Liberace isn't exactly a conventional fashion icon. Invariably clad in glitter, usually wrapped in fur, often cruising around in a rhinestone-studded Rolls-Royce, Liberace was a lot of a look. Even taking into account kitsch and camp, both of which are ubiquitous on the contemporary style landscape ("so bad it's good" quickly morphed into the fashion favourite of "ugly chic"), the Liberace aesthetic is pushing it.
The lure of Liberace is curious to modern eyes: a flashy piano player, and not even a terribly good one. The very nadir of naffness. But, to a degree, the clothes made the man: Liberace was as much about his visual effect as his musical talents, in fact, even more so. Those dazzling suits were what transformed him into a showman. And when he started his Vegas residency, the costumes were the visual equivalent of playing it to the back.
Christie's has just held an online-only Pop Culture auction, including one of Liberace's signature suits, encrusted with Swarovski crystal, the rhinestones then re-embroidered with beads, cuffs adorned with removable lace frills. It's a cross between Las Vegas and Louis Quatorze – which was Liberace all over, from the electric candelabra atop his grand piano, to the frescos on his walls adorned with his face. Those seem ludicrous, Liberace at his excessive worst. But, really, it's Liberace as Louis. He had himself immortalised as everyone from Alexander the Great to Apollo, only by better painters and on higher ceilings.
Designer Frank Acuna, the man responsible for creating said spangled suiting for Lee Liberace (one of many: other Liberace designers included Sy Devore, Frank Ortiz and Michael Travis) usually took a month to design and manufacture one of the outfits, at a staggering cost of around $24,000 per suit. The costumes generally weighed between 25 and 50 pounds. The heaviest? Around 20 stone of rhinestones, fringe, feathers and fur. That's a hefty mantle to bear. Ask Michael Douglas, who recently donned an identical suit for his Behind the Candelabra spin (pictured left).
Liberace wasn't unique in his gemmed-out garments – Elvis was also dazzling audiences of the Seventies in his own crystal plumage, albeit without quite as many frills and flounces. Cher was on primetime as a bespangled Cherokee.
Nevertheless, Liberace deserves special credit, for the sheer endurance of holding up those costumes, sure, and also for knowing when to push everything just that little bit too far. Without Lee Liberace moving those goalposts of masculine extravagance, could Roberto Cavalli and Tom Ford ever have put men in mauve and floor-length furs?
Alexander Fury is Fashion Editor of The IndependentReuse content