Influences: Cleopatra

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemed Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel, 1887.

Over the past few weeks I've been deeply immersed in Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Having finished its detailed, dense, and scholarly 300 pages, I'm intrigued by this powerful Egyptian queen, who wasn't really Egyptian but Greek. Not merely a seductress, as Schiff demonstrates beautifully, Cleopatra was a politician, a living goddess, a mother, a diplomat, a generous patron, a scholar, a strategist, a lady, and yes, a passionate lover. What is even more intriguing is her lasting influence over the millenia. From Plutarch to Shakespeare to Cecil B. DeMille, this woman's political savvy, allure, and style have inspired art, film, music, dance, and fashion.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1964. Massive sets, location changes, budget overruns, a solid gold dress, and Le Scandale - did anyone actually think this movie would turn out okay?

Claudette Colbert at Cleopatra in 1934. I don't care for Colbert's Cleopatra - she's entirely too smiling and too saucy to really be right for the role. Indeed, as one of the last pre-code films, Colbert plays up the "Cleopatra as sex vixen" aspect. However, her costumes are spectacular.

As Chip Brown mentions in his National Geographic article "The Search for Cleopatra" from July, 2011: "When not serving as a Rorschach test of male fixations, Cleopatra is an inexhaustible muse. To a recent best-selling biography add—from 1540 to 1905—five ballets, 45 operas, and 77 plays. She starred in at least seven films; an upcoming version will feature Angelina Jolie." Along with all of this are the many paintings and drawings of the queen, many of which date from the academic period of the late 19th Century, when all things ancient came back into vogue. The most famous film depictions of Cleopatra are of course the Elizabeth Taylor version from 1964, but also the Claudette Colbert version from 1934. Before filming, DeMille reportedly asked Colbert "How would you like to be wickedest woman in history?" It is this myth of wickedness that Schiff's book helps to dispel. Rather than relying on her feminine wiles, one can see that Cleopatra had true intelligence and an inherent diplomacy needed to calculate political risk, assert herself as a world leader, and protect her kingdom. The long-lauded affairs with Julis Caesar and Mark Antony are in truth, merely sidenotes to the real political intrigues.

The coveted Pegasus Necklace from Stella & Dot. $198

Cleopatra was also a calculated image-maker. She knew how to orchestrate opulence in order to woo a crowd, or even a Roman general. She knew what to wear, how to speak, and she spoke multiple languages. Her image as a wealthy queen, and as the living embodiment of the Goddess Isis, was part of her power, and one that was carefully maintained. Even the city of Alexandria maintained the standard with its libraries, technological advances, golden statuary, marble walkways, perfumes, and lavish meals. Schiff describes her dress as being bedecked with "plenty of pearls, the diamonds of the day."

She coiled long ropes of pearls around her neck and braided more into her hair. She wore others sewn into the fabric of her tunics. Those were ankle-length and lavishly colored, of fine Chinese silk or gauzy linen, traditionally worn belted, or with a brooch or ribbon. Over the tunic went an often transparent mantle, through which the bright folds of fabric were clearly visible. On her feet Cleopatra wore jeweled sandals with patterned soles.

But other than this, what Cleopatra looked like remains a mystery. The cover of Schiff's book shows a woman with her face turned away - perfectly appropriate considering there are no frontal views of Cleopatra's likeness. All of her portraits are in profile, showing a somewhat large nose and prominent features. It is understood that while Cleopatra was not beautiful, her allure, charisma, and intelligence developed enough attraction to hold many in her thrall.

Louis Vuitton's "Desert Goddesses" ad campaign from 2004, featuring Naomi Campbell and shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott.

Perhaps it is this alluring mystery that has inspired so many for so long. That, and the luxury of ancient Alexandria whose gold, silver, and pearls seemed to flow through the streets. Indeed, luxury fashion designers often return to Cleopatra and Egyptian iconography for inspiration. In 2004, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton developed his "Desert Goddesses" collection, with an array of black, gold, and turquoise looking like warm sands meeting the Meditterranean. In more recent seasons, Gareth Pugh sent gold and black striped looks down his runway for Fall 2011, offering a tough, almost robotic take on Egyptian motifs and headdresses.

Gareth Pugh, Fall 2011 collection.

Even more than mere fashion, the history of the age of Cleopatra lives on. HBO's series Rome offered a lush take on the relationships between the Egyptian queen and both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, while also showing a vivid portrayal of Octavian - the man destined to end the Ptolemaic Empire forever. Through many marriages and inter-marriages, both Octavian and Mark Antony's descendants were future Roman emperors including Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. The histories of these emperors are celebrated in all their gory machinations in I, Claudius from 1976. Mark Antony's Roman wife, Octavia - sister to Octavian, comes out as the kindest and most generous of all, taking guardianship of not only her own children (3 by a first marriage), and her two children with Mark Antony, but also of the three children Mark Antony and Cleopatra had together.

At the end of Schiff's account of Cleopatra, she dispels the notion that the queen committed suicide by being bitten by an asp. Instead, she suggests that it was poisoned figs that did the job, killing Cleopatra and her two attendants almost immediately. Poisoned figs serve as a leitmotif for Octavian, who, 40 years later, after securing his empire and launching the Pax Romana, was rumored to be killed by his own wife Livia Drusilla with poisoned figs. (Peter Greenaway picked up on the poisoned figs in the 1980s in one of my favorite films, The Belly of an Architect. Apart from the main character Storley Kracklite's obsession with Octavian Augustus' tomb, he shows his growing insanity by accusing his wife of poisoning some figs.)

The famous Cleopatra Earrings by Wendy Brandes. 18K gold with 1.36 carats of diamonds. $9,000

So what can we expect as a trend response from Schiff's wonderful biography and the upcoming film with Angelina Jolie? Probably a lot of gold, pearls, and Grecian sandals, but perhaps with even more regal jewels. As with all bio-pics, there is usually a strong fascination that results in the general public. It was the same with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and it will likely be the same here, with designers adapting classic Grecian draping to modern tastes. One of the best parts of the Cecil B. DeMille-Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra was the way the film's designers adapted the look for the sleek shapes of the Art Deco period of the 1930s. Not exactly historically accurate, but really great style.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896

One thing that will certainly change with upcoming depictions of Cleopatra is the charge that she was merely a seductress, not a leader. As Schiff concludes: "It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life...Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."

Images: 1) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp 2) Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1963 by 20th Century Fox 3) Claudette Colber in Cleopatra, 1934 by Paramount Pictures - from Doctor Macro 4) Stella & Dot 5) 6) Fashion Gone Rogue 7) Wendy Brandes Jewelry 8) Public Domain

A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just maybe...buy a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown wrapper...it's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter

Film: Queen Pinkie Marie!

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I have an Austrian princess on the brain. She’s in my head, singing me songs, diving through my closet and crawling out of my handbag. She’s everywhere, and I might as well get used to it. I’ve been immersed in Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion – What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for weeks, and now I’ve seen what all the fuss is about: Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette.

Like that other sumptuous period drama of a few years ago about a big boat meeting an iceberg, we all know how this movie is going to end. Yet who knew it would be done with this exuberance, decadence, and style? For a brief few seconds in the opening credits, you’re treated to the ultimate summation shot: la reine, in dishabille, coiffured with an extravagant pouf, having her new pink shoes put on her feet as her fingers dive into a gigantic pink cake. Cakes, coiffures, shoes, and pink. The end.

While Caroline Weber’s book paints a more realistic portrait of the misunderstood queen, the confection on film is much more fun to endure. Barring a few slip-ups in casting and cut-aways, (do we really need the fantasy shot of Count Fersen on a rearing horse? I mean, he’s hot, but that’s a bit heavy-handed Mademoiselle Coppola…) the entire thing is a gluttonous delight of striped nosegay silks, little dogs, glittering gems, ruffles, ribbons, and feathers. A whole film of not a whole lot, but when it looks this good and is set to a soundtrack of punk rock, who cares?

The crowning achievement of this film is that it was filmed at Versailles. Once one visits that indulgent place, one sees exactly what the revolution was all about. The immediate impression is that someone simply went to town on the gilding of every surface, while the slow-to-apprehend reality of Versailles is that there is practically zero private space anywhere in the entire monstrosity. This is what Coppola captured: the wedding night and later childbirth in the queen’s bedroom absolutely packed to the rafters with people. Imagine that – two of the most intimate moments of your life, and there you are on display for people you don’t even want to talk to when you have your clothes on. The procedures, the protocols, the honors of the toilette – Marie Antoinette was said to have hated all of this pomp and formality of Versailles, preferring the casual informality of her native Hapsburg household wherein she could dress herself.

And boy, could the woman dress! The panniers, the robes a la françaises, the jewelry, the chapeaux… “Which do you like, the sleeve with the ruffles, or the plain?” she asks her advisor from Austria. Every girl dreams of wearing a dress like this, just once, because after five minutes you realize its pure torture. The queen herself preferred a loose-fitted gaulle dress of simple muslin for her days in the fields at the Petit Trianon, yet eventually this attire was deemed inappropriate for the queen. How very different from her earliest days as dauphine when upon her arrival at the French court, her beauty was noted by all with more than a little envy. It seems her natural complexion was so fine that she did not need the enhancements of the usual powders and rouges. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who painted the queen more than twenty times described her thus in her memoirs of 1835:

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Marie Antoinette en Chemise, 1783 - E. Vigee-LeBrun“ But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”

This kind of youthful vitality is perfectly captured in Kirsten Dunst as the young queen, especially when presented in counterpoint to Asia Argento’s delightfully disgusting Madame du Barry. Yet, by the end of the film, the queen has barely aged, and seems overwhelmingly poised in the faced in inherent dangers and terrifying unknowns. The one time Dunst’s dauphine is allowed a well-deserved crying jag is only after the little ladies in fichus cast aspersions on her barrenness. This, on top of her mother’s complaints about her “waistline” takes her over the edge. Caroline Weber talks about Queen Maria Teresa’s harangues about this waistline issue as an ongoing one from years of correspondence between the mother and daughter. Too little a waistline shows the dauphine is still child-less, while too large a waistline is unbecoming a proper lady of the court. In other words: get yourself pregnant, but don’t stop wearing your grands corps - a highly-restrictive corset. (It is always refreshing to hear that the motherly badgering of “you’re too thin, you’re too fat” is one that’s gone on forever.)

Caroline Weber’s lengthy tome discloses all of the ins and outs of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial evolutions. Newly-invented styles turn into maddening fads among the aristocracy who ape the queen to their own financial ruin. A few years later, the queen’s fashion choices lead to her derision and downfall. It’s a familiar story to those of us who know the history of lady politicos. A later French queen (since the French can never decide if they want one or not,) Empress Eugenie, was nicknamed “Empress Crinoline” because of her clothes-horse ways, while years later women such as Eva Peron, Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and even Nancy Regan were derided for their closets-full of excess. But Marie Antoinette is the woman whose indulgences taught everyone else how it’s done, the singular point brought home by Coppola’s film.

The film’s tagline of “The party that started a revolution,” is indeed true: much of the film is devoted the party Marie Antoinette is having while she spends years simply waiting for her husband to touch her. Once the Versailles party of the century begins to wane however, Coppola’s film accelerates and tends to overlook the ravages the queen faced late in life, not to mention the ravages of all-night parties. According to Caroline Weber, the fresh-faced girl that had arrived in France had gained a hardy amount of weight due to finally delivering three children, and had also lost the better-part of her hair. These physical manifestations of the stress of life at Versailles are glossed-over completely, and well they should be in order to keep pace with the film. However, the woman’s life was no fairy tale, so the ending pathos in the golden dawn is lost on most of the audience – we never really bought that it was all fun and games anyway.

Gentlemen be warned: this is one helluva girlie flick. Not a chick-flick per se, but girlier than girlie. The montage of Marie with her two best gal-pals the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac (viva Rose Byrne!) going shoe shopping to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is absolutely visceral in its brightly-colored indulgence. I’ll just say it, the sequence is girl-porn in the best way: shoes that Manolo Blahnik would weep for, diamonds, fluffy pink pastry, you and your best girlfriends downing magnums of champagne along the way. Sofia is no fool – she knows what girls want. (Is that why Marc Jacobs loves her so much?)

Despite its little fumbles, Marie Antoinette is my new favorite film, and I’m already pre-ordering the DVD from Amazon. I’m a sucker for a costume piece, and this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in years. Perhaps because real life for la reine Marie *was* such a costume-drama, the frothy interpretation in film cannot rightly be classified as a guilty pleasure. A pleasure it is, but who is guilty of enjoying it? It brings a smile to your face, quickens your pulse, and makes you want to paint the chateau pink.