Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra thought to be first performed in 1608 was devoid of overt orientalist costuming and female bodies. All parts were played by men including, with the aid of a corset, Cleopatra. Characters wore Elizabethan dress and viewers would’ve understood the veiled political commentary, Cleopatra was an allegorical reflection on the rule of Elizabeth I. Reiterations of the play occurred on theatre stages over the centuries that followed. Notably the costuming of Cleopatra herself was informed by fashionable ideals of femininity from each era. In the Victorian era, played by Isabella Glyn, Cleopatra was robust, magisterial and dressed in crinoline [1].

Elizabeth Wilson cites social anxiety surrounding sexually transmitted disease as a contributing factor in the emergence of the vampire mythos [2]. Bram Stoker makes his ambivalence towards women and the perceived threat to male vitality known in tales like Lair of the White Worm (1911).

Image source: www.google.com.au/search?q=lair+of+the+white+worm&espv=2&biw=1455&bih=926&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIzrCVpOGKyAIVRRumCh2-bwHc#tbm=isch&q=bram+stoker+lair+of+the+white+worm+cover&imgrc=v5sCosr5xKCyYM%3A

Cleopatra’s cinematic representation in the early 20th century begins to echo a similar theme of woman as succubus like creature. At this point an erotic and inaccurate Hollywood stereotype, the harem girl, emerges becoming a kind of short-hand for the exotic Other. Cleopatra as played by Theda Bara is representative of this trope [1].

Theda Bara as Cleopatra. Image source: www.google.com.au/search?q=theda+bara&espv=2&biw=1455&bih=926&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMI5rf4x-GKyAIVRqmmCh2zFwfa#imgrc=qEVOTFAPV8HgxM%3A

Theda Bara as Cleopatra. Image source: http://media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/02/66102-004-BFEA9076.jpg

Themes of seduction and performance as a means to power reach a pinnacle in Elizabeth Taylor’s 1962 rendition of Cleopatra. Suzanne Osmond recognises the significance of a wink given by Cleopatra upon first meeting Caesar in Rome as a self-referential nod to the performative construct she, as both Elizabeth Taylor and Cleopatra, is enacting [1].

Warhol references both the mechanical reproduction and reiteration of gender performance prevalent in cinema of the 20th century in his 1963 work Silver Liz as Cleopatra [1].

Andy Warhol’s Silver Liz as Cleopatra. Image source: http://data.whicdn.com/images/50092173/original.jpg

Andy Warhol’s Silver Liz as Cleopatra. Image source: http://data.whicdn.com/images/50092173/original.jpg

Edward Said argues that orientalism as an institution governs and restricts thought about the Orient. The effect of this is a flattening of human experience into stereotypes that maintain Western hegemony by denying voice to the subject of the construct [3]. This concept of image construction that dominates thought can be seen in the way “vampy” Cleopatra, epitomised by Elizabeth Taylor, remains desirable and relatively unchallenged by popular culture.

John Galliano highlights cliché thought about the Orient, specifically Cleopatra and Egypt, in his Winter/Fall 1997 collection. Spectacle is paramount, the show tells the story of Suzy Sphinx a punky British school girl who via a fantasy journey through Egypt ends up enthroned against a Hollywood inspired set wearing a gown made entirely of gold coloured safety pins [4]. Galliano draws cues from past vampy depictions of Cleopatra like that of Theda Bara [5]. Echoing the theme of repetition in Warhol’s work all the models, styled with the same black bob, perform the role of Suzy Sphinx. Galliano keeps things light and fun, the show has a comical element due to its use of caricature and overt sexuality. However by speaking through the crude cultural appropriation and erotic visual tropes of Hollywood Galliano is also identifying them as constructed fantasies.

Image sources from left: 1) http://40.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mc9hqtRXmx1qm3zbto1_1280.jpg. 2) http://41.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lxjye6nrQP1qm3zbto1_1280.jpg. 3) http://cdni.condenast.co.uk/452×610/a_c/5_FW-1997-1998-18.jpg.

References:

[1] Osmond, Suzanne. 2012. ‘her Infinite Variety’: Representations of Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in Fashion, Film And Theatre. Film 1, (1): 55-79

[2] Wilson, Elizabeth. 2007. A Note on Glamour. Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture 11, (1): 95-107

[3] Said, Edward W. 1978. Orientalism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

[4] ShowStudio. 2002. Past, Present & Couture. John Galliano: Modernity and Spectacle. Last modified: 2 March 2002. Accessed: 22 September 2015. URL: https://showstudio.com/project/past_present_couture/essay

[5] Daily Motion. 2014. “THE RETURN OF CLEOPATRA” John Galliano Autumn Winter 1997 by Fashion Channel. Last modified: 28 May 2014. Accessed: 22 September 2015. URL: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1xaokz_the-return-of-cleopatra-john-galliano-autumn-winter-1997-by-fashion-channel_lifestyle

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