From Queen Alexandra to Jillian Mercado: The Changing Views of Physical Disabilities In Fashion

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Before there was Lady Diana, Duchess Kate, and even Elizabeth II, Alexandra of Denmark was considered the top fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dust-colored, high neck and tightly corseted gowns bejeweled in sparkling baubles. She was a visual break from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. However, with all of her beauty and power, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.

Beginnings

Born into a Danish royal family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She then became Queen in 1901 after the death of her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s entry into the English throne brought in the Edwardian era, an opulent time in English cultural, technological, and social history.

Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tightly corseted, S-bend gowns that came to be known as ‘Queen Alexandra dresses’ (“Fashion: The queenly figure,” 1939). Much of Queen Alexandra’s evening wear was designed by the House of Redfern, a British fashion house that found success in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her 2013 academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910” Dr. Kate Strasdin states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and as a result, she used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. The Queen fit the mold of an English societal woman: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by an haute courtier.

According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection, which was due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven right, it would have stopped the courtship due to worries of inherited diseases. This fear developed into a habit of her wearing high neck gowns, ribbons, and dog collars to hide her scar (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became an evening wear trend in British fashion.

In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever. This sickness caused impaired hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted in a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra used her ornamental evening gowns to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. An example is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has a curved center back at the bodice that hid her body’s arching shape. Although Queen Alexandra found methods to hide her disabilities, she continued to walk with a limp. This is said to have caused a trend among fashionable women, who copied the Queen’s stroll.

Jillian Mercado

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Although Queen Alexandra went to great lengths to hide her body, there is now a growing presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example is seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and in singer Beyoncé’s “Formation” merchandise tour.

The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion has been dubbed by critic Vanessa Friedman as the industry’s ‘newest frontier.’ As more figures like fashion model Jillian Mercado grow in popularity and adapted clothing lines become more available, the preference for ableist bodies may shift. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.

Resources

Fashion: The queenly figure. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 72-72, 73.

Strasdin, K. (2013). Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863-1910. Costume-The Journal Of The Costume Society47(2), 180-197.

Will Venezuela’s Beauty Pageant Culture Disappear?

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Within the fashion world, Venezuela is often associated with beauty contests. Pageants in this country are a nation-wide phenomenon that idolizes beautiful women with voluptuous hair, heavy makeup and revealing clothing. When a Miss Venezuela wins an international beauty pageant, it is a source of nationalistic pride. This love for pageantry also coincides with the society’s obsession with plastic surgery, which has even influenced the working class. To obtain the look of a Venezuelan beauty queen, both pageant hopefuls and their admirers pay for expensive makeup, fashions, and plastic surgery procedures. These costly and high maintenance trends present a conundrum in the nation’s current crisis. The country’s citizens now are struggling to find basic necessities like food and living supplies.

This public catastrophe brings the question of will the tradition of beauty pageants and their extreme trends maintain during, and after, the country’s struggle for freedom or will a less adorned, feminist-focused ideal take forth?

Venezuelan Beauty Culture

The Venezuelan appreciation for beauty contents is said to have originated from a less than glamorous locale: a pageant held at a baseball game in 1940s Caracas. Two young women competed for the title, with one from a wealthy background and the other from a lower class. After a highly publicized campaign, the woman from the lower class won the pageant. According to the 2016 film “To Be a Miss,” this beauty contest is viewed in Venezuelan history as an underdog story that reflects the country’s early beginnings. By the 1950s, Venezuela was a developing country that led in oil production in South America. To create a sense of pride during this boom time, then-dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez initiated numerous public community programs based around Venezuelan identity. The 1955 win of Susana Duijm, who was the first Miss Venezuela to be awarded an international beauty title, helped build this effort.

However, the ornate Venezuelan beauty culture that is known today did not begin until the reign of Osmel Sousa, an actor turned president of the Miss Venezuela Organization. Although Sousa has never participated in a beauty pageant, his extreme opinions and advice are highly valued. He has worked with numerous Miss Venezuelas who have won an international title, with María Antonieta Cámpoli as his first in 1972. By the 1980s, Maritza Sayalero, Irene Saez, and Bárbara Palacios all won international titles under Sousa’s guidance.

Since beauty queens were, and are, a glorified example of both female perfection and political pride, it is natural for the public to want to replicate their looks. Osmel Sousa often suggests for hopeful contestants to alter their looks through exercise and plastic surgery, which has become a part of many Miss Venezuela’s beauty regimes. A form of the trickle-down method, both pageant hopefuls and members of the general public must find the financial means to gain what they consider perfection. This can include surgeries on breasts, buttocks, noses, and even mesh on one’s tongue to reduce food intake. Plastic surgery has become so implemented in Venezuelan society that it has even influenced the shape of store mannequins.

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When discussing beauty pageants, many stereotypes paint contestants as vain and ignorant. However, there are some beauty queens who used their wins as a platform. Miss Universe 1981 winner Irene Saez entered into politics and has served as a mayor and governor. During the 2016 American Presidential Election, Miss Venezuela 1995 and Miss Universe 1996 winner Alicia Machado became a symbol of resistance against Donald Trump, who publicly shamed her body.

As the country is falling deeper into crisis, women have spoken out against the communist regime through protests. One example is Venezuela’s “Wonder Woman” Caterina Ciarcelluti who has been photographed throwing stones in protest. Ciarcelluti appears beautiful yet mentally and physically strong, a combination of characteristics that challenge beauty pageant ideals. As these images continue to spread through international news, the public perception of Venezuelan beauty may change. The typical Venezuelan beauty may no longer be known for her pageantry skills, instead she may be a rebel who is fighting to restore her country’s identity or to rebuild a new one that has since dismantled.

The Fashionable Women of Pan Yuliang

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Self-Portrait (1936), Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Pan Yuliang (1895-1977) was a Chinese Modernist artist known for her female nudes. Although Yuliang’s work is often praised for its lack of clothing, some of her artwork and self-portraits feature feminine fashions from the early to mid-20th century. These images not only display clothing but also reveal two cultures that identified the artist: one of birth and the other of refuge.

Early Life

Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at the age of 14. She was then ‘bought’ by a general who made her his second wife. The man encouraged her to paint, which lead her to attend the prestigious Shanghai Art School.

Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused some scandal. She left China in 1937 after the Japanese invasion and sought refuge in Paris. There, she continued to work as an artist until her death in 1977. She left a legacy as a renowned artist whose work continues to garner exhibitions and international auctions.

The Yuliang Beauty

Yuliang’s art was noted by art historian Phyllis Teo as a “flux of transformations where conflicting dichotomies of East and West, tradition and modernity, male chauvinism and emerging feminism co-existed.” Her clothed figures were feminine and were created in an idealized image: well-manicured young women in brightly colored qipao blouses and dresses with heavily applied makeup.

Beauty ideals before Yuliang’s departure from China went from Western-inspired Hollywood actors to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. As Mao gained power, the farmer became both the political and cultural ideal. Bare face, tan skin, and the utilitarian Zhongshan suit became the new way of adornment for Chinese women, which was meant to deconstruct notions of class, gender, and Western influence.

Yuliang’s Women

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Girl Playing Violin, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

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Jeune Femme au Kimono, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

“In Girl Playing Violin” (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The woman has a chin-length hairstyle and lightly applied makeup. She is wearing a Western, billowy white blouse and black ensemble that appears as either a black jumper or sleeveless dress.

“Jeune Femme au Kimono” (no date) also portrays the image of a seated young woman, but she is adorned in Eastern fashions. The woman is wearing a black, embroidered qipao jacket over a sea green, silver-flecked dress. Her hair is curled and pinned, and her face is heavily rouged with over-plucked eyebrows and painted red nails.

Yuliang’s Self-Portraits

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Self-Portrait Dressed in Black (1940), Pan Yuliang via Sothebys.com 

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Window Self-Portrait, Pan Yuliang via Artnet.com

Similar to the figures she created in her artwork, Yuliang also presented an international wardrobe of both Eastern and Western pieces in her self-portraits. Her “Self-Portrait Dressed in Black” (1940) features the artist in a black qipao gown with dragon detail along the shoulders and collar. She styled her hair in a half pinned, bisected style with makeup that evokes a formal or special occasion.

Yuliang’s “Window Self-Portrait” (no date) contrasts the previous piece with a short-sleeved red day dress and a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with a red pearl necklace and hair styled in victory rolls. The outfit appears in a 1940s Western style, which corresponds with her refuge to France in the late 1930s.

Since there is a lack of information concerning both her self-portraits and her other work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. What can be seen is that Yuliang and her women appear as stylish figures who have power and confidence, no matter the origin of their dress.

An Ao Dai and A Jumpsuit: The Fashions of Dang Tuyet Mai

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The third and final subject of Vietnamese First Ladies fashion, Đặng Tuyết Mai was not the wife of a Vietnamese president, but that of a Prime Minister, and later, Vice President. A stylish figure often photographed during the Vietnam War, Mai’s clothing choices mirrored the style of another political wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Both chose clean lines in stylish late 1960s and early 1970s silhouettes that complimented their youthful, but confident, beauty.

Similar to Jacqueline’s departure from politics after the death of her husband, American President John F. Kennedy, Đặng Tuyết Mai ended her role after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 by leaving her home country for the United States. Although she divorced her husband and moved back to Vietnam years later, both she and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were women who lived under the history of their respective spouses and by their own accord, fashion sense.

Early Life

Đặng Tuyết Mai’s story often begins with her career as a young airline stewardess turned politician wife, but her life in Vietnam started much earlier. She was born in 1942 to an academic family in Bac Ninh, and later, Hanoi. In the 1950s, she became one of the first air hostesses of Air Vietnam Airlines. A stewardess wore an outfit that honored Vietnam’s heritage with a reference to class, by way of an Ao Dai, matching cap, and high heels.

In 1964, she married then Vietnam Air Force Chief of Staff Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, a man known for his penchant for flash. In 1965, the couple was photographed together wearing military jumpsuits, which was a sign of solidarity with military troops as Prime Minister and wife. Even wearing the same outfit as her husband, Đặng Tuyết Mai wore her jumpsuit with a stylish flair by way of a chin-length bob, oversized-square eyeglasses, and a leather handbag.

Fashion Sense

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During her time as the Prime Minister’s wife, Đặng Tuyết Mai was photographed wearing both Western and Vietnamese fashions to events. When in Western attire, she chose elegant eveningwear ensembles, like cap sleeved ball gowns accented with a hand fan or a sleeveless dress with panels over black trousers. For daywear, she was photographed wearing sophisticated French ensembles that embraced texture and color.

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Image via Life by way of Elle Vietnam

She also wore Aio Dais, which connected her sense of style to national pride. Her ensembles included a beige, pastel floral silk gown and a pink and white piece with a strand of pearls. No matter her dress origin, she always chose ladylike accessories like pearls and a pocketbook. Her hair was styled in some sweeping style, whether in a bob or bouffant style, and she lined her eyes in thick, pointed eyeliner with rose petal lipstick.

Mai’s style changed years later with a more expensive and daring flair. She showed more skin in tight fitting dresses, displayed brightly colored jewels, and kept her penchant for a well-coiffed face and hair. Before her death in 2016, she was photographed looking ageless in a black bikini and gold accessories.

Vietnam today is known for their growing textile industry, but there’s a fascinating history of style influencers that should not be forgotten. For more on Vietnamese fashion, visit these articles of Madame Nhu and Nam Phuong.

The Nhu Look: The Fashions of Madame Nhu

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The next woman in the Vietnamese First Lady series blended fashion and power like no other. Madame Nhu was known for her quick, and at times harmful mouth, alongside her stunning beauty. She was a unique political figure of the Vietnam War for challenged anything that got in her way.

The Woman of Many Names

Although she was born Trần Lệ Xuân, Madame Nhu was a woman known under many names. She was also called “Tiger Lady” and “Dragon Lady,” which the latter was based on a racist Asian character from the U.S. cartoon, “Terry and the Pirates.” This name was due to her blunt personality and cutting remarks, but also her glamorous appearance.

Nhu was the de-facto First Lady of South Vietnam from 1955 to 1963, which was the early years of the Vietnam War. She was both a feminist who supported women’s rights, but also a fierce Christian who promoted laws that restricted females. She was protective of her people, but then made scathing statements about Vietnamese Buddhist monks who self-immolated in protest.

The Nhu Life

Nhu was born in 1924 to a wealthy Buddhist family in Vietnam who descended from royalty. Her life consisted of rare privilege during the 1920s and 1930s, where she took French and ballet lessons and was assisted by several servants.

As a teen, she rebelled against her controlling family by refusing an arranged marriage and dropping out of a prestigious school.  She married politician and archivist Ngô Đình Nhu in 1943, who was her mother’s friend and fifteen years her senior. In order to marry, the young bride converted to her husband’s Roman Catholicism and changed her name to Madame Nhu, which went against Vietnamese tradition.

Early in the couple’s marriage, Vietnam fell to Communist power. Nhu and her child were captured and held against their will. They faced harsh and restrictive conditions, but she was allowed one coat to wear, which according to Nhu, was “a very fashionable wasp-waisted number from Paris.”

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The Nhu Law

In 1955 Nhu’s brother-in-law Ngô Đình Diệm became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam. Since Diệm was unmarried, Nhu became the de-facto first lady. As a public figure, she was not afraid to voice her opinion of American involvement in the Vietnam War or against her critics.

Nhu’s fierce persona often overshadowed the change she initiated in Vietnam. She developed a female militia, and proposed the Family Law in 1958 that banned polygamy, gave women the right to joint property ownership, and made divorce difficult to attain. Although the latter would be seen against women’s rights in Western eyes, divorce at that time in Vietnam stigmatized women and could ruin their future.

However, Nhu’s Roman Catholic views drove her to promote laws that shamed women. She attempted to outlaw padded brassieres, abortion, and called the popular dance “the Twist” as an unhealthy activity.

The Nhu Look

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Like many public figures, Madame Nhu had a signature uniform. She wore a modified ao dai (Vietnamese national dress) that was fitted at the bodice with necklines that included boatneck and Mandarin collars. Alike her statements, her clothing was considered controversial for its focus on the female form.

Nhu complimented her look with other 1950s trends, including a beehive bouffant, winged eyeliner, and feminine accents like a purse in snakeskin or pearl jewelry. Apart of why she was named the “Dragon Lady” moniker, was due to her pointed nails, which are referred today as stiletto nails. Her ultra-feminine look only strengthened her fierce persona, which was a rarity for any First Lady during the mid-twentieth century.