The Dress in ”True Lies”
Most women spend years looking for that perfect little black dress. In True Lies, Jamie Lee Curtis found it — and 14 more.
As Helen Tasker, wife of international spy Harry Tasker (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Curtis plays a legal assistant who is bored to death with suburban life. Looking for adventure, she gets sent — don’t ask why — to a hotel room as a stripping call girl, only to realize when she sees herself in the hallway mirror that she looks more like a dated prom date than a working girl. So she literally goes on a tear, ripping off frills to transform herself from a frumpy housewife into a come-hither vixen. The metamorphosis required three duplicates of five different dresses.
The result — the teeniest of black velvet sheaths — would give any actress less used to baring her bod a moment of panic. To accommodate action scenes and keep Curtis safely within the boundaries of the seams, the Hero Dress (as she called it) also came in a stretch velvet version, which had a tighter grip and an easier give. ”And then there was the Drop Dress,” Curtis says, ”which is the one that has to fall to the floor (when Helen does her strip). It was slightly larger over the hips so it would fall down quickly, which the Hero Dress would not have done. Then there was the dress with the arms and neck completely sewn in, and then there were the breakaways.”
Costume designer Marlene Stewart created the initial dress with silk organdy ruffles, but Curtis had her own ideas of what it should look like after she pulled it apart. ”The first day of rehearsal I met with [director] Jim Cameron and Marlene,” Curtis recalls, ”and I arrived dressed as Helen. I borrowed a jacket from my assistant, and wore a low skirt and low heels. I felt it was very important that I didn’t wear my normal attire — black jeans, Doc Martens, and a Spinal Tap T-shirt. It was written that Helen wore a dress and alters it on camera to be sexy, and I had brought this black velvet dress with me that I owned — a nothing dress, but it fit well. I said to Jim, ‘Let me just go to the bathroom for a minute,’ and I did what Helen does on camera — put on a darker lipstick, wet my hair…” And slipped into something much less comfortable. Cameron was impressed, and the Hero Dress was born.
Like so much Hollywood magic, this isn’t a trick to be tried at home when the sight of old duds fills you with angst. ”The dress was movie-rippable,” Stewart explains, and two seamstresses stood by on the set to baste it back together for the next take. Stewart estimates that between labor and materials, each black number cost upwards of $750 — which may dampen Curtis’ hopes that the dress, like the rest of Helen’s clothing, ”becomes something you can buy at Talbots.”
For her part, Curtis doesn’t plan on again donning the dress, now sitting in a studio storage closet, any time soon. ”I wore it to the wrap party, and I almost wore it to the premiere. I know it fits, and I know it looks cute,” Curtis says. Even so, ”I think I’ll avoid a black sheath velvet dress for the rest of my life.”