TBT: The Leopard (1963)

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Sometimes considered the first film attempting to depict accurate historical costumes, The Leopard (1963) is an Italian-language 1860s epic with costumes designed by the legendary Piero Tosi of the atelier Tirelli Costumes.

The Leopard (1963)

When you consider that the other best-selling historical costume movies of the time were Cleopatra (1963) and Tom Jones (1963), you can see why this film stood out. Tosi’s costumes are strikingly faithful to the period of the story, using materials that evoke the 1860s not the 1960s, and the silhouettes do not betray contemporary underpinnings. Likewise, the hairstyles and makeup stick to historical styles, with one not-too-terrible exception. The overall effect is amazing and truly transports you back in time, at least in the lingering grand ball scene that ends the movie. In fact, that’s really the best reason to watch this film.

The Leopard (1963)

I must admit, the whole thing is kind of draggy and dull as a movie. The plot plods around the Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) and his dashing young cousin, Tancredi (Alain Delon). The later has joined Garibaldi’s rebellion to overthrow the old Italian nobility and unite them into a republic. Except Tancredi is more of a fair-weather rebel and eventually ditches Garibaldi. More importantly, he hooks up with a hot chick, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), whose nouveau-riche father is sucking up to the Prince (who seems to have the hots for the girl too, even though she’s young enough to be his daughter, ew). Weirdly, even though Tancredi abandons the Prince’s own daughter for Angelica, he’s still happy to bankroll Tancredi’s lavish lifestyle. In between some battles and fancy dinners, The Leopard is full of wistful musings by the Prince about his youthful days gone by and how these current political rumblings won’t change anything. IDK, boys.

The Leopard (1963)
The Leopard (1963)

Tancredi and Angelica get flirty at dinner.

The Leopard (1963)

So just skip ahead to the last 15 minutes because it’s definitely the first, best historical ballroom scene committed to film, as far as accuracy goes, and it’s just one of the top 10 most beautiful ever. This is coming from someone who finds 1860s costume incredibly boring too. But Piero Tosi and his crew did a stellar job in creating a variety of luscious ballgowns in many different colors with intricate and varied types of decorations. Unlike some productions, these don’t look like they’re stamped from the same one or two fashion plates. The dresses are in a range of dark, bright, and light colors, appropriate to the period, with sparkly beaded trim, lace trim, floral trim, fringe trim — y’know, variety. Like you’d see in real life. Not just a sea of pastels and flower crowns or everybody in couch prints and tassels.

The Leopard (1963)

Click on any of these images for the full view!

The Leopard (1963)

Angelica at the ball.

The Leopard (1963)

Angelica’s ballgown on exhibit.

The Leopard (1963)

The one wee bit of historical inaccuracy is that Angelica wears too much eye makeup. She has a bit of 1960s winged eyeliner and either gobs of mascara or false eyelashes (or both!). Maybe they wanted her to stand out because she’s the ingenue, or it could have been the actress’ request. Still, she’s the only one, and the rest of the women look historical and not modern in their makeup, and everyone’s hair is period-accurate. Even the one scene where Angelica’s hair is down, it’s done in a historical fashion — she and Tancredi have been getting busy, so her hair is mussed and half-down with hairpins hanging out. She’s not just running around with loose hair. They got the details correct here.

The Leopard (1963)

Angelica’s hair is hanging down…

The Leopard (1963)

…but you can see she started out with her hair done.

The Leopard (1963)

Though her makeup is a bit heavy-handed.

The Leopard (1963) The Leopard (1963)
The Leopard (1963)

Hard to find repeats in the trim styles/patterns among all these gowns!

The Leopard (1963)
The Leopard (1963)

Watching a young lady jumping up on the ottoman and all of them giggling, the Prince derides them as inbred monkeys, but they reminded me of fabulous ladies at a party I’d like to attend.

The Leopard (1963)

Haters to the left.

 

This video shows the first 10 minutes of the film — it’s not flashy, but you can see how precisely the costumes are recreated. We make take this for granted today, but compare with other historical movies of the 1960s. You just didn’t see this level of accuracy.

 

Here is the famous waltz between the Prince of Salina and Angelica, for just a glimpse of all the ah-may-zing ballgowns everywhere.

 

Have you seen The Leopard? How does it compare to earlier or later historical costume movies?

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

8 Responses

  1. Melinda

    Hi! Yeah, the costumes are perfect in this movie, only watched over the boring story twice to see the ball at the end! In the novel the story doesn’t end here, but goes on in time, when all the young hotties get old, the prince dies, and everything held secret reveals. But the great ball scene always reminds me of Winterhalter paintings! How the ladies look in their very different styled gowns! It was just about time to rewiev this movei, before snark week, you know :D

    Reply
  2. Deborah Brower

    I have been fascinated with this movie since I was a kid. The score is luscious and romantically over the top. Though they keep repeating the same tunes during the ball. The costumes are so beautiful. A special edition of the film was released recently, which includes a documentary on the making of the film. I was surprised to learn it’s one of Martin Scorse’s favorite flims and probably influenced his production of the Age of Innocence.

    Reply
  3. Melanie Clark

    The Leopard is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It influenced Coppola even more–the entire feel of The Godfather is heavily inspired by this film. I agree, it’s a slow movie (and I was bored in the first hour, too), but it’s supposed to be more of an introspective character study of the Prince than an exciting narrative. I read the novel too, and it’s even more beautiful than the film, if that can be believed.

    Also, isn’t the ballroom scene more like 45 minutes?

    Reply
  4. Maria

    I have tried to watch this movie a couple of times but just get bogged down in the story. I agree that the costuming is superb and the set decorations are true to the time period – I just wish the story moved a little more quickly or that the dialogue was a bit better.

    Reply
  5. Susan Pola

    Il Gattopardo is truly amazing, Both the novel and film contains lush and picture painted passages. Of course, the ball tops my list of favourite scenes. Casting was perfect. I believe it was Ms Cardinale first film. I cannot picture anyone else as Angelica.
    Among the costumers assisting Mr Tosi, I believe, was the great Danilo Donati, a favorite designer of Franco Zeffirelli.

    Reply
  6. Pina

    I’ve seen this film recently. Liked the overall concept and loved some bits, but was a bit too slow for me too. I think I would enjoy it a lot more on a second viewing, when I won’t keep expecting anything big and dramatic to happen. However, what I’m really writing this comment for is to express how much I agree with you on the incredible boringness of 1860s (European) clothing. Not that I know that much about historical clothing but the very similar (to my eyes, at least) style of the 1850s caught my attention in Zeffirelli’s La Traviata. As that’s in my list of top ten favorite films ever, I will forever lament the fact that the story doesn’t take place in a fashion-wise more exciting period. And I just *hate* those “many-sausages-around-my-face” hairstyles.

    Reply
  7. decrepitelephone

    I like the 1860s (but I love the 1850s, specifically the later ’50 more) myself, and this movie is my FAVORITE of any based in the period.

    They got the actresses to even move correctly – gliding along rather than stomping about. It’s such a beautiful movie, even if it’s a snooze. I just put it on in Italian, and start sewing and have it as eye candy.

    Reply
  8. drush76

    I’ve never seen this film, though judging from the costumes, I would have been in heaven. I’ve always been fascinated by fashion between the 1840s and 1860s.

    Reply

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