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 fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, she was the visual opposite from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dusty-colored high neck and tightly corseted gowns with sparkling jewelry. However, with all of her beauty and influence, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.


Born into a royal Danish family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She 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 that coincided during a time of peace.

This change also corresponded with women’s fashion. In England, women began to wear health corsets that bent the body into an S-shape that pushed a woman’s breasts forward and her bottom back. The ideal body type favored tall young women at the peak of their health.

Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tight corseted, S-bend silhouettes and ornate evening gowns. Dr. Kate Strasdin in her academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910 (2013) states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. Strasdin (2013) states in her article that the Queen’s fashion choices were based around elegance. A clothing item could not be too on-trend, but not dowdy or fussy. Her influence helped popularize formal wear by wearing ornate, high-necked 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 throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Within English society, Queen Alexandra fit the mold: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by a haute courtier.

According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven true, 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 in order to hide her neck (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became a trend in evening wear in British fashion.

In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever which impaired her hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted into a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra dressed in ornamental evening gowns in order to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. Strasdin offers an example housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which displays 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 burgeoning presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example can be seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and singer Beyoncé’s merchandise advertisements for her famous “Formation” tour. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs.

The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion industry has been dubbed by fashion 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 towards a focus on one’s aesthetic or personal style. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.


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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As the Venezuelan crisis continues, the nation’s citizens have struggled to find basic necessities like food and living supplies. It is a decline in a country that once was one of the richest economies in South America. Now there is mass starvation, hours-long queues, and increased crime rates. It has even resulted into the death of Reinaldo Herrera, the nephew of Venezuelan-American fashion designer Carolina Herrera.

Within the fashion world, Venezuela is often associated with beauty pageant culture that includes voluptuous hair, heavy makeup and revealing clothing. This trend also coincides with the societal obsession of plastic surgery, which has even influenced the working class. In order to obtain the looks of Venezuelan beauty queens, both pageant hopefuls and their admirers pay expensive bills for serious procedures to achieve the idealized look. These expensive and high maintenance trends present a conundrum in the nation’s current crisis. Will these beauty pageant trends maintain during, and after, the country’s struggle for freedom or will a less adorned, feminist-focused ideal take forth?

Although fashion and beauty are not the first worry in the country’s present climate, a look into the changing face of the “ideal” Venezuelan woman has potential to reveal the rising role of females and a potential change in their representation in the media.

Venezuelan Beauty Culture

When a Miss Venezuela wins an international beauty pageant, it is a source of nationalistic pride for the country. This notion may have originated from a less than glamorous locale: a beauty 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. In the 2016 film To Be a Missthis beauty contest is viewed as an underdog story that reflected the country’s growing pride. During the 1950s, Venezuela was a developing country that lead in oil production. It was headed by dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, who initiated numerous public community programs based around Venezuelan identity. This was enhanced by the 1955 win of Susana Duijm, who was the first Miss Venezuela to win an international contest.

However, the Venezuelan beauty culture that is remembered today did not begin until the reign of Osmel Sousa, an actor turned president of the Miss Venezuela Organization. Despite the fact that Sousa has never participated as a beauty pageant contestant, his opinions and advice are highly valued and may appear extreme to those outside the field. He has worked with numerous Miss Venezuelas who have been crowned with 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 pageant contestants 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 society that it has influenced the shape of store mannequins.

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When discussing beauty pageants, there are many stereotypes that paint contestants as vain and ignorant. Although Venezuelan culture is “obsessed with beauty,” there are many examples of beauty queens who used their wins as a platform. Miss Universe 1981 winner Irene Saez entered into politics and served as a mayor and later governor. Veruska Ramirezwho won Miss Venezuela in 1997, was abandoned as a child, worked as a maid early in her life, and after her win, survived an abduction.  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 for 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. Caterina 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 image of Venezuelan beauty may change or it may stick through the crisis and remain as a symbol of Venezuela’s national pride.

In Good Shape: The Work of Roberto Capucci (Part Two)

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This post is a continuation of a discussion about the work of Roberto Capucci, and will explore the designer’s transition from high fashion to high art.

Adieu Paris

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Dress, 1972, silk georgette with bamboo (N.136) Photography by Claudia Primangeli/ L.e. via Philadelphia Museum of Art

By his return from Paris, Capucci’s creativity was at a low. “The happiest moment is the moment of creation,” the designer said in an interview. “But a creator isn’t free to design what he likes any more. It is very sad.” Capucci was still designing for celebrities at this time, which gave him an international presence. One of his most well-known celebrity wearers was the French-Italian actress Catherine Spaak, who was married to his brother Fabrizio Capucci from 1963 to 1971.

As soon as he reached Italy, he escaped on a trip to India that boosted his creativity. The Philadelphia Museum of Art states that this trip led him to “explore new colors and fabrics that resulted in a more poetic and fanciful aesthetic.”

After this trip, Capucci’s work moved from unusual silhouettes to unconventional materials, and by the 1970s, he was combining pebbles and straw with fine fabrics. This 1972 silk georgette gown housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art embraces Capucci’s change by combining the fine green fabric with bamboo.

In An Unconventional Fashion

Even today, clothing made from unconventional fabrics is not a mass accepted fashion and often falls under couture or fine art. By the early 1980s, Capucci was finding himself in this conundrum and had to choose between creating ready-to-wear, a growing field, or quit creating haute couture, which was not commercially viable. Capucci was Similar to his mindset during his leave of Paris, Capucci was unsatisfied with the fashion industry and needed a change. He chose to resign from the couture calendar and present his work once a year. This change was not just in venue, but in aesthetic. Capucci chose to forgo his fashion designer status for that of a textile artist.

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FW 17 Capucci via

Capucci continued with his fine art work, but by the early Aughtes he returned to ready-to-wear with the line, Capucci. The fashion collection was designed both by himself and other designers, including Bernhard Willhel, Sybilla, Tara Subkoff, and Franca Maria Carraro for the shoeline. The line does not replicate the designer’s three-dimensional aesthetic, but blends geometric and colorful prints in wearable sportswear.

On Display
Cappuci’s later years have been filled with museum exhibits and fine art shows. He has been honored in a number of museum exhibits and was invited to show at the Forty-Sixth Venice Biennale. He created the Fondazione Roberto Capucci in 2005 with a museum filled with his works, and in 2007 the exhibition Ritorno alle origini (Return to Origins) at the Museo della Fondazione Roberto Capucci featured eight new sculptures of his work that was inspired by his beloved muse, nature. Another exhibit and publication was created by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2011 that followed his career from his beginnings in Italy to his journey into fine art.

For more on Roberto Capucci’s career and his work today, visit his website

The Fashionable Women of Pan Yuliang


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Self-Portrait (1936), Pan Yuliang via

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, there are a number of artworks and self-portraits that feature female fashions from the early to mid 20th century. These pieces of art in Yuliang’s work not only display clothing items, but also reveal two cultures that the artist identified with: one of birth and the other of refuge.

Early Life

Yuliang’s life began as an orphan who was sold into sex slavery at age 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, and later, fellowships in Paris and Rome.

Pan Yuliang found success after returning to China, but the nudity in her artwork caused scandal. By 1937, she left China after the invasion by the Japanese. She sought refuge in Paris and continued to work as an artist. She passed away in 1977 with 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 looks to the farm workers popularized by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. Some Chinese women sought beauty and fashion inspiration from American culture, which was derived from the two countries’ relations during World War II. As Mao gained powered, 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

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Jeune Femme au Kimono, Pan Yuliang via

Because of her artwork, previous travels, and her ultimate leave of China, it appears Yuliang embrace components of the pre-Revolution Chinese cultural wares, but also that of Western. The pieces analyzed above are women of Chinese origin with pale skin and black hair in either cultural Chinese or Western dress.

In Girl Playing Violin (no date), the seated young woman looks upward with a closed smile while holding a violin. The piece features her with 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 looking off frame, 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 with heavily rouged cheeks and lips, over-plucked eyebrows, and painted red nails.

Yuliang’s Self-Portraits


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

©Mingshen Daily


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Window Self-Portrait, Pan Yuliang via

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 and 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 with a contrasting pointed collar. She accessorized the look with 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 own work, there is no way to make an assumption that she chose to forgo Eastern dress after her asylum to France or vice versa. Or that she opposed the Cultural Revolution dress code by adorning her figures in traditional Chinese and Western clothing. 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.


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.