Liberace and His Costume Legacy

Before Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga there was...Liberace. Yep, the beloved pianist and showman did that whole coming-out-of-an-egg thing decades before Gaga. And with an HBO biopic on the way and a new book out tomorrow, we're taking a closer look at the original showman and his over the top costumes.
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Before Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga there was...Liberace. Yep, the beloved pianist and showman did that whole coming-out-of-an-egg thing decades before Gaga. And with an HBO biopic on the way and a new book out tomorrow, we're taking a closer look at the original showman and his over the top costumes.
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Before Cher, Madonna, and Lady Gaga there was... Liberace. Yep, the beloved pianist and showman did that whole coming-out-of-an-egg thing decades before Gaga.

And now, 25 years after Liberace's death, there's renewed interest in his life and his completely over-the-top costumes.

The hotly anticipated Steven Soderbergh-directed flick Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as the maestro and Matt Damon as his boy toy lover, airs on HBO on May 26. And tomorrow, a new book dedicated to Liberace's costumes hits shelves.

Liberace Extravaganza! (Harper Collins, 2013), written by Connie Furr Soloman and Jan Jewett, explores the history of Liberace's on-stage transformation, from wearing a standard tux and tails to the flamboyant numbers he later became known for. (Including some fur pieces that would send PETA into a tizzy today.)

The authors, two costume designers themselves, tracked down Liberace's personal costume designers and meticulously photographed and recorded details of all his famous outfits. We hopped on the phone with Soloman and got the scoop on these truly unbelievable clothes.

From gold lamé Dior to a 150 pound mink fur cape, click through for a peek at some of Liberace's sartorial treasures and learn the stories behind them.

Photos: Courtesy Harper Collins

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Modest Beginnings

When Liberace started out in the 1950s, he stuck to a wardrobe of tuxes and tails. His looks, like this gold Dior jacket, started getting a bit more flamboyant, prompting rumors about his homosexuality. Liberace won a lawsuit against a journalist in London who suggested the entertainer might be gay. After that, Liberace fired his manager and went with a more buttoned-down stage presence, wearing Brooks Brothers: It failed miserably with audiences.

"After Liberace failed [in his new stage look], he read this self help book about the power of believing and being yourself," Soloman told us. "He said, 'I’m going back to being who I am.' He already understood entertainment. People loved what he was doing, so he went back to it."

And as evidenced by these next OTT looks, he never looked back.

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The Faberge Egg Costume

This is one of Liberace's most famous get-ups, designed by his long-time collaborator Michael Travis. Liberace wore it for his shows at Radio City Music Hall.

"He entered through an enormous pink Faberge egg that opened up and he would exit and come down the staircase," Soloman told us. "This was actually one of his lighter costumes because [it is made from] feathers."

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The 150-Pound Mink Cape

This cape, designed in 1975 by Liberace's dear friend and furrier, Anna Nateece, was one of Liberace's favorites and he wore it throughout the '70s and '80s. It's made from 500 black mink skins. As if that wasn't enough, the whole thing is trimmed with rhinestones. This sucker weighs 150 pounds.

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The Shoes

According to Soloman, Liberace was reported to be about six feet tall, but based on inseam measurements that she took on some of his costumes, she puts his height closer to 5'8." Many of his shoes, designed by LA-based shoemaker Pasquale Di Fabrizio, featured chunky heels.

"The heels helped give Liberace presence and also Michael Travis [Liberace's costume designer] mentioned that it helped shift some of the weight of the capes and helped to balance him," Soloman said. "As a female who wears heels, you walk quite differently. I think it gave his gait a little more pizazz perhaps."

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The Flame Costume

Now here's something to make Katniss's flame dress look like child's play in comparison.

Michael Travis noted in the book that it was one of his most challenging costumes to create. It featured small mirrors all over the cape and a complicated ombré metallic fabric. Oh, and also 600 (!) electric lights. Yep, crystals were no longer enough bling for Liberace.

A man named Gordon Young was the person responsible for electrifiying Liberace. "[Young] had first designed a ring that would light up for Liberace's wife who enjoyed opera, so she could read her program. He saw Liberace perform and after the performace Liberace was quite willing to sit around and talk to his public," Soloman said. "Gordon said 'Look at this ring. Would you be interested in some light up jewelry?' and Liberace was like, 'Well, can you light up a suit?'"

Done.

In the early days, he had to hold "an old timey household light switch on stage to turn his costumes on and off," Soloman said.

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The Hot Pants Phase

So apparently some friend made Liberace a hot pants outfit to wear to a party. The outfit was such a hit that the stage hands convinced him to wear it onstage. Designer Michael Travis wasn't very excited about this.

"The hot pants were Michael Travis’s least favorite costume because he felt it wasn’t dignified," Soloman said. "Liberace had so much joy onstage that it was infectious. He didn’t mind looking maybe for some people...foolish...but he understood that people enjoyed it."

Sidebar: You must check out this incredible footage of Liberace prancing around in his hot pants and talking about why he's still a bachelor:

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At the End

Liberace died in 1986 due to complications related to AIDS. (His death was a huge controversy. He never publicly admitted he was gay, and his family and close friends tried desperately to keep his cause of death private. Read the fascinating and sad story in this 1987 People article.)

Soloman said that after Liberace's death, because of the poor understanding of AIDS back then, no one wanted to pick up his costumes from the dry cleaner's. Liberace's dear friend and furrier Anna Nateece (who designed this white mink number in 1982) reclaimed his sartorial treasures after he died.