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Who’s That Girl? Lyda Borelli as Salome

LydaBorelliBarLyda Borelli was an Italian silent screen film actress who appeared in 14 movies between 1913 and 1920. Scholars of film history consider her first Italian film star, earning the title diva. Before she appeared on the silver screen, Lyda began as a child actor on stage, and during the first decade of the 20th century, she joined the ranks of the Salome’s, then a worldwide phenomenon.  She performed hundreds of shows, through out her country and in Italy her name became synonymous with the role. By 1911, when the fad for Salome  had passed and performers were moving in different directions and taking on new roles, Lyda continued to tour Italy with her show before she hung up her brass charger and began working in the new medium of film.

During the first quarter of the 20th century, it was common practice for theaters to sell postcards of their stars in the lobby.  Lyda was photographed at various times during the long run of Salome and many postcards like the two on the right have survived. (Fig. 1)  These images offer clues to the cut, style and construction of her costume ensemble and continue to inspire designers today.

Her dress for the role of Salome changed over the years.  Early on, she wore an ornate two-piece ensemble composed of a cropped top and a skirt, lavishly embroidered with beads and sequins. (Fig. 2)  By 1911, her costume had transformed into a gorgeous dress. This appears in the photos to be a complicated garment with multiple layers of chiffon and an ornately beaded lattice work bodice. The skirt features scattered bead and sequin embellished floral motifs. Although we don’t know the color, we certainly have the impression that the chiffon was pale and probably flesh colored to create the illusion of nudity. (Fig. 3 )

Her wrap is an Egyptian assiut shawl. In the top image, you can see many of the most distinctive images found in assiut embroidery work on her shawl.  The dancing girls, or brides hold hands in a long row  between two registers of wheat, both of which are common imagery in wedding shawls that were made by the thousands during this era. The ornately embroidered assiut shawl added that extra touch of both authenticity and exoticism to the look of the ensemble.

Lyda Borelli as Salome, 1909
Above: Fig. 2 – Lyda Borelli as Salome, 1909, (source)
Below: Fig. 3 – Lyda Borelli as Salome, 1911,
photo by Mario Nunes Vais (source)
Fig. 3 - Lyda Borelli as Salome, 1911, photo by Mario Nunes Vais
Below: Photo of Lyda Borelli as Salome, c. 1911
by Emilio Summariva (source)
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