יום ראשון, 24 ביולי 2016

Killer Queen: Historic Queens who Dressed for Death

Anyone following this blog knows by now that there's nothing I love more than the fashion statements made by historic ladies, particularly of the regal kind. In a post I published some time ago in the blog "Francophiles Anonymous", I discussed the fashion revolution lead by the legendary French queen Marrie Antoinette (The linked post has not been translated to English yet). But believe it or not, history is filled with great queens who actually stopped to consider the color and shape of their dress even in the face of death. 
One such queen was the second wife of Henry the VIII of England (aka: The worst husband in history), Anne Boleyn, who met her tragic death by execution on the 19th of May 1536, at the age of 35.  

Oil on canvas portrait of Anne Boleyn. From Hever castle.

Anne Boleyn was executed on charges of fornication and betrayal. But she knew all too well that those charges were only an excuse to remove her from the king's life, simply because much like her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, she too failed to give the king a son. Divorce would have meant that the king would be obliged to pay the Boleyn family some amount of money or property. But if a queen (much like any other woman of means in the 16th century) died, then all her wealth and property would have gone to her husband. How convenient... 
And so, on that fatal morning, Anne Boleyn climbed the steps to the gallows wearing a classically English "Gable" shaped hood, a cape trimmed with weasel fur and a crimson colored skirt. And if you think that she wore that outfit simply because it was the only thing she had with her in the Tower of London, then you underestimate the woman who had sonnets written in honor of the way she wore her green sleeved gown.

Like many wearlthy aristorcratic parents of the Tudor era, Anne's parents sent her to be raised and educated in the French court as part of the French Queen's  entourage (sort of like the rich and privilaged young women of today who get a job at "Vogue" through their parents connections and worship at the altar of Anna Wintour). So by the time Anne came back to the English court, she brought with her all the fahsion and glamour of 16th century Paris and stood out like a rose among thorns.  For example, while most women at the English court covered their heads with heavy, awkward looking gable shaped hoods (imagine walking aroung with a slated roof on your head...); sexy Anne flaunted her shiney black tresses by wearing a small rounded and pulled back French hood, which she famously decorated with pearls.

If you got it, flaunt it! Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in her French hood ("The Tudors")

Yet on the morning of her execution Anne stepped out wearing the traditional English hood in an attempt to make people forget about all the French influences she brought with her to England, and to send the message that she was always loyal to England and the head of its state and church- the king. The weasel fur trim was also a deliberate fashion choice: the only people who could afford to wear such an oppulant fur at that time were members of the aristocracy. So by choosing to wear it, she was actually saying "you are killing a woman of noble blood, you assholes!" Imagine going to the electric chair carrying a limited edition Chanel bag.  And that is what I call making a stylish exit! 

Execution Chique: Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn in "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Even her crimson colored skirt was a deliberate choice, since according to the Anglican Church, which Anne helped establish during the king's break from the Catholic Church; crimson was cosidered to be the color of holy martyrs. By choosing to wear this color Anne was making a statement that wasn't lost on any follower of the newly founded church: that she was innocent of all the charges brought against her, and that by executing her the king and his councillors were actually making her a martyr. Well, Anne may not have gone down in Anglican history as a martyr, but history does remember her as the senseual and higly ambitious woman who made a king divorce his queen and abandon his religon. Not bad for a girl in weasel fur and a triangle shaped hood. 

About two hundred years after Anne Boleyne, on the eastern side of the continent, a different queen stopped to have her hair done on her way to a military coup she had organized in an attempted to overthrow her husband. Her name was Catherine the Great- Empress of Russia. 

Empress Catherine the Great as a young girl 

Catherine (or Yekaterina as it is pronounced in Russian) was born Sophia Friederika Augusta in the small Prussian principality of Anhalt-Zerbst (today a part of Poland). Much like her French counterpart Marrie Antoinette, she too traveled from a smaller provincial kingdome to a glamorous big city as a naive fifteen year-old girl to marry an infantile man-child who cared more about his board game soldiers than he did about his wife. But unlike Marrie Antoinette, little sophia didn't arrive at a chique and sophisticated court like Versailles, but rather to a primitive Russian palace swarming with vodka guzzling soldiers.

Nonetheless, the young princess was quick to realize that there's no use relying on her immature husband Peter ("Pyotor") the III, and she set her sights on a much better allay- Peter's aunt and legal guardian, the Grand Empress Elizabeth ("Yelizaveta"). The first step in getting on Elizabeth's good side was for Sophia to convert from her own Lutheran religion to the Provo Slav- Orthodox religion prevalant in the Russian empire and devoutly practiced by Elizabeth. Sophia even went as far as abandoning her birth name and taking on the name of Empress Elizabeth's late mother- Catherine. 

Think about that the next time you only get your mother-in-law a salad bowl for the holidays!

Tragically, Empress Elizabeth died on Chirstmas Eve 1761, and the following year Catherine's husband was crowned Czar of all Russia. This meant trouble for our Catya, because Peter saw this as the perfect opportunity to get rid of his wife, who proved much more educated than him and way more popular with the other courtiers. 
And so, in June of 1762, he banished her to the Peterhof Palace (if you can call being forced to stay at a lavish palace with gilded dance halls and vast gardens "banishment"...) and later planned to have her shipped off to some rinky-dink monastery for the rest of her life. 

But as always, Catherine knew how to find friends who would come to her rescue. And let's just say she was never one to sit and wait for her husband to provide her with some nighttime pleasure (or to father her children for that matter...). So in a savvy political (and personal) move, she took artillery officer Gregory Orlov as a lover. And that was a smart move because not only was Orlov a tall, broad shouldered hunk of a man; he was also well connected with all the high ranking officers in the Russian imperial army thanks to his five brothers who were also decorated officers. Yes, dear readers, Catherine discovered a very pleasurable way of getting the entire Orlov family as well as the leadership of the Russian army on her side! 

Catherine the Great in her later years. Who knew raising an army could be so much fun...

Catherine and the Orlov brothers plotted a coupd that would dethrone Peter. And so, on June 8th 1762, in the small hours of the morning, in Peterhof Palace, Catherine was woken up by one of the Orlov brothers who told her that a carriage was waiting outside the palace gates to take her back to the royal palace in Saint- Petersburg where the army is awaiting her orders. What most people don't know is that inside the carriage that was waiting to take Catherine to what could have been a deadly military revolt, sat a Frenchman by the name of Michelle- Catherine's personal hairdresser who was sent from Paris for this particular occasion. 
Like the queen that she was, Catherine knew that she was about to stage a coup in front of masses of straving, drunk and violent Russians, and in order for that to succeed she had to "give them a show". And so, Catherine arrived at the palace in Saint Petersburg dressed in the green uniform of the Russian army with her hair perfectly curled and powdered in the latest Parisian style! 
Yes, this woman actually took time to color coordinate her outfit and call her hairdresser the night before leading a revolution. And that- ladies and gentlemen- is a woman truly worthy of rulling over an Empire. 

Gotta love a girl in uniform: Catherine the Great wearing the green uniform of the Imperial Russian army

Catherine and the Orlovs ambushed the purplexed Czar, threatened to murder him and crowned Catherine on the spot. But instead of killing her husband then and there, Catherine simply banished him to a remote palace, which is basically the equivalent of sending him to his room to think about what he did.... A month later he was nevertheless assassinated  by the youngest Orlov brother- Alexey (as you've guessed by now, Catherine really liked to "keep it in the Orlov family").

Catherine and her well-groomed hair went on to bring democracy, education and culture to an empire which up until then had been stuck in the darkness of the middle-ages. Sadly, being a woman, history mostly remembers her for her healthy sexual appetite and  numerous lovers. And yes, most of the stories about er were true...well, except the one with the horse, of course.