Frock & Roll: Mr. Showmanship

Written by Miranda Haut and Edited by Jessica Bailey

Over the span of forty years he honed his talents in singing, playing the piano, and entertaining which ultimately culminated in him being named “Mr. Showmanship”. He disrupted the industry with out-of-this-world get-up’s and crowd-pleasing charisma that garnered fans of all ages across the world. His performances both on stage and television have continued to inspire many other musicians even to present day. In this post, Frock & Roll discusses the glitz and glamour that is Liberace. 

He was born Wladziu (Walter) Valentino Liberace in West Allis, Wisconsin in 1919 to Salvatore and Frances. Both of his parents were musically trained, and studying the subject was always at the forefront of the household despite financial restraints. Walter quickly picked up the skill and began playing piano from a young age. Liberace met the Polish pianist and composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski when he was just eight years old, whom of which would go on to be one of his mentors throughout his career. By age 14, Liberace received a scholarship to the Wisconsin College of Music, under the tutelage of Florence Bettray-Kelly. He made his orchestral debut only a few years later with the Chicago Symphony when he was just 16. The young prodigy was able to become a local success with landing gigs in cabarets and various clubs but decided to move to New York City when he was 21 to further his music career. 

He began to work in the same supper-club as the Incomparable Hildegarde who had her own glitzy act complete with beautiful gowns, a wig, and bejeweled accessories accompanied by her signature long, white opera length gloves. These accoutrements would become her trademark and had advised Liberace to come up with his own. Inspired by the movie “A Song to Remember”, he saw that Chopin used a candelabra while he played piano. With the little money he had, he went out and purchased one along with few candles and it has been a staple in his shows ever since. As for this clothing, he did not dress as extravagantly as his associate. Classic black tuxedos tails paired with a white dress shirt and vest, or a white dinner jacket and black dress pants made up his typical wardrobe, but he always added his own personal touch to the look just like he did in high school. 

His career began to gain momentum with his first film South Sea Sinner and it wasn’t long before he caught the attention of an agent. In 1952 The Liberace Show aired. With television, he was able to reach a wider audience but that also meant he had to appeal to a wider demographic. By adding in fake streaks of grey to his hair and perfectly pressed tails, he transformed into a more grown up version of his 32-year-old self and was able to better connect his older fans. His style remained the same during the early years of the show. It wasn’t until his performance at the Hollywood bowl in 1952 did he break out of his traditional black tie and tails. The change of look actually came about out of necessity. With such a large venue, he realized the audience would be unable to see him from far away. He also wanted to distinguish himself from the rest of the musicians, so he chose a bright white set of the same style, and the color made all the difference. This would just be the start of his on-stage transformation. 

Fun Fact: In 1953, “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” declared Liberace “the fastest piano player in the world” for playing 6,000 notes in two minutes. In 1983, he broke a second record for being the world’s highest paid musician. 

The true beginning of the sequined Liberace we have come to know started at Rivera Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. It was during this show on April 20, 1955 that the pianist broke away from more classic attire and began to really wow his audience. He changed outfits 10 times throughout the show, starting off with two custom-made Dior numbers: a white silk lame tuxedo, and a black suit that had over 1.5 million sequins attached to it (pictured below). 

The first designer he worked with was an established tailor to the stars named Sy Devore. Sy had worked with members of the Rat Pack and had caught the attention of Liberace who asked him to design his clothing for The Liberace Show and later his second movie, Sincerely Yours. Once he had a taste for the lavish, Liberace couldn’t get enough. Coming from an impoverished background whose family could never begin to afford luxuries like the ones he now wore, it served as a true marker of success in his eyes to be able to show it off. And showed it off he did. Little by little the outfits would become more luminous and luxe, but it took the work of his agent Seymour Heller, Devore, and costumer Frank Acuna to revamp Liberace’s image. 

From 1957 to 1965, Liberace worked with tailor Frank Ortiz. The two met by way of the entertainment director for the New Frontier hotel in Las Vegas where Liberace performed. Ortiz would be the one to introduce him to the world of rhinestones and sequins, and he created his first battery operated suit with a light up miniature candelabra on the chest. The jacket has a silver damask base, with seed and bugle beads, AB rhinestones, and lochrosens in varying silver and gold throughout. The candles were “turned on” by way of a battery pack located inside the left sleeve (pictured below).

Costume design by Frank Ortiz

In the 1960’s he was accused of being a “has-been” and speculations from several news sources reported that he was homosexual. For a brief time, Liberace toned down his image to dissuade these accusations, but it almost ended his career. What worked for Liberace was his powerful presence amongst live audiences. Heller, Devore, and Acuna decided to use this to his advantage and instead upped the ante on his costumes by taking things to the next level. By 1963 the performer dubbed himself “Mr. Showmanship” and had the talent and wardrobe to uphold the title. 

There was a clear historical inspiration behind these new designs. Liberace would watch movies and view art for inspiration and come to his designers with ideas of his own. His outfits had parallels of the Regency era dandy Beau Brummell, who was regarded as a pioneer for fashion during his time. A well-tailored jacket, lace jabot, and quality fabrics are just some of the features of Brummell’s dress that have made their way from the 1800’s to the 1960’s. Acuna was well versed in period costumes, working exclusively with Rudolph Valentino as well as other actors in historical films, which made him an ideal choice to contribute to this new image.

Devore and Acuna two would work together to create a look fit for the entertainer. Liberace has always been a fan of the classic tailcoat silhouette, but now with the two designers he could transform the traditional style into something more modern and of course with a handful of pizzazz. 

Image courtesy of Liberace Extravaganza!

Purple Damask Suit of Tails (Costume design by Frank Acuna, 1961) – This is a great example of his transforming his classic tailcoat look into a new era of glamour. The purple silk damask fabric creates instant drama against the deep purple velvet vest, bowtie, and collar. Upon closer examination there is a vine pattern throughout the damask using black and AB bugle beads.

Silver Knickers costume (Costume design by Frank Acuna, 1969) – This look consisted of nine separate pieces to complete the design. Silver lamé fabric was used for the bolero, vest, knickers, with tiny mirrors and clear crystals appearing to drip from it. The belt is made from several strips of leather banded together by metal and more crystal rhinestones. His shoes match the same silver leather and are accented with additional AB rhinestones.

Fun Fact: The average suit by Acuna cost $24,000. His most expensive? The one that spelled out L-I-B-E-R-A-C-E in real diamond buttons. 

By 1969, The Liberace Show came back and this time it was in color. The entertainer selected Acuna to officially take over after Devore’s passing in ’67. During this year in Salt Lake City he also met Gordon Young who was working on a new type of creation: light up jewelry. Liberace wondered if the same technology could be used for clothing, and thus the experimentation began. Young produced a series of costumes including one that featured 640 working lights. For this piece, he had to individually cut each hole and hid all of the engineering inside the lining of the jacket. It was operated using a radio transmitter backstage and cost a sum of $1,000. His most ambitious, and final piece has 4,000 lights in three different colors. With all of the equipment the jacket weighed over 25 pounds, but the weight was worth the impression it made on his audience.

Costume design by Frank Acuna, lighting technology by Gordon Young

Jim Lapidus’s beaded bowties initially caught the eye of Liberace in 1973. He had asked the designer to meet in person at his home where he perused sketches and placed an order for several ties and two outfits, one of which was worn on the Johnny Carson show. After wearing his designs, Lapidus would later catch the eye of Elton John.

Piano Suit (Costume design by Jim Lapidus, 1974) – Made of black silk velvet with black sequins on top, the lapel, cuffs, and the hem of matching pants feature piano keys composed of silver and black bugle beads. The matching sequined bowtie has a miniature rhinestone piano brooch in the center.

Rainbow-Stoned Denim Jumpsuit with Attached Cape (Costume design by Jim Lapidus, 1974) – One of his most modern and “of the era” looking costumes was this denim get-up. With wide rows of multi-colored stones and star motifs throughout, the silhouette and sparkle clearly make it the ultimate stage costume. There is an accompanying rhinestone necklace set in Tiffany mountings, and matching denim boots complete the look. 

After exploring all of the stones, beads, and luxury fabrics the world had to offer, Liberace met the furrier Anna Nateece and soon his costumes became even more exuberant (and expensive). Liberace had a show opening at the Hilton and wanted a special piece to be made. Nateece had a floor sample mink coat that was actually originally designed for Cyd Charisse and advised Liberace that she could create a lining completely made out of rhinestones. He was sold. After a series of five fittings it was finished, and altogether the cape had 40,000 2.5 karat Austrian rhinestone, sewn on individually along with a matching scarf. The set weighed in at 150 pounds and is reported to be valued at $750,000 (pictured below).

Liberace with Nateece

Frank Ortiz was retiring, and Liberace was on the hunt for yet another designer. His road manager Ray Arnett knew a man named Michael Travis who had previously worked on Broadway, television, and film and asked if he would be interested in taking on the role. Travis would design not only the outfits, but all of the adorned beading patterns and oversaw the entire process managing a tailor, a handful of seamstresses, and another four to six people working on the stoning. From start to finish, a single costume could take months to complete, weigh up to 45 pounds, and cost anywhere between $100-150,000 for a suit and cape. It truly took a village to create each masterpiece. Travis and Nateece would work together on many of what are often referred to as his most iconic looks. 

White Ostrich Cape (Costume design by Michael Travis, 1977) – Travis was once quoted that, “Our thing is always out-dazzle the most jaded eye.” With a silver lame base, this cape is made for true music royalty. It is completely covered in some form of shimmering fragment such as mirrors, pearls, crystals, and AB stones. The specific styles of beads and stones range from bugle and rocaille, to lochrosens and navettes. There are four rows of white ostrich feathers, a scalloped standing collar, a sequined trimmed chiffon jabot, and oversized bow tie.

Fabergé costume (Costume design by Michael Travis, 1978)- Liberace stood prominently in pink this tailcoat, jumpsuit, and matching feathered cape look. For 21 shows at the Radio City Music Hall, Liberace made quite an entrance in this as he came out of a matching 12-foot Fabergé egg as part of his Easter spectacular. A vertical bugle bead pattern on the jacket and pants make up the primary design, with silk satin floral appliques, large AB rhinestones, white pearls and paillettes intermixed with additional shades of pink, orange, and red cover the jacket and shoes. The cape was a masterpiece of its own, made from an ombré of pink turkey feathers. To support the weight, it was mounted on heavy duck cotton, and lined with pink lamé. Its collar was lined in rows of various shades of pink coque feathers. The finished hem of the cape measures 26 feet wide and 9 feet long. 

Fun Fact: Lady Gaga would actually draw inspiration from this entrance for one of her own at the Grammy’s in 2011.

Image courtesy of Liberace Extravaganza!

Rhinestone Suit with White Azurene Mink Cape (Costume design by Michael Travis, cape by Anna Nateece, 1982) – Quite literally every square inch of this tailcoat, vest, pants, and boots is covered in rhinestones, pearls, and beads. To be able to withstand the heaviness of the embellishments, the base is a white polyester gaberdine, with a portion of the vest in silver lamé. The floor-length cape has mink and fox fur with a matching capelet, with two large bands at each hem separated by a row of crystal rhinestones. 

King Neptune (Costume design by Michael Travis, 1983) – Liberace’s heaviest non-fur costume he ever wore was this King Neptune suit and matching cape, weighing in at 200 pounds. He would go on to wear this for multiple occasions including the 1984 World Fair and performances at Radio City Music Hall, Atlantic City, and Caesar’s palace. The weight was caused by the intricate beading and adornments. It displays a coral reef motif and the standing collar that imitates a shell. Faux scallops are created with bugle beads, with cascading pearls, crystal lochrosens, and peach and coral jewels filling them. The cape has a larger scale coral reef design with an array of green, pinks, and corals. There are several trapunto sea horses, and the blue, turquoise, and purple sequins evoke the feeling of water making it an otherworldly costume. The cape hem measures over 26 feet wide. 

Michael Travis’s “Bird of Paradise” ensemble is in the Wisconsin Historical Museum’s collection.

Liberace recognized the importance of his costumes and how they contributed to his success. Many people can sing and play an instrument, but few can create a persona in conjunction with their talents that takes them to the next level of stardom. He constantly tried to outdo his previous look and wanted to please his audiences. He stated that “costumes are works of art” and he knew that they were bigger than himself. Of course, people came to see him, but he was also aware that they came for a fashion show. They wanted to “ooh and ahh” at the glitz just as much as admire his talents. He continually employed true artisans and had a great respect for the craft, and ultimately what these pieces did for his career. 

Now, just how do you pair any shoes with Liberace’s glittering rhinestone outfits? Leave it to, Pasquale Di Fabrizio who was  a shoemaker to the stars before working with Liberace in 1960. His list of clients included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, and would later create the infamous KISS platform boots. Travis contacted Di Fabrizio to complete the look of his custom creations. When Liberace started working with a tailor, his pants were always worn with a cropped straight, slim leg that featured no break in the hem. This meant that his shoes would be on full display and would need to be treated just as importantly as the rest of his look. Keeping with his love of history, Liberace would always sport a heeled boot. The most expensive shoe Liberace purchased from Di Fabrizio was for $4,000. Today, you can still see the shoeboxes and wooden molds of his clients at his Hollywood shop. 

Despite his fame and fortune, many of his close companions still regarded him as one of the most down to earth and generous people they knew. He was known as someone that truly personified extravagance, although his upbringing was the exact opposite. There is a clear gradual progression in his career and wardrobe that complimented each other. Through his costumes he found solace. He could rely on them giving joy to others, and thus created joy within himself.

It’s clear to see that Liberace’s style greatly influenced other performers such as Elton John, Elvis Presley, Lady Gaga, Cee Lo Green (with his Loberace Vegas show), Michael Jackson, and countless others. His sartorial risks allowed for others to stand out and created a new standard in entertainment. 

Liberace had his own museum in Las Vegas from 1979-2010 that was overseen by his brother George. Currently you can view a large array of his costumes and cars at the old home of Michael Jackson, the Thriller Villa, which is close to the Strip via guided tours. The performer also started the Liberace Foundation for the Creative and Performing Arts in 1976 as a non-profit to provide scholarships to students in these fields and supports the collection to continue to be displayed. Anna Nateece still serves as Director on the board of the organization and consults the care and preservation for his costume collection. 

Additional Resources:

Behind the Candelabra

Liberace: An Autobiography

Liberace Extravaganza!

The Wonderful Private World of Liberace

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