Shakespeare’s Women – A Fashion Exploration
The women of Shakespeare’s plays tend to be complicated and round characters, remarkably well-developed and realistic. When we think of them in modern society, it might be hard for some of us not to picture Julia Stiles as a teenage Desdemona walking down a high-school hallway in “O” or Claire Daines smiling shyly through a fish tank. If you can remove those interpretations momentarily and attempt to place them “as-is” from the plays, directly in today’s world—young, rich and yet all in extremely precarious situations—I will attempt to dress them up. Picturing these women enjoying the whims and fancies of the modern world can help us see them as more tangible and relatable characters. No, unfortunately, their fashions won’t improve their dark and tragic ends (except for Goneril, she probably deserved what she got) but it’s still interesting to picture them today, walking down European streets in vintage Chanel or composed Hermes, plotting the deaths of kings or clandestine love-affairs.
Juliet Capulet is only 13 years old when the play begins. Thirteen! Her parents are planning to marry her off to Paris (think Paul Rudd) as soon as possible, but as you know, things end differently for this sweet and quirky teenager. Against Juliet’s mother’s wishes, she won’t match her mom in the newest Armani, Versace or other respectable Italiano designers. One doesn’t have to look far to understand Juliet’s independent nature. She chooses Romeo the—sneaky—Montague over the all-too-perfect, rich and old Paris, after all. She tends towards more dreamy and free-spirited looks. She shops online, looking for the sweetest couture vintage. Her favorite designer is Elsa Schiaparelli and the designer’s feminine and whimsical colors and cuts. She wants her wardrobe to scream “romance.” She also probably owns the world’s foremost collection of vintage Chanel and won’t flinch at the price as long as there’s fur.
The daughter of a king, the wife of a duke and a real holy terror, Goneril from King Lear, (whom my college Shakespeare professor only ever referred to as “Gonorrhea”) is, to put it in layman’s terms, quite a she-devil. By the end of the play she has cuckolded her husband, killed her sister and then herself out of shame or pride (it’s not really clear). Regardless of that mess, she still has to get dressed in the morning. When she does, it’s uptight and classic nobility. She wears Hermes turtlenecks and skirts below the knee, thousand dollar pants suits and carries the tradition “LV” logo Louis Vuitton handbags. She’s too busy scheming to worry too much about her wardrobe, so she sticks to well-known design houses and buys the newest Louis every year.
Much more tragic than “Gonorrhea” is Desdemona from Othello. I’m only going to consider her styles in the beginning of the play, before things go desperately wrong and she starts attempting to get her husband to think of her as more “pure” and less independent. Before that, though, (“that” being her outrageously jealous and paranoid husband smothering her in her wedding sheets), she was independent and feisty. She was aware of her sexuality, slightly rebellious (she did marry Othello against her father’s wishes and society’s expectations) and liked to dress in ways that made her feel confident. Desdemona buys expensive evening gowns from Agent Provocateur and daily wear from Isabel Marant. She wears classy little black dresses to the market and backless gowns to happy hour.
Thinking of characters contemporarily can help us get a better understanding of Shakespeare and how truly intelligent, thoughtful and relevant his works are. It’s not always easy for me to interpret the meanings. For example, two out of the only three women in Othello were dead by the end of the play—it’s not called a “tragedy” or a “drama” for nothing. However, putting each of them in a look we can understand by today’s standards could ultimately make it easier to picture them as real Elizabethan women (well, fictionally real. Ok, and only ever played in the traditional Elizabethan theater by men). Nobody said Shakespeare was simple.