Designing Fear: Bela Lugosi’s Dracula

A man emerges from the shadows onto the balcony of some ancient forgot European castle. As walks down the grand staircase, you see his dark, slicked-back hair, an impeccably tailored tuxedo, and a medallion denoting his superior rank and a long black opera cape draped across his shoulders dragging behind him. You know instantly, this man is a vampire but not just any vampire; he’s Dracula.

This image of Dracula is one familiar to all of us, and with hundreds of mass-market costumes, it’s a Halloween go-to. The tuxedo and cape have become the hallmarks of Count Dracula’s look that has been used in countless adaptations of Bram StokersDracula. Whether its a traditional horror adaptation, comedy, or parody, you know what Dracula will probably look like. The most iconic portrayal of this look and one that cemented it in pop-culture has to be Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. 

Raymond Huntley as Count Dracula

Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula in the 1931 classic Dracula helped launch Universal Studios as the producer of horror and monster films while also bringing Dracula’s classic look to the silver screen. While many may believe that this is the origin of Dracula’s signature costume, it first emerged on stage seven years earlier. Actor Raymond Huntly was the first to slick back his hair, dawn the cape and tuxedo for Hamilton Deane’s 1924 stage play adaptation of Dracula. While it’s rumored that Huntly created the costume himself, no one really knows who came up with the look. The costume certainly stuck when the play was brought to America, where Bela Lugosi’s first played Dracula on stage in 1927. Lugosi had great success playing the role for several years on stage however, he was not Universal’s first choice to play Dracula. He had to lobby the studio and take a significantly lower salary to be cast in the role that would make him the icon we all know today. 

Universal’s costume designers Ed Ware and Vera West, were the uncredited costume designers on Dracula. However, it’s not clear if they had any hand in creating Dracula’s costume for the film, or if Lugosi brought his costume from the stage to the film. What is clear is its effect on-screen and how that costume transformed Lugosi into one of the most iconic monsters in cinema.

From his first appearance on screen, you know precisely what Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is all about, aristocratic charm and coifed creepiness. As he descends the staircase of his castle, you feel the full effect of his performance and costume. The off-putting nature of his distant but impeccable manners towards Renfield are accentuated by the beautifully tailed tuxedo, opera cape that obscures his shape and medallion, signaling his status.

The medallion was an addition to Dracula’s look made by the film, so he appeared more aristocratic. The exact design of the medallion is unknown because the originals have been lost. It is thought that prop-makers at Universal used medals from the Ottoman Empire or the Kingdom of Afghanistan to create the one we see on screen. The starburst design is very similar to military medals from those countries. While it only appears in a few early scenes, it is now an integral part of Dracula’s look.

The second piece of his costume that adds to his aristocratic air is the tuxedo. The exquisite tuxedo is perfectly fitted to Lugosi and gives him the sophistication synonymous with Dracula. In the film, he often wears the tux by itself when interacting with the human characters because it helps him blend into everyday society.

The final and arguably most icon part of Dracula’s costume is the floor-length opera cape. Made from black wool with a taupe silk crepe lining, the cape adds mystery and otherworldliness to Lugosi’s Dracula. He wears it whenever he is pursuing while its volume and stand-up collar give him a way to hide his crimes and true nature from those around him.

After production wrapped, Bela Lugosi took the costume with him, wearing it in many of his fifteen stage performances as Dracula and his second on-screen portrayal in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In total, Lugosi portrayed Dracula in 17 productions. The part defined so much of Lugosi’s life and career that he would say the role ‘was a blessing and a curse.’ When he passed in 1956, Lugosi was buried in the Dracula tuxedo, and his family kept the opera cape until 2019. In 2011 the Lugosi family put the cape up for a $1.2 million at auction. After it failed to sell, the family was relieved. When talking about the auction with The Hollywood Reporter, Lynne Lugosi Sparks, Lugosi’s granddaughter, said, “The experience made us realize we didn’t want it in some collector’s closet … and we all took a sigh of relief that it was coming back to us and really made us focus in on what our mission was for the cape and for history”. As a result, in 2019, the Lugosi family donated the cape to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. It is being repaired and preserved so it can eventually be put on display. 

While today vampires have become the anti-hero heartthrobs of many movies and tv series, few have created such an iconic look. Anyone looking to be the famous characters only needs to wear a tux, cape, and medallion to pass as Dracula at a Halloween party, in a movie or on tv. However, it was Bela Lugosi’s striking and horrifying portrayal of Dracula that will forever be the face of this iconic image.


Want to know more? Check out my sources.

Stamp, Jimmy. “Why Does Dracula Wear a Tuxedo? The Origins of Bram Stoker’s Timeless Vampire.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 31 Oct. 2012, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-does-dracula-wear-a-tuxedo-the-origins-of-bram-stokers-timeless-vampire-101868474/.

Kilday, Gregg. “Why Bela Lugosi’s Family Donated Iconic Dracula Cape to Academy Museum.” The Hollywood Reporter, 15 Feb. 2020, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-bela-lugosis-family-donated-iconic-dracula-cape-academy-museum-1278618.

“The Medallion of Dracula Prop Replica by Factory Entertainment.” Sideshow Collectibles, http://www.sideshow.com/collectibles/dracula-the-medallion-of-dracula-factory-entertainment-906243.

Lugosi. “The Official Site.” Bela Lugosi, 2017, belalugosi.com/.

“Dracula.” IMDb, IMDb.com, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0021814/fullcredits.

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Elizabeth Joy Glass grew up on the east coast in Pennsylvania surrounded by early American history. A childhood full of fantasy, sci-fi and historical media, inspired her to start sewing and cosplaying. After high school, Elizabeth decided to move across the country to study fashion and costume design at The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. While in school she worked on several AFI thesis films in the costume department. Elizabeth ultimately graduated with a B.A. in Digital Cinema and decided to pursue a career in video production and screenwriting, but she still holds a love for costume design and its history.

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