Welcome back to Sweet Nothings after a long break! When it came time to put together a special photoshoot for the holidays, I knew I wanted this year to be different. I wanted to collaborate with new artists both behind and in front of the camera, and I wanted to draw inspiration not from mythology, or fiction, or art, but from history. I wanted to feature women who ruled.
When the trailer for Wonder Woman dropped last year, I first saw it at the gym before firing up an episode of Supergirl, and I was instantly excited. That electric cello theme made my heart race, and I remember thinking “I cannot fucking wait to watch Wonder Woman in the Year of Our Lady President 2017, what a time to be alive, there’s a woman president on Supergirl and soon there will be one for real and younger girls who watch Supergirl won’t even realize how extraordinary it is for a woman president not to be fiction anymore.”
FUCK YOU TOO, HOPES AND DREAMS AND JUSTICE FOR ALL.
(Wonder Woman was fun though.)
I don’t feel very powerful these days, and I haven’t for the last year. I’ve felt sad. I’ve woken up with low-level background anxiety every day. My sleep is fractured. I can’t tear myself away from the news, even when it makes me angrier than I’ve ever felt before in my life. I think about the morning of November 9, 2016 every single day. That shock and betrayal feels fresh every day. Sometimes I feel fueled with righteous anger, and sometimes I just want to crawl into bed and disappear. And, while it’s obviously not the same as a national and global crisis and the imminent threat of horrific tyranny, my perfect beautiful soft cat died in August, and I’m still heartbroken. I go through periods of feeling like everything I touch breaks; even working on this post, for which I’d had such high hopes, presented me with logistical, emotional, and financial challenges that made me wish I’d saved this project for a more auspicious (and financially stable) year.
So in the wake of an avalanche of disappointments, what do you do? Well, I wish it were as easy as saying “you get together with your friends and you dress up in lingerie that makes you feel powerful”, but that’s admittedly a facile, consumerist solution. It’s a temporary fix, and it may turn around your mood for a bit, but the problems are still there. Therapy is definitely a good idea, taking action and engaging is important if you’re able (especially voting– please vote for the love of god, we have a monster in the White House by such small margins in many districts). So I’m choosing to look at the queens in this post as inspiration, and not just sartorially. They didn’t always win– at least one died in battle. But they defied expectations: one acquired wealth that exceeded every other ruler’s, and two rode into war to resist invading empires. Their lives and actions subverted what deeply patriarchal cultures expected of them, and they wielded great and terrible power.
Women have been in power before. People of Color have been in power before. Queer people have been in power before. This is not a new thing. We’ve been in power before, and we will be again. All around the world, throughout the entirety of human history, power has always been more than male, white, and Christian. I don’t know what the next few years will bring, and I’m scared every day, but I’m keeping my mind and heart open for hope.
LAKSHMIBAI: THE SUN
Anjali: A few years ago I was called in to help develop a character for a play a friend was workshopping. I had (sadly) never heard of this woman before – the Rani (Queen) of Jhansi (a province in India), otherwise known to history as Lakshmibai. I was immediately fascinated by this woman about whom we know so little, but who is revered in India as a warrior queen of almost mythological proportions. She lost her mother at age 4, and was raised by men – trained to have a sharp mind, and to be a proficient gymnast, wrestler, martial artist, archer, and rider. She was married by the time she was 12 to the High King of Jhansi, who was rumored to be at the very least a crossdresser, but quite possibly transgender. As his second wife she was confined to the palace, kept locked in her heavily guarded chambers whenever she wasn’t being visited by the Maharaja, exercising, training, or drilling the regiment of women warriors she was training in her free time. Somewhere around 15 years old she gave birth to a son whom she immediately lost, and soon after she was widowed.
The details of this woman’s life fascinated me – she who led a bloody rebellion against the British in the years of 1857-1858 (both pitched battles and surprise massacres; they described her in battle as riding with her adopted son slung across her back, the reins in her teeth, and two swords in her hands) and died on the battlefield. She was up at dawn, training relentlessly, riding like a pro, and then indulging in very long, luxurious, fragrant baths. She spent many hours a day in prayer. When she went with her retinue through town sometimes she did so dressed as a man, other times as a woman, often with a pack of specially trained young maidens – attractive, unmarried, jewel-laden – running alongside her chariot. She was a fair queen, “an exemplary judge, clear-headed and merciless in dispensing justice” – sometimes punishing criminals with a stick she held in her own hands.
For the shoot I was thinking of her in her most vulnerable hours. Alone, without her maids, without the eyes of the public on her. This playful, fierce, devout woman who had grown up so quickly, lost so much, insisted on living life on her own terms, and defended her realm against the British with her very life. How to recreate some sense of her in myself with contemporary lingerie? I knew I wanted a bra that was close to a nude, something that could be simple and plain but when you look closely is ravishing, something exquisite and seductive but *quiet*. I also wanted to leave her locked into whatever minimal armor she would be wearing – likely leather, so a beautiful brown leather corset that was smooth but also rugged and unyielding. I wanted to incorporate the beautiful colors of an Indian palace, something warm/golden but not too opulent, something she would have around to cover her head with when praying alone. In addition there would have to be a piece, a robe or dressing gown that she would have around and could wear absentmindedly, that would be so dazzling that it could be fit for none other than royalty.
For me it was so important for her look to incorporate both her austerity and her extravagance – a very physical woman who played the modest widow in public (a single strand of pearls, simple white sarees) but allowed herself to indulge in majesty in private. Who was she when she came in from the battlefield, standing in front of the mirror, alone before god, this creature of contradictions – barely a grown woman, inescapably a queen, a warrior down to her very bones?
BOADICEA: THE MOON
Sweets: I won’t lie: part of why I picked Boadicea is that I’m still high on Wonder Woman and I wanted to hold a sword and kick some ass. Most of what we know about Boadicea (an alternate spelling of Boudicca) comes from Roman writings, and since the Romans conquered early Britain, we need to take what we know of her history with a grain or barrel of salt. She was a first century queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe who got fucked over by the Roman Empire and turned around and FUCKED SHIT UP for them in her turn.
The Roman army in Britain annexed the Iceni tribe’s lands illegally, had Boadicea flogged, and raped her daughters. In retaliation, Boadicea raised a massive army in an uprising that slaughtered as many as 80,000 Roman soldiers. Described as tall with long red or “tawny” hair, she and her daughters used the horror of their assaults to galvanize their people into action. The Romans were taken aback by the ferocity and violence she unleashed upon them; Nero was reportedly so alarmed by news of Boadicea’s victories that he considered withdrawing the Roman army from Britain entirely (!). Though her uprising was quashed and she later died mysteriously (some reports say she poisoned herself, others that she was killed in battle), she later became a major cultural symbol during the English Renaissance, with a particular revival of interest in the Victorian era (some writers of the era translated her name as Victory or Victoria, so, understandable).
I wanted Boadicea’s ensemble to reflect that Victorian filter that’s often applied to depictions of her, with a gently corseted shape and a bit of an Art Nouveau feel. I have absolutely no historical foundation for this, but I imagine that the landscape of of early Britain might have felt dense, lush, cold, and dangerous to a Roman soldier who traveled north from the Mediterranean. The colors are inspired by mist, gleaming moonlight, fog, and heather. The floral guipure embroidery on the silk Fleur of England harness and the dramatic fall of floral lace on the Amoralle gown made me think of elements in the natural world that would have appealed to Victorian artists creating an image of a powerful pre-Roman British queen.
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA: THE STARS
Cora: For my Woman in Power, I chose the Queen of Sheba, a semi-mythical/semi-historical Queen who people are likely most familiar with through Abrahamic religions. My earliest conception of the Queen of Sheba started with her Medieval portrayal: a dark-skinned black woman, wearing a green dress trimmed in fur, draped in jewels, with hip-length blonde hair.
Gradually, I realized it was the “draped in jewels” portion of this portrayal that most appealed to me. The Queen of Sheba was supposed to be fantastically wealthy, and in my concept of her, she’s the kind of woman who would clothe herself in diamonds, pearls, and gold leaf instead of regular garments. Not simply because she could, but because she should. As royalty, she was a goddess incarnate. Ropes of pearls, golden silks and diamond-encrusted bracelets may be too much for mere mortals…but are just right for an anointed queen. I also wanted my version Sheba’s portrayal to draw on certain aspects of the legend. For example, tradition states that the Queen of Sheba bore the same gifts of the Magi – gold, frankincense and myrrh. These are the items contained within my chest.
Finally, there’s a celestial element to my attire. If Anjali is the Sun and Sweets is the Moon, I am the stars – glittering, twinkling and radiant. Through that lens, every little pinpoint of light on my catsuit is a galaxy, my hair a nebula, my crown a supernova. I am the building blocks of life itself – fierce and hot and luminous…and completely unreachable.
THE QUEEN OF SHEBA
Cora Harrington, The Lingerie Addict, wears:
Special thanks to Tessa Flannery, Caroline Elenowitz-Hess, and Michael Eisenstein