Fashion Shapes History: The Queens and their Wardrobes

Many famous women in history (men too!) know how to dress well. Not only does it enhance their appearance, but it can demonstrate their power, their skills, the message they want to profess, their ambitions, to perfection. An outfit can shape this in more striking ways than a speech or a memorandum can, although these of course are often essential to success. Or, if you want to strip aside complexity, the art of fashion can merely be a vogue way of expressing difference or status.

Women who are in a privileged position to utilise their fashion and clothing styles as a mode of expressing power to perfection are, of course, queens, by virtue of their wealth, status and access to the most luxurious fashions. This is nothing new; it’s been a way of expressing – and creating – power since ancient times. Consider Queen Cleopatra, the glamorous but ultimately tragic queen who, immortalised in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, commits suicide out of what some would see as a determination not to be parted from her beloved Antony. Cleopatra captivated men, and fascinated women, and a way of doing this was, of course, through her fashion sense. Greek by birth, her fashions were wholly Egyptian. Cleopatra favoured black wigs which enhanced her complexion and utilised gold ornaments to depict her immense wealth and royal connections. It was recorded that the Queen owned the most expensive and valuable pearls in the world.

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Moreover, Cleopatra was an elegant, yet powerful, trendsetter in contemporary fashion. Augustus’ wife Livia possessed some clothing belonging to the tragic queen, although her husband’s enmity towards Cleopatra ensured that she rarely appeared in these clothes in public. Cleopatra’s daughter, the less well known Cleopatra Selene, favoured her mother’s amethyst ring, and likely inherited most of her mother’s precious jewels and ornaments. Cleopatra was famous for bathing in milk and honey as a means of ensuring her skin remained soft, and enjoyed wearing scented oils and perfumes. Her use of make-up, of course, is incredibly well-known: she employed kohl eyeliner as a means of extending the line of her eye and also enjoyed powdering her eyelids with green crushed malachite. She also commonly wore a large, flat circular neck piece and a variety of traditional Egyptian headdresses, further demonstrating her position as the face of Egypt. Cleopatra favoured wearing red, yellow and white – the colours of Isis, goddess of fertility. A beguiling and mesmerising queen who stood at the forefront of fashionable, glamorous Ancient Egyptian society, Cleopatra clearly conveys how female rulers can utilise their fashions as a means of displaying power, status, and glamour.

Flash forward 1,800 years, and another queen who employed fashion to demonstrate power and wealth can clearly be glimpsed in the controversial, if captivating, figure of Marie Antoinette, tragic queen of France. The most popular dress styles of eighteenth-century upper class France centred on the robe de la Francaise and the robe a l’Anglaise. The former consisted of back pleats which hung loosely from the neckline all the way to the floor and a very fitted bodice. The skirt was often open at the front, showing decorative petticoats worn underneath. Famously, Marie Antoinette’s fashion collection was enormous: three rooms at the glittering palace of Versailles were used as her wardrobe. The public were actually able to visit these luxurious rooms and glimpse in wonder their Queen’s beautiful clothes. Notoriously, the queen loathed court etiquette, and also often spent way over the 120,000 livres she was assigned a year to live on. She adored the designs of Rose Bertin and favoured dresses designed by her which often cost up to 6,000 livres each. French etiquette dictated that the Queen should wear a dress only once and change her dress three times a day. She favoured light fabrics and pale, pastel colours like lemon yellow, dove grey, lilac and pale green. She slept wearing expensive gloves and washed her hair with saffron, turmeric, sandalwood and rhubarb to maintain its strawberry blonde colour.

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The queen also insisted on the importance of bathing, although it is somewhat ironic that her own fashion tastes were centred on the discreet and modest – famously, she was heavily criticised for favouring simplistic gowns rather than the extravagant dresses usually worn by the Queens of France. Her formidable mother, the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, insisted that the Queen had to ensure that she outshone all other ladies at court – the expectation, therefore, in eighteenth-century courts was that the Queen would utilise her fashions as a means of demonstrating her supreme power and status, and sending a warning message to other highborn women. One historian has written: “from her earliest days at Versailles, Marie Antoinette staged a revolt against entrenched court etiquette by turning her clothes and other accoutrements into defiant expressions of autonomy and privilege. Although, as many scholars have pointed out, she did not evince a sustained interest in politics qua broad-reaching international or domestic policy, it is my belief that she identified fashion as a key weapon in her struggle for personal prestige, authority, and sometimes mere survival. Her efforts in this vein became increasingly complex and sophisticated as she grew to adulthood and adapted to the ever-changing political climate around her… ”

Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette were both glamorous queens who deployed their extravagant fashion tastes to harness their power and shape their status in society. Other queens could have been considered here – Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I were both rulers who loved fashion for fashion’s sake, and became supreme trendsetters at court. What this does convey, above all, is that women, as well as men, in high circles have always used fashion as a means of shaping – and creating – power, transfixing their contemporaries, beguiling their acquaintances, and shaping public opinion, for better or for worse. By virtue of their status, they were in a better position than most to do this; but this was, for queens, by no means inevitable. These women stand out for originally utilising fashion as a means of producing their own reputations.

Written for Razz by Conor Byrne.

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