My Fair Lady, the 1964 film, is a musical adaptation of the Lerner and Lowe stage musical production of the same name, based on the book, Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The book is said to be themed based on the poem, London Bridge.
The poem tells a simple rhyming story of a woman, a fair lady, who has London Bridge, but it is falling down, and no matter how she builds it back, with silver, gold, or any other material, she will not be able to protect it on her own, so a man has to sit to watch all night. But, even the man might fall asleep and need a pipe to smoke. It is a poem about retaining resources based on gender and politics, within a cold, hard world.
Eliza Doolittle, is the fair lady, (played by Audrey Hepburn) as a flower girl, with a drunkard father and a cockney accent. She is caught out in the rain selling flowers to wealthy theatergoers in Edwardian London. Eliza insists, “I’m a good girl, I am,” as her only defense from prostitution with her skill set is to be a flower girl.
While selling flowers Eliza is met with the pompous, snooty, and outgoing Henry Higgins, a professor of elocution. Higgins takes note of Eliza’s diction while mocking her class simultaneously; fellow elocution expert Colonel Hugh Pickering notes the scene. The three, all meet outside of a theater on a rainy London night.
Eliza, later though, not long after her interesting encounter with these two men, puts on her finest dress, a hideously tacky purple ensemble and appears at Higgin’s door. Eliza comes to ask for speech lessons, so she may go from a street flower seller to a respectable girl in a flower shop. She offers to pay Higgins a decent amount for the lessons.
Though, the spoiled, selfish, and abominable Higgins does not see a future pupil before him. He sees a toy. Neither Higgins nor Pickering, overlook how much fun a strikingly beautiful girl, sadly wearing her tacky dress with such pride and her cockney accent, will be. Only the housekeeper lectures Higgins, “Do be sensible,” she tells him. The housekeeper reminds Higgins he actually has to think through how his actions might affect Eliza’s life.
Higgins takes Eliza on for free, including room and board, to teach her, not to be a girl in a flower shop, but to teach her to be a lady of rank equal to his own. Higgins works Eliza to the bone and she fantasizes of his death. But somehow Higgins, Eliza, and Pickering all plod through it together.
Eliza’s father comes to Higgin’s establishment to demand payment for allowing his daughter to stay with Higgins. Higgins, though appalled at first, finds he enjoys the man’s world philosophy and gives in. So, though Eliza gives herself to Higgins for lessons for free, her father sells her to Higgins postdated. It is darkly comic of a man’s world philosophy. And really, just sad.
Higgins trains Eliza to act a certain role among his high society acquaintances. During an event at the races, Eliza meets Freddy, who is everything Higgins is not: charming, sensible, and protectively understanding of Eliza in a playful and conversational manner. Eliza remains friends with Freddy.
Higgin’s ultimate test of Eliza is to take her to a ball and have her interact with a fellow elocution expert, to see if the expert can tell where she is from. The expert decides without a doubt Eliza is hiding an accent and is surely Hungarian. Higgins and Pickering find it all to be a charming joke. Neither of them pays any attention to Eliza after the deed is done. They simply boast to each other of their grand alliance and the outcome it produced.
Eliza is disgusted by the two insufferable a-clowns she is dealing with. She also dislikes her transformation because she has lost her financial independence. She cannot be a girl in a flower shop now. Higgins took her training too far on purpose.
Eliza states she will marry Freddy, as she is fed up with Higgins, yet is still searching for a partner in life. Freddy is in love with Eliza and he is very much the sensible alternative to Higgins. But in the end, Eliza returns to Higgins, as in one way or another, they have grown to become a part of each other. And so, the transformation is complete.
By Sarah Bahl
The Mariinsky Ballet performed Prokofiev's Cinderella, from October 16th to the 21st, at the Kennedy Center. This performance was in a manner; stark, urban, and modernized. The background set, reminded me, in its drab plainness of the set from the movie, West Side Story.
Act I begins with the evil Stepmother and Stepsisters getting their hair done against a bare warehouse style background. The Stepmother and Stepsisters are larger than the petite and lovely Cinderella. Their clothes consist mainly of ugly neon concoctions or baggy shapeless items, that are of marked difference to Cinderella's flowing, pale, graceful ensemble.
The Stepmother and Stepsisters leave for the ball and Cinderella is transformed by an old haggard drone, (really a faery in disguise) into a beautiful lady. The drone does this by pulling the needed items: dress and slippers, out of an old ratty bag.
Some of the scenes confused me, because in order to show the faery, warning Cinderella of her fate if she does not return before midnight, Cinderella dances out the fate, collapses to the ground and the curtain is pulled. I did not realize this was symbolic of future pretense. The realities of Cinderella's collapse, either eluded me or were not portrayed clearly.
Act II begins at the ball, where the characters and meaning are simpler. The dancers' movements are puppeteered in unison to the point of comedy. The audience laughed repeatedly during Act II as throughout all acts, for the ballet movements often took on a playful cartoonish quality. At least for all the characters except the consistently elegant Cinderella and her Prince Charming.
Cinderella is gorgeous - in white - and dances with her Prince Charming. She leaves at midnight, leaving behind her one glass slipper...
By Sarah Bahl
Empress Catherine II of Russia, utilized fashion and style as she did everything else, for politics. Her memoirs have been decided by some historians as flagrant use of primal justification for the death of her husband, Peter III, who she is rumored to have assassinated. Though, she really isn’t justifying anything. She is telling.
Catherine the Great, monarch and ruler of Russia for a golden age, was born a German princess: Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst in Stettin on April 21, 1729. Princess Sophie was culled at the age of 15, to be the Grand Duke Peter's bride by Empress Elizabeth of Russia. The Grand Duke, was Princess Sophie's second cousin. Princess Sophie, renamed as Duchess Ekaterina Alekseevna upon entering Russian court life, was everything her husband was not; athletic, intelligent, patient, and a creature of calm and consistent political voracity. She was a fair and strong woman, though not distractingly beautiful, with a fine mind, conversational nature, a physical endurance, and ability to withstand pain.
Catherine describes the pulling of a tooth; “I have never felt anything but pain of that moment. It was so violent tears streamed down my nose as though water had been poured from a teapot…I then learnt by experience that pain one suffers often gives rise to a grudge against whoever caused it. Boerhave, who obviously realized this, began to laugh and begged me to allow him to examine the spot. He then discovered that one of the roots had remained, while together with the tooth, a piece the size of a shilling had been wrenched from the jawbone. I was put to bed and suffered for about 4 weeks…I did not leave the seclusion of my room until January 1750, because at the bottom of my cheek I had Gyon’s five fingers imprinted in blue and yellow bruises.” The daily physical pains of life at the time are not comparable to many peoples’ today.
Russian court life could also be emotionally brutal and Catherine’s marriage to her husband is a depressing one, as she refers to him in her memoirs, as “The Grand Duke.” Neither party remained remotely faithful to the other and Catherine wept over The Grand Duke's affairs (at least initially) while keeping discreet about her own. The Grand Duke is depicted within the memoirs as an emotional maladjusted man-child of limited intelligence and questionable sanity.
Catherine, overcomes the environment by utilizing an awareness of her own powers and makes clear her self regard in her memoirs. Catherine considered herself better than her mother in maintaining a proper hold over the intricacies of court life and international domination, (her mother lacked the sophistication to keep multiple powers astride in relation to each other, with oneself as an individual ahead. And beside, since Empress Elizabeth was in want of sole control over Catherine, there was no room within the Russian courts for Catherine’s mother anyway) as well as better than her husband as a person entirely.
Catherine was recruited at an early age, as an unknown princess, by Empress Elizabeth, a calculating political machine. Whereas Catherine was a political woman, the Empress was pure machinery. The memoirs imply Elizabeth knew her nephew as useless, early on, and trained Catherine, from the start, to rule in her husband’s stead. The Empress repeatedly took from Catherine those she loved, her servants, Catherine’s own children, and raised Catherine to be one thing: Empress.
Court life and gearing toward empire control also came with great financial costs. Catherine was often in considerable debt to keep up with court life. It was not a capitalist economy, and as rulers they were not kicked out if they had to pay back debts at such and such a time and could not. Catherine wrote, “…and the next day I requested my accounts. They showed that I owed seventeen thousand rubles; before leaving Moscow for Kiev, the Empress had sent me fifteen thousand rubles and a larger coffer of simpler cloths, but I had to be richly dressed. In sum, then, I owed two thousand rubles; this did not seem to me an excessive amount. A variety of causes had forced these expenditures upon me. Primo, I had arrived in Russia very poorly outfitted, I was at the end of the world, and at a court where one changed outfits three times a day…” Catherine spends politically, for gifts and for clothing.
Catherine, though she spent well on fashion and gifts made sure of one thing - never to outdo The Empress. Catherine writes in her memoirs, "At that time, I loved to dance. At public balls I usually changed costume three times. My jewelry was always very fine, and if the costume I wore attracted everyone's praise, I was sure never to wear it again, because I had a rule that if it had made a big impression once, it could only make a smaller one the next time. On the other hand, at court balls that the public did not attend, I dressed as simply as I could, and so I paid my respects to The Empress, who did not much like anyone to appear overdressed," as well as to remain true to her own calling, "I did not make beauty or finery the source of my merit, for when one was gone, the other became ridiculous, and only character endured."
Notes: All quotes are taken from The Memoirs of Catherine the Great, 2005 Modern Library Edition. The Memoirs are written to depict life before Catherine became empress. Images are found online.
By Sarah Bahl
Coco Before Chanel, is a film about the rise of a woman, born into poverty and determined not be another drudge in the system. (Our lead character is a born snob.) The film begins with two girls being driven in a simple peasant cart. It is 1893. They are taken to a nunnery, where the nuns wear incredibly starched wide sweeping black and white head covers, that are essentially enormous fabric triangles on their heads. Even for the nuns, 1893 was not an era of practicality when it came to fashion.
Gabrielle Chanel and her sister Julie, are the two young girls in the cart. They are wordlessly and unceremoniously dropped off by their father for care within the abbey, that served as an orphanage for poor undesired girls and as a boarding house for wealthy young girls. Chanel waited for her father to come back every week while at the abbey. He never did.
Chanel and her sister both become pretty women, working as seamstresses during the day and in a pub as singers in the evening. Their dresses are very simple. There is a huge difference in the style and the fabric of how the wealthy women dressed versus the working class women. For example, today, there is not a huge difference in the style, cut, color and detail of a suit Hillary Clinton would wear to work, versus, a secretary working as an administrator in any given office. In the early 1900s, differences in terms of style of clothing when it came to class were of incredible variance. Wealthy women had a marked amount of detail in their fabric, how their hair was done, and the jewels they wore. So much adornment. The working class women wore very simple, clothes of plain coloring, that differed greatly from the garb of the wealthy.
At the pub, Chanel meets her lover and protector Étienne Balsan, who she insists on staying with, as she sees him as pivotal to her gateway toward a better life. It is Balsan, who christens Chanel with the name Coco, after a song she sings. The name does seem to suit her tomboyish nature and simple features. Coco, charms Balsan with her quaint mannerisms, her love for clothes, horses, and need to be something different. She is known to dress as a boy, most of the time. To forego the use of a corset and practice other such anomalies for the day.
Coco, consistently wants to have more and be more. She realizes she will never have a stage career but the hats she makes are well liked and in demand. She has a knack for sewing. She leaves Balsan, who remains a supportive father figure throughout her life, for Arthur, “Boy” Capel, a friend of Balsan’s. Boy asks Balsan to have Coco for the weekend, which is how their love affair began. It might seem terrible today for two men to share a woman without complaint, but during the early 1900s in Europe it, was considered unseemly for men to rival each other for a woman. And if one man wanted to sleep with another man’s lover or even a wife, the husband in question should consider the offer a compliment, that another man would want his wife/lover. It was the culture at the time.
Coco leaves Balsan, because he wants her to be his alone, and to have no other features. He wants her to become his wife and she says no. She wants a different future for herself. Boy is the man who supports her career ambitions. He lends her money to start her own business. With the money to launch her own creations on a consistent basis Coco Chanel leads the world of fashion in two manners. First, she lessens the differences in clothing when it comes to class. Her outfits are simple and chic. Second, she lessens the difference in clothing when it comes to gender. Her boyish, elegant simplicity is trademark of all her fashions. Her ideals matched wide sweeping sentiments toward womens' rights at the time. Chanel lead the world of fashion into incredible changes, that are very visible today.
By Sarah Bahl
Farewell, My Queen (Les adieux a la reine) directed by Benoît Jacquot; provides a uniquely intimate portrait regarding the ending climax of King Louis XVI's reign. The intimacy is due to the perceptions of the story being told from the perspective, not of the reigning nobility, but from that of a top end servant girl, who works and lives among the most powerful members of court-life at Versailles Palace (about 14 miles from Paris).
The film begins with a very realistic opening scene of Sidonie Laborde, on July 14th 1789. Sidonie, is the servant who drowsily and slowly wakes within a sun filled simple room, wearing loose fitted white night clothes and scratching mosquito bites as flies buzz around her. It is easy to feel the heat of the day in the room and one wonders how the nobility manage wearing so many layers of clothes during the summer. I find Sidonie's daytime work outfit to be beautiful and intricate. Her hair is simply placed on top of her head uncovered and she wears no makeup.
Despite Sidonie's natural beauty, I realize what she wears is nothing compared to the detail and marked sophistication of Queen Marie Antoinette's unusually stunning garb. The Queen's eyebrows are light and when at court she wears full make-up. Within her private chambers, she does not.
There are details within the film, that reveal the lack of hygiene behind the daily lives of those in court, despite all the finery. For instance; Sidonie's arms are covered in welts from bites and she wears the same dress everyday, except for one. How much the smell could have matched with the look is of question.It appears Sidonie only has three outfits. One, her nightdress which might be the same as what she wears under her day dress. Then there is a formal dress of her own she wears toward the end of the film. Though, the hygiene efforts do speak of the general standards throughout Europe at the time, it still causes one to wonder: if this is the standard for the fairly well off Sidonie, how much are the multitude of persons within France suffering on a daily basis?
The servants seem to have enough to eat but no table manners. Sidonie, despite her well read proficiency toward life, has no idea how to eat from a fork, nor what to do with her elbows. It is a reminder of how, despite her education and natural intelligence, she is a servant. Kept to a certain place. Sidonie is awoken by a chiming clock, a rare treat for a servant girl to have in her possession. Sidonie is given the task of reading to the Queen. The Queen's attentions flit from one task to another. From plays to fashion designs, to rosewater ointment for Sidonie's welts.
The Queen is married to the King, but they are never seen directly together until the King leaves Versailles. Why he is separated from his wife and children during such dangerous times for the family is not explained.
It is not made known the Queen has children until toward the end of the film. It is a film very much about adult needs, desires, and games. The Queen makes her appetites readily known and she is familiar with both genders on the subject. Her true love appears to be for a high ranking noble woman and this love is known both to the King and the whole court. Marie Antoinette and the King see each other for one very dry, awkward parting farewell kiss with the children present.
Sidonie holds true love for the Queen in her heart, until she realizes, she is just a pawn, in a brutal game of survival among falling powers. The Queen gets what she wants for the most part, and she plays very aptly with Sidonie's lonely emotions, in order to cull her into submission. Sidonie is also outnumbered both by individual powers and circumstance. There is really no outlet for an independent voice of her own within the confines of court life on the eve of the French Revolution. The most human factor in the film, is another one of the Queen's personal attendants, who implores Sidonie not to do what the Queen is about to ask her.
By Sarah Bahl