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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?