Costume drama: How Swarovski has made cinema sparkle throughout the years

Enchanted by the clothes featured in Elton John biopic 'Rocketman', we look at other films that had a little extra shine thanks to the glitzy crystal maker

Taron Egerton as Elton John in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.
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One million. That is how many Swarovski crystals it took to create Taron Egerton's dazzling costumes in the new Elton John biopic, Rocketman.

Reimagined as flames that coursed across orange neoprene, trimmed around jackets, clustered on to glasses and even fashioned into a teeny-­tiny crown, these little faceted stones play a major part in recreating the life of the flamboyant British singer. Imagine, if you can, the film’s opening corridor scene without the cascade of feathers and crystals, or the Dodger Stadium scene without the shimmering baseball suit. If you haven’t seen the film yet, then take our word for it – all that shameless bling is integral to the plot.

More interestingly, when you’re caught up in the visual spectacle, it is easy to forget that these costumes don’t just appear from thin air. They are carefully thought up, sketched, designed and then tailored, with each and every stone – all one million of them – put on by hand.

Rocketman Sketch Illustrated by Darrell Warner
A costume sketch by Darrell Warner, for Rocketman

Of course, this is not Swarovski’s first foray into cinema. Far from it. Unlike moonstone, silica, volcanic glass or natural crystal, Swarovski crystal is totally man-made, with the company using a closely guarded recipe of quartz, sand and minerals.

Sparkling over the decades 

In 1891, Austrian Daniel Swarovski patented an electric machine that could cut lead glass crystal with unrivalled accuracy. This ability to create faux gems on demand sparked his vision to create "a diamond for everyone".

As with everything, timing is important, and fortunately for Swarovski, the late 1800s saw the rise of a moneyed middle class, who were eager for a cheaper alternative to diamonds, while across Europe, people were experimenting with William Friese-Greene's 1888 invention: the moving image camera.

The gadget was popular with the likes of Louis Le Prince and the Lumiere Brothers, and short, silent films began to appear. These, although barely over a minute long, triggered an immediate reaction. Suddenly an entire industry bloomed as films began to lengthen, needing ­storywriters, actors, costumes and sets. Into this burgeoning new world stepped ­Swarovski. Able to produce versatile baubles cheaply and in almost unlimited quantity, it was a natural marriage.

Swarovski first appeared on the silver screen in 1932, on the costumes for Marlene Dietrich in the film Blonde Venus. In 1939, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind swooshed about in beautiful Swarovski-dusted gowns, while in the same year, the dazzling red shoes worn by Dorothy (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz gleamed courtesy of the stones.

Monroe, Hepburn and Bond

In 1953, American actress Marilyn Monroe sang Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend draped in faux gems in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while Audrey Hepburn stepped out of a taxi in the opening scene of 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's wearing a Givenchy dress and a tiny crystal-coated tiara.

The barely there dress Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday Mr President in 1961 relied on thousands of gems to protect her modesty, a look famously recreated by Rihanna in 2014 at the CFDA Awards. Meanwhile, the costume designers for Moulin Rouge! (2001), Catherine Martin and Angus Strathie, had to ­create more than 400 costumes smothered in the stones, ­especially for the looks worn by Nicole Kidman.

Even spies, it seems, like a bit of bling, with Swarovski helping to adorn the costumes for no less than eight James Bond films. Barbara Bach in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) donned a backless, jewel-trimmed dress to outwit baddies in Luxor, Egypt, while Halle Berry joined the Bond franchise (in 2002's Die Another Day) in crystal-­encrusted Versace.

The stones haven't only appeared on clothing, either. Inspired by the set of the film Dreamgirls, the 2006 Academy Awards ceremony was conducted in front of a 34-foot-high curtain illuminated with 50,000 Swarovski crystals, launching an ongoing collaboration. This year, too, production designer Derek McLane created an Oscars set so elaborate it took 3,500 hours to make and used a staggering 45 million pieces of Swarovski.

Costume Designer Julian Day on the set of Rocketman from Paramount Pictures.
'Rocketman' costume designer Darrell Warner with some of the looks he created for the film

Scintillating performers 

Film stars and sets aside, musicians, too, have long relied on over-the-top, flamboyant stage looks to set a mood (Elvis, Cher), but none more so than Liberace, the ­classical pianist turned bedazzling showman. Once the world's highest-paid performer, he certainly knew how to enthral his audience and would take to the stage in all-white tails laden with stones, dreamt up by his designer Michael Travis. Incidentally, it was during ­Liberace's Las Vegas tour that he hand-picked a young ­Barbra Streisand as his supporting act, launching her own sparkling career.

Elsewhere, and in a case of life imitating art, when Elton John began his Las Vegas concert residency in 2011, entitled The Million Dollar Piano, he wore a custom-made wardrobe by Savile Row tailor Richard James, as his Liberace tribute. John is dressed these days by the Italian house Gucci, which has crafted all the outfits for his Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour using, you guessed it, Swarovski.

The tiny stones also run rampant through Gucci’s own collections, dancing across shoe buckles, huge costume jewellery and even as entire bodysuits. Balmain, under designer Olivier Rousteing, uses Swarovski like fairy dust, sprinkled over almost everything, including the mini dress he created for Beyonce’s appearance at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival, a commemorative concert for Nelson Mandela. The singer took it one step further for her On the Run tour, opening each night in a crystal mesh bodysuit and jacket created for her by LaQuan Smith.

MONTREAL, QC - SEPTEMBER 09:  (Exclusive Coverage) Madonna performs onstage during her "Rebel Heart" tour opener at Bell Centre on September 9, 2015 in Montreal, Canada.  (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation) *** Local Caption *** Madonna
Madonna on her Rebel Heart tour. 

So entwined with showmanship are these innocuous little stones that even Madonna’s costume designer, Arianne Phillips, has said: “There is no Madonna tour without Swarovski crystals.” The Queen of Pop’s Rebel Heart tour (in 2015-2016) required 2.5 million Swarovski crystals be hand-applied. Jennifer Lopez, currently in the middle of a three-year Vegas residency, has clearly taken the phrase “give ‘em the old razzle dazzle” to heart, hitting the stage every night in bespoke Versace x Swarovski so sparkly, even her tights shimmer.

With such an intertwined relationship with entertainment, it seems we as an audience cannot get enough of these light-infused stones. When Annmarie Harris, ­director of corporate branding and communication for Swarovski, introduced a short montage at the 2018 Dubai Film Festival (made of ­snippets of films such as Phantom of the Opera, Mary Queen of Scots and Murder on the Orient Express), she was asked how we would spot her product. Her answer was very simple. "Remember, if it sparkles, it's Swarovski." ­Having seen the light-­refracting extravaganza that is Rocketman, I can only agree.