Actress and model Sharon Tate remains the style icon of the Swinging Sixties and shaped a whole generation with her incredible beauty
To this day Sharon Tate embodies the attitude of the Swinging Sixties, a movement that used love, sex, and rebellion to leave dusty old conventions and puritanical pressures behind. A flowing, backcombed blond mane, manga-sized eyes with mascaraed lashes like a doll, and a dream figure which she lolled with as much confidence in a black A-line mini dress as she did completely naked in front of the cameras of photographers like Bert Stern and Walter Chappell – they all came together to make Sharon Tate the beauty ideal of her time. But the native Texan was anything but an empty shell. “She wasn’t naïve or stupid or a cliché starlet. What had impressed me most about her, quite apart from her exceptional beauty, was the sort of radiance that springs from a kind and gentle nature,” wrote Roman Polanski in the forward to his book Sharon Tate: Recollection, published in June 2014. The Polish director didn’t just help her break out in Hollywood, but would also later become her husband.
At first the big offers were yet to come and Tate, who allegedly hitchhiked to Hollywood, kept herself going with modeling jobs and small television appearances. Yet when she was offered that longed-for leading role in the film Eye of the Devil, she could barely tear herself away from her then-fiancé, hair stylist Jay Sebring, to fly to France where it was being filmed. In the end she got over it and it proved a significant decision in paving the way for her future career. It was through Eye of the Devil producer Martin Ransohoff that she met Polish director Roman Polanski and convinced him to cast her, and not Jill St. John, in his horror movie pastiche The Fearless Vampire Killers. Wearing a red wig at Polanski’s side, Tate became a cult figure and the film a social commentary that used humor to memorialize the classic horror flick.
From that point on, Tate and Polanski were a dazzling couple that spent their time wandering through the art and culture scenes of both Hollywood and London‘s Swinging Sixties. With a pictorial spread in Playboy in which Tate allowed herself to be personally photographed by Polanski wearing little more than a red wig and a wanton pose, the two weren’t just promoting their film but also securing their title as the King and Queen of a generation taking a stand for freedom.
1967 – otherwise known as the Summer of Love – was also rightly declared by Playboy to be the Year of Sharon Tate. She appeared in a total of four feature films including The Fearless Vampire Killers and Valley of the Dolls. For the latter she even received a Golden Globe nomination. Then in 1968 Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, who were often the topic of yellow press due to their wild relationship, tied the knot in London. Tate was pregnant just a few months later and settled down with her husband in Los Angeles. There the couple didn’t just socialize with Hollywood A-listers including Steve McQueen, Mia Farrow, and both Peter and Jane Fonda, but also maintained a friendly relationship to the music and culture scene. Jim Morrison of The Doors and writer Wojciech Frykowski came in and out of the couple’s villa on Cielo Drive. Tate also used her celebrity to further her political interests and was an active supporter of Robert Kennedy.
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She shot her last film The Thirteen Stairs alongside Vittorio Gassman and Orson Welles in Italy while heavily pregnant. After it wrapped, she followed her husband to London where he was working on a film of his own. It was there that Playboy photographer Terry O’Neill took his photos shortly before her murder: Whether stretched across the sofa wearing a romantic mini dress, holding baby things up to the camera, or sitting wrapped in a towel on a flokati with a teddy bear, this series of black and white images is bathed in the softness of late 60s flower power and definitively secured her monopoly on the era’s style.
At first the job of writing a style portrait on American actress Sharon Tate somehow seems profane: The images of her murder are too distinct, too horrible. Sharon Tate was killed on the 9th of August 1969 while 8 ½ months pregnant in her villa on Cielo Drive north of Beverly Hills by three members of the so-called Manson Family, a violent cult that had been formed by Charles Manson. The Manson Murders went down in American criminal history. If you look on Google, over half a million entries pop up and the acts committed by Manson followers Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten are described in such detail on Wikipedia that this entry should really state “not for the faint of heart.” Most recently Emma Cline took on the topic in her novel The Girls and with it the hatred boiling in the souls of these cold-blooded murderers. But the more you focus on the brutality of the crime, the suddenly more important it is to celebrate the life of Sharon Tate – her beauty, her radiance, and her style that shaped a whole generation.
This article was inspired by Emma Cline’s novel The Girls.