12 January 2010

Women, Power, and Award-Winning Costumes

(This post contains spoilers.) I enjoy reading the biographies of historical women. I romanticize the times in which they lived--the clothes, the architecture. Their times seem less complicated; their roles more carefully scripted. It's interesting to see what they did with that little bit of freedom. Queen Elizabeth I said she would have no husband, but instead called the kingdom of England her husband. The Virgin Queen often wore simple colors, such as white, to symbolize her purity.  I have always admired her independence, and I've always liked the idea of a woman in armor. Though not expected to take part in the fighting, she donned it when Spanish invasion was immanent, in order to speak to her troops at the field of battle as their "prince," to encourage them to the defense of their shores, as any true prince does, alongside them.  Debates about the roll of women in the military continue today.  I can't help wondering if Elizabeth I wouldn't have made an excellent military leader as well.  In that very speech to her troops she said "I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England too."  I am interested in the relationship between sex and power and between gender and power.  These issues are addressed well in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, which won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for 2008.

Sofia Coppola's film, Marie Antoinette, winner for 2007, does an excellent job of portraying the historical royal marriage as, first and foremost, a career. Marie Antoine left her home, her customs, and her language to move to a foreign court, to marry a man she didn't know, who, as luck would have it, turned out to be practically asexual, which, as her chief duty as the queen of France was to produce heirs, proved problematic. Coppola's resolution of that plot point is amusing, and I'll leave you to discover it for yourself. She found solace, as many have before and since, in fashion. When she had little control over her personal life, she at least had control over her wardrobe. (This is something I would like to get into at some point--the way in which women's ingenuity was necessarily channeled into the domestic arts. Someone who might today be a surgeon, for example, might then have produced exquisite embroidery. This isn't only about women, though. Today, someone who isn't born into an upper socio-economic class in a "developed" nation, does not have easy access to the education by which their natural abilities might otherwise equip them to succeed, had they the opportunity, let alone the gifted who are scattered over "undeveloped" soil.  What curers-of-disease, solvers-of-energy-crises, and leaders-in-peace do we lose in failing to invest in our fellow human beings, in all of our fellow human beings?)

Lately, I've also become interested in women historically who were not born into, or did not marry into, the best of circumstances, but still managed to rise due to their relationships with those in power. For women, this relationship was most often defined by sex. I've been reading Eleanor Herman's Sex With Kings, which chronicles the lives of royal mistresses in European history. In addition to anecdotes, she discovers the traits of the successful mistress generally. The most successful guided their actions entirely by the desires of the king--anticipating his needs and meeting them with alacrity. Madame du Barry, the mistress of Marie Antoinette's father-in-law, Louis XV, is portrayed in the film and is also mentioned in Herman's book.  This movie is costuming eye candy from start to finish. Every frame is a masterpiece of color and shape and texture.

Georgiana's family life was not so happy.  It was a professional marriage.  Her husband was not faithful, chiefly with one woman, who was her close friend.  One of  them once referred to the Duke as "our husband," which I find fascinating. Georgiana took a lover--Whig politician Charles Grey, yes the namesake of Earl Grey tea.  They had a daughter together, whom she was obliged to give up, for the most part.  When Grey expressed a wish to marry Georgiana, the Duke threatened that she would never see her other children again if she did marry Grey.  I find the mixture of happiness and sorrow in Georgiana's life, the mixture of control and powerlessness, and how she dealt with all of that, fascinating.  If I've sparked any interest in Georgiana, I highly recommend Amanda Foreman's Georgiana:  Duchess of Devonshire.[keira-knightly-duchess.jpg]
In 2009, the Academy Award for Best Costume Design went to The Duchess. I am in love with this character. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is another woman who sought solace and control through fashion. Leading, concurrent with Marie Antoinette, the development of women's fashion on the Continent in the latter 18th century, she was a fount of creativity--who wrote what I think are excellent letters. She wrote novels (supposed to be mediocre). She was much involved with the Whig Party, hosting social events, and championing their platform. She was a good friend of Whig Prime Minister Charles Fox. In the photo at right, Georgiana, portrayed by Keira Knightley, adorns her hat with foxtails in support of Prime Minister Fox.  (Poor foxes.)

Also, the film includes a couple scenes of marital rape, portrayed from the victim's point-of-view in one instance, and from the servant's over-hearing in a second, both sympathetic ways of looking at domestic abuse in partnerships which were not equal under the law.  When I talk about ways in which women have dealt with power and powerlessness throughout history, in addition to a lack of economic freedom, this lack of sexual autonomy is also part of it.  When I talk about home, it is about you defining the boundaries of your realm, and at the smallest definition of your realm, your realm is you, your keepiest of keeps.  And when say that none shall pass, none shall.  When you you say "Guards!  Remove this person!" There should be strong, benevolent persons to haul the harasser from your door!  But even if there are not, remember that, though you've been told you are a weak and feeble woman, you have the heart and stomach of a queen!


  1. I've yet to see any of these movies, though now my interest is piqued. And it has nothing to do with the picture of Kirsten Dunst in thigh highs. Nope. None whatsoever. *saves picture*

    Some of what I want to say here runs along the same issues as your post on lingerie, so I'll save those comments for that topic.

    As you mentioned, the women portrayed in these movies lacked control over their lives in one sense or another, and so the priority of fashion in their lives suggests one way to stay in control, to create a distinct look that they defined... If I can't be what I want to be, then I'll look how I want to look! The same can hold true of female sexuality, though in ways that extend beyond control of one's life.

    Sexuality has often been considered a form of power that is distinctly feminine. This is not to say that males don't have powers of seduction and sexual influence, though historically men have gained prominence through brute force or political cunning. Perhaps this is the origin of the social stigma against the “femme fatale”, or the woman who gets her way via sexual manipulation and assertiveness. I'm not saying that it's good to treat people solely as means to ends (thanks, Kant), but in social struggles for power, women potentially have a distinct advantage over men, and it is unfair (and conveniently androcentric) to instantly label such pursuits as 'sinful' or 'immoral'. Aristophanes's 'Lysistrata' is a good example of this feminine power.

    As for sex not being erotic, I honestly cannot comprehend a scenario where sex could be anything other than erotic; at that point, the term 'sex' no longer seems apt.

  2. So, I'm thinking of erotic love as some sort of appreciation of and desire for the other person at a physical level. It seems that with erotic love, the other person is still somehow an end. In The Dutchess wedding night scene, the pleasure of the wife was totally irrelevant. She was just a means to an end. I would certainly not call her sexual experience erotic.

    Due to historical circumstance, women had few alternative paths to power, or even just a basic level of economic security, other than sex. I don't know that this points to an inherent propensity in women (more than in men) to be seductive, though.

  3. -Re: Erotic love and sex: I see what you mean, and I agree. Treating another person who is supposedly a 'lover' as a mere means cannot be considered erotic. My concern, which I failed to articulate, isn't with the definition of 'erotic', since I'd say 'eros' does imply a love for the Other which entails both care/friendship and sexual desire. Rather, my concern is with the definition of 'sex'. From the scene you described, I'd say the act is best viewed as violence, not sex. Though that'll open up a completely different (and much darker) topic than what is at hand, so I'll leave it for another discussion.

    -Re: Female seduction and power: Yes, that's an excellent point. Humans are extraordinarily resourceful animals, so given the oppressive social climate imposed by men, it certainly makes sense that women sought to exercise their wills via the only means available. I rescind any suggestion that women are, as a matter of nature/design, more likely than men to utilize seduction to procure power.