EDITORIAL FEATURE

How to Power Dress Like History's Greatest Women

Amber Butchart on the past's most stylish figures

Navigating the practical, fashionable and moral codes of clothing is something familiar to women throughout history, from queens to sports stars. A look further back in time shows many ways that women have used their clothing to advance their causes, regardless of the consequences.

Helena Modjeska as Cleopatra (Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare) by Napoleon Sarony, 1898 (From the collection of Theatre Institute in Warsaw)

Cleopatra

The story of the Queen of the Nile and the conquest of Egypt by Rome is a tale of gargantuan proportions that has become one of our most enduring tragic love stories, retold by everyone from Shakespeare to Hollywood. In all of her depictions from the ancient world to celluloid, Cleopatra’s attributes are demonstrated in a way fitting for a queen who was fabled for her sexual allure as well as her intelligence. In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton starred in a film of her life which became the epic to end all epics, a spectacular affair that was the most costly movie to date and famously nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox. The movie inspired a ‘Cleopatra Look’ Revlon campaign shot by Richard Avedon, featuring ‘Sphinx eyes’ eyeliner and ‘Sphinx pink’ for lips and fingertips - perfect for a Queen who even wrote tracts on cosmetics herself. The smoky eye makeup favored by Cleopatra was believed to ward off eye infections too.

Stone carving of Cleopatra (69-30BC), queen of Egypt, seated and holding a rod (From the LIFE Photo collection)
Liz Taylor & Richard Burton, by Paul Schutzer, 1962 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Joan of Arc

For many women throughout history who weren’t content with a life of domesticity, dressing as a man was the only route to escape their destiny, despite the moral – and sometimes physical – punishments that it could entail. Also known as ‘The Maid of Orleans,’ Joan of Arc led the French army to victory over the English during the Hundred Years’ War when she was just a teenager. During her trial, one of the major charges laid against her focused on her masculine style, which included short tunics, a cloak of gold and cropped hair: “And in general, having cast aside all womanly decency… she had worn the apparel and garments of most dissolute men, and, in addition, had some weapons of defence.” Sounds pretty badass, but she was burned at the stake for such transgressions, and was canonized 500 years later.

Portrait of Joan of Arc, by Anonymous and Paul Dubois, 1873 (From the collection of Forteresse Royale de Chinon)

Marie Antoinette

As a queen whose sartorial decisions were used as propaganda to contribute to the downfall of the French monarchy, Marie Antoinette’s style provides an enduring template for fashionable excess from the Rococo age. A woman named Rose Bertin was the milliner and dressmaker to the French queen, and was dubbed her 'Minister of Fashion'. Despite being a ‘commoner’, she was often received at court by the queen – in breach of etiquette – such was the passion that Marie Antoinette had for fashion and expressing herself through dress. Marie Antoinette’s style choices provided consistent fodder for the revolutionary cause. When she dressed in formal, elaborate court styles of silks and panniers she was a symbol of the extravagance of aristocracy, for which she was eventually guillotined in 1793. But when she wore much simpler styles made from muslin she was seen as morally dubious (it looked like contemporary underwear) and she was labelled unpatriotic because the muslin was imported, so was accused of putting French silk merchants out of work. Despite this, her memory looms large in popular culture and she's a regular inspiration on the catwalks of Paris.

Marie-Antoinette with the Rose, by Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, 1783 (From the collection of Palace of Versailles)
Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France (1755-1793), Anonymous, after Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, 1779/1788 (From the collection of Palace of Versailles)

Christabel Pankhurst

At the beginning of the 20th century, women in the UK were fighting an ongoing battle for their legal and political rights. For many, their power came from embodying womanhood rather than disguising it. Many satirists made jokes about the Suffragettes being too manly, or questioned their appearance, so looking presentable became of utmost importance. Christabel Pankhurst duly claimed, “Suffragettes must not be dowdy.” Merchandise was created to spread the message of the cause, and clothing such as blouses often incorporated white, green and purple: the colors of the Women’s Social and Political Union. The link with fashion was so strong that many suffrage groups developed relationships with department stores or clothes emporiums that would outfit them appropriately, from Derry & Toms to Selfridges.

Christabel Harriette Pankhurst, 1912 (From the collection of British Film Institute)

Suzanne Lenglen

While athleisure may be the breakout trend of the 21st century, the links between sportswear and fashion were cemented by French tennis player Suzanne Lenglen, one of the first female sports stars and one of the chicest athletes of the 1920s. She won the Wimbledon singles title six times in seven years, as well as many other prestigious titles throughout her career. She was a big fan of designer Jean Patou, whose tennis dresses included racy features for the time, such as short sleeves and short hemlines. In 1930, as designers such as Chanel and Schiaparelli were also bringing sportswear into the high fashion arena, Lenglen became director of the sports department at the Yvonne May couture house. Her own look was the starting point for her designs, which featured tennis-wear in silk with matching jackets and her trademark hair bandeaus.

Lenglen, Suzanne (From LIFE Photo Collection)

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the first elected female head of state in Africa. Despite working in the West and studying at Harvard, she readopted Afrocentric styles on her return to the continent.

The silhouette she often wears is common across western Africa, featuring the buba (loose tunic-style blouse with embroidered neckline), iro (snug wraparound maxi-skirt with side slits), gele (headscarf that is wrapped, tied or folded into a turban), and ipele (narrow shawl draped over left shoulder for more formal occasions). When she was declared president, new posters revealed her iconic presidential style: four-piece skirt suits made from distinctive cloth known as lapa. Johnson Sirleaf wears a contemporary, 21st-century version of traditional dress that's fit for the world stage – using her clothing to send a political message of unity.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 2012 (From the collection of The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security)

Throughout history, female leaders have used dress to embody their messages. Fashion is often a political arena and women can be chastised for their choices. In recent months this has re-entered the spotlight, as the pantsuit has become a symbol of the glass ceiling women are still attempting to smash, and the pink pussy hat has dominated Women’s Marches. Often denounced as superficial, clothing choices continue to play a vital role in the way women are perceived in public life.

Words by Amber Butchart
Share this story with a friend
Translate with Google
Home
Explore
Nearby
Profile