Monday, April 22, 2013

Cleopatra, King Tut, and Me: Art Deco's mania for Egypt

Shirt: Initiatives; Hat: C.C. Exclusives; Dress clip (on hat): vintage
Recently, when I was staying with Beau way out in the burbs, his mother told me about a store frequented by the ladies in her "over 55" (read, mostly much older) apartment complex. The prices, she said, were right. She was not kidding!

I got this top for something like $10, new.

The yoke on it immediately called to mind the frenzy for all things Egyptian after the excavation of King Tut's tomb in 1922. 


With its geometric patterns, bright colours, and plethora of gold, it seems likely that ancient Egyptian art would have influenced Art Deco fashion regardless of whether or not King Tut's tomb had been discovered, but his discovery caused a positive fashion mania.

The first vision that came to my mind when I saw that yoke on my top was Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra in the 1934 movie of the same name. 

Lest you think her outfit above is not Art Deco and is instead ancient Egyptian... well, come on, look at those eyebrows!

Anyway, who wouldn't think of Colbert's Cleopatra when she saw this top? Okay, quite a few people wouldn't but I did.

Indeed, such a yoke is pretty much mandatory for all Cleopatra costumes to this day.

Of course, the style of art uncovered, yoke and all, was not a complete surprise. Many Egyptian artifacts had already been excavated before this and therefore influenced any depictions of Cleopatra. This is Theda Bara in the role in 1917.

And, of course, perhaps the most famous Hollywood depiction of Cleopatra was that of Elizabeth Taylor in 1963. 

Bonus points if you can tell me why I know this photo was taken during a break in filming. Look closely. You'll see it.

And, no, she's not authentically Egyptian here either. If you doubt me, just look at that hair! It looks more like something you'd see on Star Trek than in ancient Egypt. 

Oh, yeah, Star Trek wasn't set in the 60s either, was it? Right. See how contemporary fashion influences Hollywood's depictions of both the past and the future?

However, the biggest liberty Hollywood has taken with depictions of Cleopatra has been in making her white. She would not have been white, and certainly not the creamy white of Bara, Colbert, and Taylor. Most recently, she was played by yet another white woman: Angelina Jolie.

Tina Turner probably looks more like her in this fashion spread than any Hollywood depiction of her does.

Still, for my money, the costumes worn by Colbert are most in keeping with...,%20Claudette/Annex/Annex%20-%20Colbert,%20Claudette%20(Cleopatra)_04.jpg

... well, not Cleopatra, but King Tut. The cloche hats of the period lent themselves to this low on the brow look.

So it was Colbert I used as my model when I put this outfit together.

Jacket and jeans: Reitmans; Boots: Ecco; Purse: thrift; Cane: Sunburst
Now that I'm of a certain age, I don't like to be too costumey, so obviously I did not try to look just like I'd stepped out of a 1934 movie. Nowadays, I like to allude to vintage fashions rather than ape them precisely. I think I managed to look modern, despite my decidedly vintage inspiration.

Besides, I was going to a birthday party for one of Beau's friends (who is a reader of this blog, though he cares not a fig for fashion), so I didn't want to be too over the top or stagey.

Note in particular the dress second from the left.
But Dim Sum? I mean, given the strong influence of Asian art and fashion on Art Deco fashion, I couldn't help but really push my Deco theme, mere allusion or no.
Flapper dress with strong Asian influence. Fun fact: in Asia , dragons are not seen as evil but rather as benevolent.
It was a kind of colonial Western pilfering of all things "exotic" but that's certainly nothing new. Such pilfering is still regularly seen on Western runways today.

So, somewhat modestly attired, I was ready for my first Dim Sum at the ungodly hour of 10:00 on a Saturday morning. Sleeping in (when pain permits) is one of the few benefits of being disabled; I work part time and primarily from home so I set most of my own hours and they don't start at the crack of dawn

But I managed. Sort of.

Beau took photos while we were on the metro and I caught myself trying to look younger by doing, God help me, the "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille," pose from 1950's Sunset Boulevard. 

See what I mean?

Gloria Swanson was, ironically, playing a washed up movie star from the 1920s, the very era that I was mimicking.

Once I realized what I was doing, I just had to ham it up. Even the sign behind me supported my assertion that I was ready for my closeup.

Beau's face in this photo just kills me. I may not have mentioned it but he's really funny.

Anyway, I did try to look kind of understated and "normal." I realize this is more my hangup than any desire on Beau's part or any conservatism on the part of his friends. I grew up very counter-culture and have remained so, while Beau and many of his friends, though liberal now, grew up very conservative. Sometimes I worry they'll think I'm weird. But, really, who wants to be normal?

And I couldn't stop myself from going all Deco in the details anyway. Check out this fabulous purse! I got it for a few dollars at a thrift store.

Ring: Birks; Earrings: thrift
And I got these earrings for 30 cents. Seriously! 

(Don't ask me about the price of the Birks ring. I've been known to splurge from time to time, though this will have to change as I'm no longer sure when I'll be well enough to work full time again.)

I was fairly sleepy and not very eccentric in public at Dim Sum, but that Asian Deco thing was on my  mind... 

And once I saw the wall paper in the washroom, I kind of had to get a little artsy-fartsy. I turned the sound off on my phone so the old lady with her granddaughter didn't know that there was a madwoman photographing herself in the stall.

But, really, who could help herself if she was wearing a cloche hat and saw wallpaper this close...

... to original Art Deco wallpaper?

And, you know, that was the period for doing all sorts of hand to face, artsy, feminine stuff in photos...

... so I had to do that too.

Check out that watch! I am so excited about it. I got it for $30. I think it's from the 1940s. It works perfectly and, upon doing research, I found out that it was made by Bulova, is almost certainly gold-filled, and has jewels in the works!

I know. You're jealous. It's understandable. I'll only gloat occasionally.

On another note, when I was looking for these photos, I was astonished by the amplitude of Theda Bara's body in her role as Cleopatra. She was considered extremely sexy in her day, in large part because of her ample proportions. 

So how could I possibly worry about mine when they're so much smaller than hers? It's simply amazing how different types of female bodies go in and out of style, like we're just wines to be tasted and tossed aside when trends change. If I'd been born in a different time, my body would have been considered perfect.

Well, except for the fact that my back is a mess.

And here's a cat...

... who would not stay still for my attempt at a photo.

Given the Egyptian love of cats, I thought a photo of my Bobby would not be out of place. Plus he's cute.

Until next time, I bid you adieu. 


  1. Richard Burton is smoking a cigarette - that's the telltale sign ;-)

    I adore your hat and the cut of that deco top suits you wonderfully. I think it's time we "ample" girls start pushing hard to become the standard of beauty once again. I'm tired of looking at style after style and having to pass on them because of my "amplitude".

    Spashionista (Alicia)

    1. Yup. It's the cigarette! It made me laugh.

      You know, a lot of the time, I see fashions on skinny models and think the models do the outfits no justice at all. Where there are darts for breasts, there are no breasts. Where there is a waistline, there is no waist because there are no hips. It's not you and I who need to reject the clothes because they're not made for us. It's the models who ruin the clothes because they're made for healthy women. (And I'm not blaming the models. They lose work if they're not rail thin.)

  2. I lOVE art deco!!! I'm sorry I haven't been in touch! Google+ has deemed my comment box their property and I've been trying to fix it for days and days and...........
    Anyhoo, I hope u r still up for what we've 'talked about' ;)
    I must go out of town again this upcoming week, but I hope we can do it them?
    Super huge hugs!!!

  3. I love that I can "sight read" your posts...meaning, just scroll down the pictures to know what you're saying. I get it, just by the pics!

    1. I think you're absolutely right with this post and most of the ones about fashion history or art history. I'm glad you can follow my visual associations and that you find it fun. That's what it's meant to be. But, actually, many of my posts have one "meaning" visually and something quite a bit deeper if you read the text. This one is a good example of that:

  4. Great post! I love your hat. Mine was a cloche today too, but not nearly as ornate as yours, and yet yours is not too much. It's elegant and very, very pretty on you! I enjoyed reading about all the Cleopatra history. Fun stuff!


  5. I adore the cloche hat! Very pretty, and you wear it well. Lots of fun information in your post, and I'm glad you linked it up to Judith's Hat Attack.

  6. Wow! That was an adventure! I enjoyed it thoroughly!
    Thanks for linking up with 52 Pick-me-up!