When Elizabeth Taylor married Conrad "Nicky" Hilton, Jr. in 1950, it was one of the most golden moments of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Already a veteran actress at age 18, Elizabeth was a mere year away from her Oscar-nominated performance in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's A Place in the Sun (1951). This was her very first marriage and, partly because she was still so young, there was a genuine innocence and optimism about the occasion. Everyone wanted to be there - the Beverly Hills wedding and Bel Air reception made up the social event of the year. MGM boasted more stars than there are in heaven and the 700 guests represented the A-list of Old Hollywood. Greer Garson, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, Esther Williams, and Van Johnson were just some of the stars who came to congratulate the bride. Guests also included co-stars Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett from Father of the Bride (1950), which MGM marketed and skillfully scheduled for release mere weeks after the wedding. Even columnist Hedda Hopper, a veteran scrutineer of visionary Hollywood brides from the days of Vilma Banky and Norma Shearer to Shirley Temple [and] Deanna Durbin, called the event the Hollywood wedding of weddings.
The real star and center of this wedding of weddings was the dress. A gift from MGM and designed by their legendary costume designer Helen Rose, it was (and still is) so extraordinary that photographs of it have appeared all over the world - from newspapers to tabloids to LIFE magazine. Today it appears in the pages of fashion and continues to act as inspiration to the industry; in fact, this off-the-shoulder illusion gown has become iconic. With 25 yards of shell-white satin sprinkled with bugle beads and tiny seed pearls trailed by 15 yards of satin train, it is exactly the kind of elegant design for which Helen Rose was known. She always started by sourcing the most luxurious of fabrics, and there is a special luminous depth to the satin in this gown. It exudes a warm glow in certain light that looks beautiful against the skin. And, according to the vendor, the fabric even sounds beautiful, there is a soft slow swishing whenever one moves across the room.
Everything about this gown was custom designed with Elizabeth Taylor in mind. Since she was celebrated for her voluptuous figure, Helen added a built-in corset to the dress so it could be tightly cinched to emphasize Elizabeth's waist and bust. Apparently, they took that as far as they could; it's reported that Elizabeth gasped when she was sewn in on the day of the wedding. Even the veil of 10 yards of shimmering silk illusion net was carefully considered and attached to a pearl-covered Juliet cap in order to fairly float around Elizabeth. The project was so extensive and had such priority at MGM that 15 people worked full-time (likely more) for two to three months straight on it. It took several people just to complete the painstaking pearl and beadwork. The level of craftsmanship of this garment is so high it would be near impossible to recreate. That's the magic of Helen Rose and the might of MGM.
Historically, there are several great relationships between designer and star in Hollywood. Adrian and Joan Crawford. Travis Banton and Marlene Dietrich. Hubert de Givenchy and Audrey Hepburn. And then there is Helen Rose and Elizabeth Taylor. Helen was a two-time Oscar winner, dressing Lana Turner in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955). With Father of the Bride, she and Elizabeth began a special bond and the resulting collaborations through their careers continue to influence us today. Consider the iconic wardrobes Helen created for Elizabeth in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Butterfield 8 (1960). They made an immediate impact on fashion; copies of the slips and cocktail dresses from both movies went on to become bestsellers in stores. They continued to be so popular, in fact, that Helen included the designs in her own line when she segued to fashion from her career at MGM.
Their relationship went beyond great design, too. Elizabeth considered Helen one of her closest friends and the two women would remain friends for years. Helen was there with Elizabeth through her triumphs, including her Best Actress Oscar for Butterfield 8. But perhaps most importantly, she was there for Elizabeth's tragedies as well; Helen was one of the few called in time of genuine need. Their relationship grew stronger when Elizabeth's beloved husband, producer Mike Todd, suddenly died in a plane crash during filming of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She would later say that playing the part of Maggie and having Helen by her side saved her life during that difficult time.
Because Helen was known for always achieving Louis B. Mayer's one standing order to just make them look beautiful and treated everyone with great respect, she worked wonderfully well with all of her colleagues and clients. In addition to Elizabeth, many of the biggest stars were personal friends: Grace Kelly, Lana Turner, Lena Horne, Lauren Bacall, and Esther Williams were all considered like sisters. Helen was so close to them that she frequently designed their off-screen wardrobes as well. Needless to say, this often included their wedding gowns. Perhaps her most famous was Grace Kelly's when she became the Princess of Monaco, especially since that very design recently inspired Kate Middleton's wedding dress by Sarah Burton (for Alexander McQueen). Helen was known for doing wedding dresses so well that Zsa Zsa Gabor once said, A beautiful Helen Rose chiffon dress, a little Dom Perignon, some caviar, and dammit, you're married again!
It is impossible to overstate the significance of this dress. Few dresses have as deep a historical connection to both film and fashion. It's an example of a legendary designer and star working together in perfect harmony, and the result is something that has made a lasting impact on fashion. Though the Taylor-Hilton marriage would quickly end, Elizabeth's appreciation for all that went into this dress never did. As its current owner mused, For all the days the gods gave Elizabeth beauty, intelligence, and charm; but they gave her only a handful of days of innocence. This gown celebrates Elizabeth's days of innocence. It also celebrates the timeless style of an icon.
by Kimberly Truhler
Film and Costume Historian
Founder of GlamAmor www.glamamor.com
The vendor received the wedding dress as a gift from her Grandmother, who purchased it at a charity auction in Beverly Hills in the late 1960s. Her Grandmother met Elizabeth Taylor's mother at the auction, who explained that Elizabeth had donated the dress to the charity as her marriage to Hilton had been such an unhappy one. The vendor wore the dress for her own wedding in 1974 and is still happily married today.