish Girl from Cincinatti

A paper doll set by David Claudon

 

 

 

Born Theodosia Burr Goodman in 1885 in Cincinatti, Ohio, silent screen femme fatale Theda Bara described herself as "just a nice Jewish girl." During her film career, she made over forty feature films, only three of which survive. Upon starting her film caree in 1915, Theodosia changed her name to Theda Bara. According to Eve Golden, the first name was a nickname from childhood and Bara was an abbreviation of Baranger (a family name). (33) Fox Studio, in the attempt to do a publicity spin with the new star of A Fool There Was, chose to create an exotic mystique and claimed that Theda was an Italian/Arabian princess born in the Sahara Desert. In the movie, Theda played a "vampire"--a woman who sucks the life from her lover. Theda was dubbed "the vamp." While other earlier actresses had taken on similar roles, Theda became the icon of the period.

 

   
 

 

Perhaps Bara's most known film was Cleopatra which opened in October 1917. Shown here are several costumes which The New York Times credits to George James Hopkins. All other sources have claimed that no designer's name appears. (In Vamp, Eve Golden says that George James 'Neje' Hopkins began work in 1917 but with the film following Cleopatra.)

Janiss Garza, All Movie Guide, describes the plot of the over two-hour film, (a print of which no longer survives).

Studying available pictures, Theda wore at least fifteen costumes, nine of which are shown here. Theda claimed to have read extensively in preparing for her role and felt quite pleased with the authenticity of the production. (Remember that the discovery of King Tutankahmon's tomb was six years away. --Did Howard Carter see the film and find himself inspired to find treasures?) The costumes found in the various stills remaining show little of actual Egypt, but much of 1917. The colors used are purely my conjecture since only posters of the movie suggest colors.

 

 
           
 

 

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

 

 

 

 

 

The costume at left, with its surreal "ant helmet" looks like a dinner dress of the time with added apron and feathers. She carries a large ankh prop. The inspiration for the dress seems born from the work of such designers as are seen in Haute Couture -
Designer Dresses from Gazette du Bon Ton
.
Decorative motifs include a Greek key design, and art deco looking flowers. On the apron is a shield of two stylized cobras and the whole panel is encrusted with jewels. The helmet when seen in another view shows that the feelers are actually long feathers. The helmet has the vulture tail back similar to the one worn by Constance Collier in 1898. Theda's "blouse" covers the front, but the back is left bare.

The costume at right, with its asymmetrical cobra breast plates, consists of apron and metallic center panel and wired gauze and tissue panels. Her headdress consists of a coiled cobra with scales and inset eyes. Two pyramidal panels frame her face.

 

   
           
 

 

Theda Bara as Cleopatra

 

 

The costume for Cleopatra's meeting with Caesar shows a penchant for pearls. Her headdress consists of gold rosettes and wired petals (and abstract lotus) and looks as if it were inspired by an Aubrey Beardsley's Salome drawing.

For Fritz Leiber's costume as Caesar, I've taken a color scheme based on a painting of Louis XIV.

The costume on the right could function as a 1917 dinner dress, complete with beaded and jeweled peplum, shorter skirt and pearl fringe. Her artifical laurel wreath headdress covers her loose hair. Shades of French designer Poiret?

   
           
 

 

Thurston Hall

 

 

Theda's costume for the banquet for Marc Antony, is a satin-like striped skirt with halter top covered with feathers. Peacock feathers adorn the costume, hat and large fan.

The hat/crown appears differently in photographs of the costume and the poster. The photographs make it look like a boxy hat of the period with medallions, uraii and peacock feathers.

Thurston Hall's Marc Antony wears a pale blue short-sleeved tunic, diadem, brooch and bracelets.

The color scheme of both costumes if found in the poster.

Miss Bara's Dresser wears a long homespun skirt, apron and white blouse.

   
           
 

 

Theda Bara in Cleopatra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I love the long satin (?) knickers that can be seen under Cleopatra's red sheath v-necked gown, used in one of the posters. She wears a gold cloth adaptation of an Egyptian klaft -- an apron-shaped headcloth with heavy white fringe. A stylized uraeus surmounts the brow.

The Extra with ostrich plume fan establishes the film in Egypt with a stylized Nubian costume.

The costume at right is perhaps the most Graeco-Egyptian in style and includes a gold and cream striped empire-style dress. She wears a skin-colored top elaborately covered with pearls. The effect is of her being nude above the waist. Her hair is pulled back into a bun similar to that associated with the real Cleopatra. The headdress (which reminds me of Byzantine Theodora) has pearl fringe.

   
           
 

 

Theda Bara

 

 

At right is perhaps the most provacative of Theda's Cleopatra costumes. She appears nude (or in a body suit) under a metallic tissue gown with "vulture" wings. The stylized Egyptian sphinx headress is padded and attached to a fez.

At left is the gown Cleopatra wears in the monument for her final reconcilliation with Antony (whose death leads to the suicide of Cleopatra). In the photograph Theda's body suit is visible. The applique asps wind themselves around her breasts, back and up over her shoulders. Jewelled rosettes, the Egyptian sign of the moon (check source), stylized cobras and pyramids combine with a winged applique at the hemline. The long train includes peacock feathers, quoting the banquet gown.

   
           
 

 

Theda Bara as Mary Pickford and Countess Du Barry

 

 

The costume at right appears the studio's attempt to make their "vampire" into a more wholesome Mary Pickford image. Most fans of Theda's preferred the "bad" to the "good."

At left is Theda's costume as Countess Du Barry in her film Madame Du Barry. Theda's costume has a satin sunflower surrounded by gold leaves and pink flowers. Seed pearls and gold beads adorn the underskirt panel. In the original picture she wears a large beauty mark to the right of her mouth. George "Neje" Hopkins designed the costume.

   
           
 

 

 

 

Theda loved dogs. Belva was perhaps her favorite. The white Russian Wolfhound died in 1917.

Theda wears a summer California suit with large red picture hat. The red and white checked material is drawn up over her chest. The high boots suggest spats of the period.

At left is Charlie Chaplin, one of the major stars of the period, at a studio movie camera similar to what was used to film Cleopatra.

Charlie wears a suit and tie and spats.

   
           
 

 

Sources:

 


The paper dolls were created using Photoshop CS2 and Corel Painter IX in 300 dpi. Prints and cards of these paper dolls are available at Imagekind.

This webpage was created by C. David Claudon, October 9, 2006. Last update, April 25, 2009.