Why Liberace's Costumes Mattered

Fashion allowed the musician portrayed in Behind the Candelabra to remain closeted but embrace his identity—and help soften public aversion to homosexuality.
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HBO / Las Vegas News Bureau

Deconstructing Liberace's costumes is like glaring into the sun; the sheer power of the light blinds you from ever seeing the tumult below. Who could look past a virgin fox fur coat with 16-foot train, a tuxedo with sequined piano keys around the collar and lapels, and the rings, the rings, the rings?

To say that clothes had a profound meaning to Liberace on a professional and personal level would be an understatement—and Liberace didn't do understatement. He never publicly acknowledged he was gay but he "lived in a closet that was fitted with glass walls," as chairman of the Liberace Foundation, Brian Paco Alvarez (our colleague), likes to say. Pass it off as showmanship or Vegas frippery, but Liberace's wardrobe told us who he was and what he was—if you wanted to see it.

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Las Vegas News Bureau

The costumes of Behind the Candelabra serve up Liberace's wardrobe at its most extravagant: rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits, silk lounging attire, bespoke suits with scarlet linings. The HBO biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon is based on a tell-all book by the star's ex, Scott Thorson, and covers their life in Las Vegas and Palm Springs in late 1970s and early 1980s—a period of men's fashion just ripe for parody. But, you can't really over-stylize Liberace, can you?

So costume designer Ellen Mirojnick consulted the Liberace Foundation's collection of 35 stage costumes: dickies, vests, bowties, button-in cuffs, boots, jewelry, capes, and all. Jumpsuits, the signature piece by his late-career costume designer Michael Travis, fit the need for quick changes, and capes clipped on and off the costumes—functional details seen clearly in the film. Lee loved to spend, and we get a glimpse of his shopping prowess when he redresses Thorson, down to the gold medallion. Perhaps more telling in Candelabra are Liberace's costumes off stage. The public Liberace clearly has a separate wardrobe than the cooking-at-home, cuddling-on-the-couch Liberace, but it doesn't include sweatpants and a t-shirt from his old band. He wears monogrammed silk pajamas and gold slippers. Caftans abound.

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Las Vegas News Bureau
Anyone with a foot in modern culture would know what his appearance signaled, but those who didn't want to acknowledge that a man in sequined lederhosen was gay could interpret his costume as mere showmanship—which, of course, it was.

But it's the furs that floor you in the film and real life. For centuries, fur has remained a symbol of power and wealth. Fur instantly conveyed what Liberace wanted to say: "Look at me." Fur is decadent, luxurious—a natural fit for a man who had a spiritual connection with a Bavarian monarch, the gay and crazy King Ludwig II. In the sequence where the couple works to settle their palimony suit, Thorson names the fur coats that Liberace bought him: a raccoon, a black mink trench, a black mink trimmed with leather. Ellen Mirojnick puts the men in matching chinchilla coats for a pivotal scene in a porn shop, but uses faux fur to recreate the white fox with 16-foot train. Even Hollywood couldn't be that decadent.

Presented by

Deirdre Clemente & Aisling O'Connor

Deirdre Clemente is a professor of history at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she studies clothing as cultural history. She served as a historical consultant for Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby and is on the board of advisers to the Liberace Foundation. Her book, Dress Casual: How College Kids Defined American Style is forthcoming. Aisling O’Connor is a radio playwright and fashion and pop-culture contributor to the Irish Independentbohomoth.com and harpersbazaar.co.uk.

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