I will be completely honest: I have not yet seen the film “Bohemian Rhapsody”, the new biopic about singer Freddie Mercury and the band Queen. Having been fortunate enough to have seen Queen in concert during the mid 70’s, I know that my opinion will be clouded by preconceptions and comparisons to the real deal. When I saw them in concert, it was at a relatively small venue that accommodated maybe 500 people as opposed to the later performance venues consisting of football stadiums that could fit 100,00 plus souls. It was a time when Freddie still sported that sexy shag hairdo that gave him the air of a sensuous Persian Prince and not the obnoxious crew cut and mustache which gave him the air of a convenience store employee working the night shift at 711 or a leather cruiser at the Catacomb Club of San Francisco.
But the story I am about to tell, no doubt transpired during this time; Since it was at this performance that Freddie was sporting onstage a fashion confection that was a result of a creative collaboration between himself and another product of London’s early 70’s glam scene: Fashion Designer Zhandra Rhodes.
Now a bit about Dame Zhandra first: She is one of these creative dynamos who moved back and forth seamlessly between the wearable art world and high society fashion. She was a textile artist who first came into the public consciousness by designing the engagement dress of Princess Anne (Charles’ Sister, Prince Harry’s Aunt). This was really quite an accomplishment at the time. Zhandra Rhodes was a product of London’s Swinging 60’s, while the Princess Royal still used her Mother the Queen’s couturier. So her choice of designers for the most important day of her life was nothing short of a youth quake and the result was an ethereal fashion fantasy which still holds up today.
From there Dame Zhandra went on to design costumes for early glam rock stars like Mark Bolan, then for operas, other royalty, celebrities etc etc. On personal note, I had briefly seen Ms Rhodes at an opening night performance of ‘Giocconda’ at the San Francisco Opera in 1979. She was wearing a lampshade on her head and her hair was dyed purple. Really. Quite a sight to behold. I had also seen several years later, her costumes for the San Diego Opera’a ‘The Magic Flute’. Her use of color and texture were a feast for the eyes but in no way upstaged Mozarts beautiful music.
But I digress: thanks to Dame Zhandra’s zig zagging professional trajectory, it was only natural that her path crossed with Freddie Mercury’s. According to her, it all began when the phone rang at her studio. It was Freddie saying that he and Queen guitarist Brian May needed costumes. They met up at her studio later that evening, where she had Freddie and Brian try on a variety of tops, having them moving about to get a feel for how the garments would translate onstage. Freddie was drawn to one particular gown which was meant to be a wedding dress for another client. He loved how the pleated fabric draped on his body as he moved. So Zhandra, in a thunderbolt of inspiration, took a pair of scissors to the waistline and Voila! The gown became a tunic and Freddie said yes to the dress!
Brian May also benefitted from Zhandra Rhodes’ sartorial creativity, she confected a very colorful custom painted tunic whose sleeves we engineered in such a way that it would not interfere with his virtuosic guitar playing. Thinking about this heady collaboration between these two iconic entities, it got me to think why she never collaborated with that other Glam Icon: David Bowie. I did a pretty extensive internet search with no results, so one can only speculate as to what might have been.
So yes, that night in 1976, in that small crowded theater in San Francisco, I was fortunate enough to see Queen make their US debut. It was a blindingly theatrical show featuring strobe lights, special effects and of course, Freddie’s pleated tunic. Freddie had a stage presence almost like Bowie’s. According to Ms Rhodes, the tunic has since been banished into the costume food chain and is now experiencing a second life as a rental piece at an Oklahoma costume warehouse. Considering the way costumes are refurbished at those place, I fear that Freddie’s tunic is only a shadow of its former self and no longer viable.
But, Dame Zhandra did collaborate with “Bohemian Rhapsody” costume designer Julian Day, to reproduce the infamous tunic. She even reproduced several copies to be exhibited in theatre lobbies around the world. So please enjoy these images and perhaps now that I have published this post, I may actually go out and see the movie after all. Pre-conceptions optional!
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We are all familiar with the ubiquitous family of reality TV. But they were not the first set of siblings whose good looks and social connections made them fodder for social commentary and scandal. Back in the 17cc there existed a brood of Franco-Italian cousins and sisters whose comings and going would give the Kardashians a run for their money.
Let’s look at the similarities first so that we can better understand the comparison: Like the Kardashians these girls and one brother were part of a large extended family. They had a patriarch who enjoyed wearing dresses, although I must point out that the 17cc patriarch’s dresses were more ecclesiastical as opposed to Caitlyn’s designer gowns. Think moreCassocks & Miters as opposed to Dolce & Gabbana. Like the Kardashians, they were ubiquitous in every sense of the word. Their lives were the subject of tabloid gossip, often times re-enacted publicly in commedia dell’arte satires for the masses to enjoy. I am sure that if the videocam had existed back then, at least one of them would have wound up on a home made sex-tape.
The Mazarinettes, with their Southern Italian good looks made for a shift in what was considered a standard of beauty for the 17th cc. The same way that the Kardashian’s dark haired mediterranean beauty and voluptuous physiques created an impact on 21st cc sensibilities. Up until each respective clan made their appearance on the scene, the zeitgeist of both times was the frail/fair slender gamine. This brood made their impact on what was considered aesthetically acceptable centuries apart from the Kardashians. But I think that’s where the similarity ends and for my money, I think that the Mazarinettes story is much more compelling than their reality TV counter parts.
The girls earned their name from their Uncle, Cardinal Jules Mazarin who was the King Regent during the minority of LouisXIV and was later the chief counsel to the King once Louis was all grown up. Such influence made the Cardinal one of the most powerful men in France and as the cliche goes: It’s lonely at the top. So in order to address his need for companionship, the Cardinal decided to bring his family over from Italy and set his nieces up in pivotal positions throughout the royal houses of Europe, thereby increasing his sphere of influence. This was accomplished by arranging important political marriages along with sizable dowries and sometimes just downright pimping them out to important members of the Sun King’s court.
So let’s start out with how this Italian clan got their foothold on one of the most important royal courts of Europe.
Jules Mazarin himself was no slouch;In his early years he studied profusely at university and developed a talent for ingratiating himself to powerful and influential men. One of these being Cardinal Richelieu of France (yes, the same guy in the Monty Python skits). In those days men of modest means but noble lineage were able to climb their way up the social ladder through the church. Following the deaths of Richelieu, then Louis XIII, he proceeded to rule France through the regency of Anne of Austria, Louis XIV’s mother.
The rest, they say, is history. Cardinal Mazarin worked hard to secure his place in the French Court and as mentioned earlier, one of the means to his end was to bring in his comely nieces from Italy. The first batch to arrive were Marie, Hortense and Olympia. Followed by a few years later by Laure, Anne-Marie, Marie-Anne (not a typo) and a distant cousin Philipe-Jules. Thanks to the Cardinal being in good graces with Anne of Austria, the Queen Regent took this young brood under her wing and made sure that they were on equal footing as the Princes of the Blood.
Each one of these individuals has their own unique story but I think that the two most compelling were Hortense and Marie Mancini. For starters, the Mancini clan was able to trace their family lineage back to the Roman Empire via the Consul Lucius Hostilus Mancinus who fought Hannibal in one of the Punic Wars. The girl’s father, Baron Lorenzo Mancini was an alchemist who practiced astrology and necromancy. The mother was the sister of the Cardinal and was the one who requested that her daughters be sent to Versailles following the death of her husband under mysterious circumstances. It brings to mind another dark magician who met a tragic demise: Jack Parsons,but we need to save his story for another blog.
From their portraits one can see that these girls had a light in their eyes that captivates the viewer and undoubtedly had the same effect on the gentleman (and a few ladies) of the court. Marie Mancini’s story is the most poignant for having been the first “girlfriend” of a young Louis XIV. Thanks to her socializing with other Princes of the Blood, she was able to develop a “puppy love” relationship with the young Dauphin. So much so that youngLouis actually wanted to marry her. But neither her uncle the Cardinal nor Louis’ mother, Queen Regent Anne, were going to allow any of that; Both adults were interested in a more politically important alliance with another superpower at the time, so Louis wound up marrying the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain. No matter that Marie could trace her bloodline back to Ancient Rome! Neither the Queen Regent nor the Cardinal thought that Marie’s lineage was exalted enough to marry the future King of France. And so the cookie crumbles. However, in the end Marie wound up OK. Her uncle had secured a marriage with a guy named the Duke of Colonna who on his wedding night was surprised to find that his bride was still a virgin! It appeared that even though Marie had many admirers, they were all affairs of the mind.
Louis XIV, having had his lovers crush undone by the grownups, decided to console himself by entering into a romantic relationship with Marie’s sister: Hortense. Now this girl is definitely one for the books! Hortense was a girl of many talents and misadventures. After playing holler back girl to the Dauphin, she then took up with a political refugee from England who was exiled in the French court. A guy named Charles Stuart. Like Marie with Louis, Hortense fell head over heels for this young English swain. But this time her uncle thought that this penniless guy who had no prospects, was unworthy of his niece and so forbade the union. But then the fickle finger of fate saw Charles reinstated on the English throne as Charles II and the cardinal realized he made a mistake. He made a counter offer to Charles along with a handsome dowry if he would take back Hortense. But Charles had moved on, or so it appeared.
The Cardinal continued to drive a hard bargain in the attempts to marry his favorite niece off to other influential heads of Europe but alas, striking out every time. The fact that Hortense was a bit of a party girl who enjoyed flirtations with both men and women did not help to bolster her cause. However, the Cardinal (and Hortense) finally managed to bag an up and coming aristocrat who was also the richest man in Europe. Enter Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye. This mouthful was not only the richest man in France but he was also a nephew of the late Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin’s first mentor.
So on the surface though it appeared to be a good match, it proved to be anything but. Eight days after her wedding, Uncle Jules died, leaving Hortense a vast chunk of the family fortune, now making HER one of the riches people in France. Unfortunately what would have looked like a fortuitous circumstance would unravel into a nightmare for poor Hortense. That’s because her husband, Armand, was conservative, repressed, reactionary and cruel. Think of someone who was a cross between OJ Simpson and Ted Bundy and you get the picture. He was a total foil to Hortense’s vivacious, popular personality. I am not even going to list here the misogynistic actions of this creep. Just google his name if you want to know more.
But our heroine, Hortense would have none of this and immediately flew into the arms of another-woman. Can you blame her? It was another French aristocrat by the name of Sidonie de Courcelles. They were both only sixteen! So you would think her husband would find this amusing but no, he wound up locking them both up together in a convent where they continued their affair. This time wearing nun’s habits no doubt. Bad move dude on the part of De La Porte if you ask me.
So thus began a convoluted sexual odyssey for our heroine. She escaped from France disguised as a man and would continue to rely on cross dressing whenever she needed to make a quick get away. During her exile in England, she took up again with here old flame, Charles II AND one of his daughters. Anne, Countess of Sussex was her name. Hortense’s relationship with Anne was so volatile that they actually once settled a score with a public fencing match in the middle of St James’ park wearing only their nighties! Much to the delight of the gentlemen strolling through the park. The only comparison I can think of would be if Meghan Markle and Katherine Middleton engaged in a mud wrestling match in the middle of the Serpentine at Kensington Park. That’s the level of scandal we are referring to. Hollywood where are you?
Somewhere along the way she reconnected with her other sister Marie ( who was also miserable in her marriage albeit not as badly as poor Hortense). For awhile the two sisters lived in the court of the Sun King under his protection. The girls began shuttling around between the capitals of Europe in an effort to escape the claws of psycho Hubby Armand. It should be noted that in every city where these girls sought refuge, their homes would be transformed into Salons offering a venue for popular artists and writers of the time. But alas, Mr Personality kept rearing his ugly head and making poor Hortense’s life a living hell.
Later on Hortense would have an affair with Louis I of Monaco (yes, a Grimaldi whose descendant married Grace Kelly) and so on and so on. She lived out the rest of her years in England under the protection of subsequent monarchs and engaging in the profligate lifestyle to which she had become accustomed, until her death in 1699.But as the saying goes, there is no rest for the wicked and upon her death, hubby from hell reappeared and had her body exhumed so that he could take it back to France. So that she could be given a proper burial? Noooo…..boys and girls. So that he could keep the decomposing corpse by his side as he traveled through France. Yep, until royal decree demanded that he finally bury her.
Some relationships are hard to shake but this is ridiculous!
The rest of the “Mazarinettes” lived flamboyant lifestyles and also caused scandal throughout the courts of Europe. But their antics paled in comparison to those of Hortense and Marie. Thanks to their Uncle’s machinations and the sizable dowries he bequethed, the girls were able to secure some good catches. Their husband’s names reads like a history book of who’s who in the 17cc. I focused mainly on the two Mancini sisters because their lives were so unbelievable. Being that this is a costume blog, I also wanted to focus one the court costumes of Hortense. Since she was the one with the high profile lifestyle, she became a bit of a Fashion Plate and this sensibility was obviously reflected in her style of dressing as shown in the pictures posted here.
The Early Baroque/Restoration period was a transitional one in every sense of the word. Almost every costume conceit imaginable was represented on the style of dress. And you can see the transitory nature of this period in the different styles of dress worn by Hortense. In her earlier portraits you can see here trussed up in ribbons from the late Italian Renaissance and from there she goes to exposing a nipple which was a typical conceit of the French Mannerist painting style. In Louis’ court you see her in a very elaborate riding gear ready to engage in ‘La Chase’ with the Sun King. Finally there are the later ’swooning gowns’ of the Restoration court of Charles II. These dresses gave the wearer a ‘disheveled’ appearance with the bodice pulled down to almost exposing a nipple. Yes, these gowns were engineered to fall right off the body at a moments notice in order to facilitate an intimate trust with his majesty whoever he or she may be.