I think that it’s about time to comment on another art form that appears in moviemaking- namely, the costume design. Costumes have a fickle role in movies: sometimes we remember a costume forever; other times we can’t remember and we don’t care. In many iconic epic films like Gone with the Wind, we recall the costuming with amazing clarity. I think this is because the great epic films are such visually-based spectacles, that the costumes, which create part of the imagery of the film, are more ingrained in our memory.
In the Biblical theme of this week, I’m going to turn to perhaps the most famous of all the Biblical epics (known affectionately as the “Sword and Sandal” movies): Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring masterpiece, The Ten Commandments (which should be coming on television soon). The plotline of the Ten Commandments is pretty straightforward: a Hebrew baby, Moses, is raised by the Egyptians, discovers his heritage, escapes Egypt, and then returns to triumphantly lead his people out of slavery and finally (if you’re still awake four hours later) receives the titular Ten Commandments from God. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
But to be honest, like I said previously, you’re not watching The Ten Commandments for its pretty basic Biblical plot, or even its very good cast (led by Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and the beautiful Anne Baxter). You’re spending your evening to revel in the magnificent sets, the cast of thousands, the enormous proportion of the film itself, and maybe even for that parting of the sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s bathtub.
Because it’s a historic epic, all the characters are magnificently costumed. Perhaps, the most famous of all the costumes is, as would be expected, the robe of Moses. In a vital plot twist, Moses discovers his Hebrew heritage through a piece of Hebrew cloth his lover tries to conceal from him. He later discovers that he was wrapped in this piece of rag when he was pulled out of the River Nile as an infant.
When Moses’ Jewish heritage is discovered, he is exiled from Egypt (clothed in now, the full Hebrew robe) and stumbles across the desert to the Land of Canaan. There, God eventually reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush, sends him back to Egypt, where Moses must lead his people out of bondage.
Whilst in Egypt, confronting his once-brother, Ramses, Moses is garbed in the Hebrew Robe, a powerful sign of his now-embraced identity. From then on, Moses doesn’t change his clothes, staying in the rough red, white, and black garment. Moses is wearing this robe in the most powerful scenes of the film- the changing of the Nile into Blood and most of all, the Parting of the Red Sea.
The Robe obviously represents Moses’ Jewish identity. Officially, it’s their customary costume, but more importantly, it was worn by Moses’ mother. When Moses is ready to embrace his heritage, his identity, his cause in life- he puts on the robe and does what needs to be done.
There may also be a more subtle message in the costume. The Ten Commandments sometimes seems to have a deeper patriotic message. All this talk of freedom and leading people out of bondage would have certainly struck a chord with an American audience in the midst of the Cold War. A powerful American actor playing Moses, dressed in basically red, white, and blue, would certainly seem to help support the American cause against Communist tyranny. Everyone wants God, or at least His Biblical prophets, on your side in the midst of an ideological struggle.
This costume is hugely iconic. It appears in another form in Mel Brook’s classic parody, History of the World, Part I, when Moses (Mel Brooks dressed in a similar robe) brings down the Fifteen Commandments from Mount Sinai, drops one tablet, while announcing “I bring you these 15, I mean, 10 commandments!”
Two men- John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg were credited in costume design, though they participated in many other artistic aspects of the film as well. I found a costume sketch from Jensen on an auction site which would seem to point to his designing of the costume.It's really quite a beautiful piece of art on its own as well as being an important piece of film history.
However, Friberg claims that he, not Jensen, was the chief designer of the robe. Friberg, as it would happen, was also a painter of many religious scenes as he was a devoted Mormon. In fact, rumor has it that Moses’ shepherd costume was based on one of Friberg’s paintings for the Church of Latter Day Saints. It was also rumored that whoever designed the robe chose the bold color pattern (red, white, and black) originally. As it so happens, this color choice was the same color pattern of the Tribe of Levi which fits very nicely and coincidently into the plot. It is very likely that Friberg did design the costume, as DeMille gave it to Friberg after the filming was done. Friberg kept the costume until his death in 2010.
The costume was actually woven by Dorothea Hulse, one of the world’s most famous weaver and a very famous costume design. Perhaps most of the credit should go to this woman who actually created the rugged, bold costume of Moses that it so famous. Hulse worked for a number of epic films, including, coincidently, The Robe. She’s pictured below with The Robe’s director. Hulse is another one of those important women in Hollywood, whose work is so essential to movies and whose work is also hugely underrated.