Style Style Talk

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Sharon Tate - the exhibition at Newbridge Museum of Style Icons celebrating her life and iconic style

Actress Sharon Tate's personal style epitomised the Swinging Sixties, but her life story was overshadowed by her brutal death, writes Rose Mary Roche

American actress Sharon Tate (1943 - 1969) wearing a pink top and headband, circa 1968.
American actress Sharon Tate (1943 - 1969) wearing a pink top and headband, circa 1968.
Past perfect:US Actress Sharon Tate and film director Roman Polanski after their wedding in Chelsea register Office in 1968
A dress worn by Sharon Tate to the Golden Globes appears in an exhibition at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons from October 8-25, 2018

Looking at any image of Sharon Tate, the viewer is struck not only by the symmetrical proportions of her exquisite face and her tranquil expression, but also by a latent vulnerability in her immense brown eyes and wide, warm smile. The appalling and arbitrary nature of her death has defined Sharon's memory in popular culture since 1969, but now her murder - which shocked Hollywood and halted the frenzied momentum of the Swinging Sixties - is the least important narrative in a new exhibition that aims to restore her to her rightful place as a pop culture icon and muse for designers, artists and film-makers who are still inspired by her magnetism today.

The Sharon Tate show at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons is one of the most intriguing exhibits in its history, spanning a collection of personal possessions, fashion and photographs that belonged to the actress and model, which were retrieved from her home by her father after her death. The items are a selection from over 100 to be auctioned by Julien's of Hollywood on November 17, from the estate of Tate, which has been guarded by her sister Debra since 2000. The auction has been the source of acute interest from collectors, museums and the general public due to the tragic circumstances of Tate's death on August 9, 1969, when the actress and four others were brutally murdered by the Manson Family at her home on 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, LA.

Martin Nolan, the executive Director of Julien's, has managed many auctions in his career but has rarely seen the levels of interest generated by the Sharon Tate auction. He explains: "People are fascinated by Sharon Tate. She represented the Swinging Sixties. There was that terrible, terrible, tragic day when she was robbed from her family, from the world, but we're not focusing on that at all. We're focusing on 26 years of a fun life, an amazing life, that she enjoyed and we're looking at her legacy. I think Newbridge are brave to be the first to put their hands up and say they would do it. It is a museum of 'style icons' and Sharon Tate was a style icon and continues to be one."

He adds: "Debra, her younger sister, is finally letting go because she realises she can't continue to take care of these items forever and she also wants people to be re-introduced to Sharon, to see who she was, learn more about her, see all the amazing life and fashion statements." Debra has stated previously: "I wanted to give a flavour of the person behind the scenes - that is why I put in almost everything."

Past perfect:US Actress Sharon Tate and film director Roman Polanski after their wedding in Chelsea register Office in 1968
Past perfect:US Actress Sharon Tate and film director Roman Polanski after their wedding in Chelsea register Office in 1968

Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Sharon Tate's death and already revived interest in her is building, prompted by the three films slated for release in 2019, about or featuring the actress. These are Michael Polish's Tate with Kate Bosworth, Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood starring Margot Robbie, and Daniel Farrand's The Haunting of Sharon Tate, featuring Hilary Duff.

Sharon Tate was eight-and-a-half months pregnant and married to the film director Roman Polanski at the time of her death. Together they had been the epitome of cool - a cosmopolitan 1960s couple with homes in LA and London, a social circle that encompassed Hollywood, music, aristocracy and the art world, and a bohemian lifestyle that reflected a blend of Swinging London, West Coast liberalism and the hippy revolution of the era. Peter Evans the photojournalist said of them: "Cool, nomadic, talented and nicely shocking… they became part of the anti-Establishment establishment. They became rich but never regal."

Sharon Tate was the oldest child of a military family and had the typical transitory lifestyle of a "military brat". She was quiet and reserved as a child and teen, despite winning numerous beauty pageants. Described by her family as shy and lacking in self-confidence, she nevertheless had presence and an aura of poise and elegance.

As she matured, her striking beauty drew attention and while living in Verona, Italy, she appeared as an extra in a number of American films. Subsequently she moved to LA in 1962 to pursue a career in film and was put under contract to producer Martin Ransohoff, who planned to groom Sharon to become a major star in the mould of Marilyn Monroe.

Despite Ransohoff's ambitious plans and Sharon's willowy, brown-eyed, blonde beauty, her career stalled initially, but she eventually won her first significant film role in Eye of the Devil with David Niven and Deborah Kerr. After shooting, she remained in London, enjoying its buzzing atmosphere and nascent fashion scene. It was there that she met Roman Polanski, an upcoming Polish film director, whom she married in 1968.

Although each was reported to be unimpressed with the other on their initial meeting, Polanski cast Tate in his film The Fearless Vampire Killers. A romance blossomed during filming in Italy and on return to London, they became a glittering couple on the Sixties social scene.

Tate, as a young woman who loved fashion, fell in love with the vibrancy and colour of the city. The free-spirited, irreverent and uninhibited fashions of Carnaby Street were to be a major influence on her own look and she quickly absorbed London street style as epitomised by leather jackets, mini-skirts and go-go boots. Sharon's make-up to complete her look comprised thick false eyelashes, darkly outlined lips and straight, ash-blonde hair.

London's youth fashion revolution was reflected in Tate and Polanski's wedding at Chelsea Registry Office in January 1968, a snapshot of their glamorous world. The bride's dress, which features in the Julien's exhibition at Newbridge (estimate $25,000 to $50,000), was an ivory silk moiré, puff sleeved, high-necked style with a fitted bodice, dainty rows of small buttons at the cuffs, blue ribbon trim and an extremely abbreviated mini skirt. Tate said of the dress, which later became one of the defining images of the Sixties: "It's Renaissance until you get below the knee."

Other notable garments from Sharon's wardrobe, which will be on display at Newbridge, include a black floral lace Christian Dior mini-dress worn by Tate to the London premiere of Polanski's film Cul-de-Sac in 1966 (estimate $15,000 to $30,000); Tate's chocolate sheer silk Alba gown worn to the Golden Globe Awards in 1968 (estimate $4,000 to $6,000, pictured left) and Tate's chocolate mink swing coat by Fuhrman's Beverly Hills (estimate $20,000 to $40,000).

The most tragic element of her story is that her murder catapulted her onto front pages across the world and conferred on her a degree of fame she never achieved through her work. While her family very understandably want to retrieve the sister and daughter they cherished from the grotesque circumstance of her murder and the media frenzy around the trial of Charles Manson and his murderous disciples, for most her name will always be associated with one of the era-defining crimes of modern America.

Joan Didion wrote after her murder that Tate's death ushered the end of the 1960s with a stark finality: "Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969; ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive travelled like bushfire though the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled."

Polanski later stated: "It reinforced my faith in the absurd."

While this exhibit offers a fascinating glimpse into the celebrity culture of the Sixties, Hollywood, Swinging London and the fashion of the era, it also cannot but prompt reflections about the tragedy of Sharon's murder. But superseding this, the exhibit of her intimate possessions restores not only her human face but also her status as a free spirit and a woman who loved life, not merely a victim of an infamous crime.

The Sharon Tate exhibition runs at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons until October 25. Book at newbridgesilverware.com

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