Cold-Shoulder Warriors

On October 17, 2017, Reese Witherspoon spoke at the Elle Magazine’s Women in Hollywood event, and she explained that she, like so many stars in Hollywood and women in the larger world, was sexually assaulted — for her, as a young teen girl. Ms. Witherspoon is best known for her 2001 role as Elle Woods of Legally Blonde, a character who weaponized the color pink. Witherspoon herself favors black in her off-screen appearances, and she came ready to do battle, this time as her self. Her dress by Calvin Klein (see Tom & Lorenzo’s blog for their take) is a fascinating design for several reasons.

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The embossed fabric resembles the heavy, dense, ornate fabrics of the 17th century, specifically the cloth popular with the emerging Dutch elite.

This detail from the National Gallery of Art (U.K.) shows what I mean. Frans Hal’s ca. 1633 painting, Portrait of an Elderly Lady, shows us the richly detailed fabric of the wealthy and powerful of The Netherlands. This fabric is brought to you by new money, capitalism as it is taking off, and through exploitation of human labor and the culling of natural resources.

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This montage shows the close parallels between the fabric of 2017 and the cloth of the 1630s. Heavily-embossed fabric was popular in the United States at the very end of the 1960s (think glittery maxi dresses) at the height of second-wave feminism, and in the mid-1980s, the height of Dallas-style (and Trump-style) displays of wealth.

At first glance, this Calvin Klein dress would seem a generic version of the extremely popular Cold-Shoulder Dress (see Give them the cold shoulder, my very first post on this blog). But Reese’s has some historically-interesting touches, like the fabric choice. And her “cold shoulders” are actually slits, with the appearance of arm coverings attached by strips of fabric. She looks as if she is wearing a 17th-century doublet.

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Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, ca. 1625 (a few years before Hals’ portrait) shows the Duke with his slashed doublet revealing the fine white linen underneath. The doublet was in some ways the metal suit of armor rendered in soft fabric: its lines were supposed to follow the ‘natural’ lines of an idealized male torso, with each component articulated by padding and stitching.

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In this portrait, Charles I stands in his doublet and matching breeches in a painting by Daniel Mitjens the Elder in 1629. The doublet gives form to his torso, outlining broad sloping shoulders, a narrow waist, and a trim torso. Whether the somewhat frail-appearing Charles I was indeed endowed with hidden strength is uncertain, but his doublet looked as if the metal armor of a warrior shaped his body.

Witherspoon’s dress made me rethink the cold-shoulder dress a bit. Perhaps the fad of the cut-out shoulders is both a metaphorical cold shoulder to men’s attentions and a gesture to the defensive dress of 17th-century wealth and glamour. On Calvin Klein’s website there are rows and rows of cold-shoulder sheath dresses. The stark poses of the model and the minimalist styling (in keeping with the aesthetic of the corporation) suggest the warrior princess prepared to do battle — or, like Reese Witherspoon, the young woman – once so eager to please —  now taken with anger and revenge.

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