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The term “Sixties style icon” brings many names to mind: Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Jane Birkin, Anita Pallenberg, The Supremes, Marianne Faithful, Brigitte Bardot, Cher… An expansive roster who popularised many trends we still wear today, from knee-high boots to pant suits, knitted stripes to space-age metallics. But another name occasionally pops up, too: Sharon Tate.
Sadly, though, the focus of her narrative is most often trained on her murder at the hands of the Manson “Family”. In August 1969, the then 26-year-old actress, who was eight and a half months pregnant, was murdered, along with four others, by members of Charles Manson’s cult at Tate’s home in Los Angeles, where she lived with her husband Roman Polanski. It was a horrendous event; one that Joan Didion famously claimed heralded the end of the 1960s – the optimism of the decade giving way to an act of evil in which paranoia, fear, drugs, racism, misogyny, manipulation and celebrity culture disturbingly coalesced.
Half a century on, the Tate-LaBianca murders (grocery store owner Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were murdered the night after) and the circumstances surrounding them continue to compel. From Emma Cline’s bestselling novel The Girls (which explores a fictionalised account of Manson’s largely young, female following) and Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (with Margot Robbie cast as Tate), to podcast series and in-depth analyses of the position Manson still occupies in the American cultural psyche, it’s clear that the public taste for this particular horror story shows no sign of abating.
However, as understandably fascinating as Manson’s god complex and ability to incite young women into doing unspeakable things is, Tate herself often becomes a footnote – reduced, as so many female victims are, to the status of collateral in stories more preoccupied with the murderers than the murdered.
Thankfully, though, in recent years the actress’s own legacy has slowly been revisited – becoming a cultural and visual reference point for a fresh generation. And so it should. As her sister Debra Tate wrote in the introduction to Sharon Tate: Recollection, an anthology of photos of the actress, “I always felt it was very unfair for her life to be remembered primarily for its final moments. Sharon had a magnificent life”.
During that too-short life, Tate, best known for her role in the cult 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, helped to define the mood of an unforgettable decade of change, and was an inspiration to designers, photographers and directors alike. Her style combined elements of mod, flower child and laid-back pragmatism (she loved the simplicity of a good pair of jeans and a T-shirt), and she frequently wore classic 1960s designers like Ossie Clark and Thea Porter.
Photos of her are mesmerising: Tate lounging in a mustard sundress; on her wedding day in her short, ivory silk moiré gown; suede-clad while striding through an airport; appearing pensive in a thin, navy polo neck; grinning at the camera through a tumble of blonde hair, eyelids characteristically ringed with thick, black liner. It’s a look that heavily inspired the styling of Megan Draper on Mad Men (costume designer Janie Bryant even considered dressing Megan in a copy of a T-shirt worn by Tate), and continues to echo in the aesthetics of modern-day stars, including Lana Del Rey.
It has also been emulated on the catwalks – from the diaphanous dresses, bouffant hair and eye makeup in Julien Macdonald’s SS11 show to Moschino’s resort SS17 collection inspired by psychedelic 1960s LA. Jeremy Scott’s follow-up for SS17 invoked both the book and film of Valley of the Dolls, taking its themes to a literal extreme in a series of paper-doll dresses. It’s there tangentially in Miu Miu’s pastel-inflected AW10 and earthy 1960s-inspired resort 2015 shows, in Gucci and Valentino’s AW14 collections, which both featured glitzy minidresses and belted coats. Arguably, it exists in the high, ruffled collars and puffed sleeves that have come to define Batsheva too.
At the end of last year, many of Tate’s personal items were displayed in the Museum of Style Icons in Ireland before being auctioned off by Julien’s in Hollywood. Clothes that had been kept and stored for decades by her sister – Dior gowns, minidresses, swing coats, even her false eyelashes – saw the light of day once more. They were the possessions of a woman with everything ahead of her, mementoes of another time. Ones that perhaps embodied the tensions of Tate’s story – did the sale of these items further restore appreciation for the actress’s life and attire, or provide another opportunity for true-crime enthusiasts to feel proximity to a long-ago tragedy? Either way, it remains undeniable that Tate was a beguiling presence, one whose image and work is still frequently discussed only in the context of her death, rather than being celebrated in all its thriving vitality.