May 12, 2020

{Wonder Woman}

Here's another bit from my ongoing and long-in-the-making book...tentatively titled The Spiritual Mission of a PrincessEnjoy!

Fear and Loathing of Women 
{Part Two:} 

In her 1998 essay in When a Princess Dies, analytical psychologist and Amazon scholar Elizabeth Gordon wrote that as she watched “that lonely gun carriage carry Princess Diana’s coffin through the silent streets of London,” she was reminded of Penthesilea, the legendary Amazon queen. This warrior queen, whose name means “making men to mourn,” was “so fierce and dangerous on the battlefield that only Achilles, the greatest soldier of them all, could overcome her.” Yet the tale goes that mighty Achilles, broken hearted and full of remorse at Penthesilea’s death (because he, like others before him, fell victim to the Amazon’s charms) honored his slain adversary with “a funeral fit for a queen.” Gordon considered that “Diana, too, had become in her death the fallen heroine, mourned by friend and foe alike.”

In Gordon's study of the Amazon archetype, she believes the Amazons were a source of inspiration for the women’s movement of the twentieth century, “particularly in the way in which the fighting spirit of the feminine has been constellated” and that Diana, in the last years of her life, “clearly demonstrated something of this spirit”—as groups and clusters of supporters formed around her. Gordon drew attention to the “loose cannon” aspect of how both Penthesilia, taking on the power of ancient Greece (or so goes the legend), and Diana, taking on the power grid of the British monarchy, fought the establishment. First, in the BBC Panorama interview where Diana “vowed publicly that she ‘would not go quietly’” and again when she joined the effort against the deployment of land mines with her famous promenade dangereuse in Angola. “In intervening here she was, of course, also entering into a political minefield,” explained Gordon. “She was challenging, as a woman and on feeling terms, the very masculine power complex of the international armaments industry.”

Like the Amazons of Greek mythology, Diana also thought herself an “outsider.” Was this why “she had such tremendous sympathy for the marginal and the marginalized—all those whom her brother so movingly described as ‘her constituency of the rejected’”? The type of royalty and power the Amazons and Princess Diana claimed was “of a different, ‘upside down’ and ultimately subversive kind.” Diana, as Gordon stated, said her “authority came not from the established order but from the feelings people had for her, from her position as queen of peoples’ hearts.” By this time, the powers-that-be had learned never to discount the influence of this “loose cannon.” (Similar to the Amazons, it was this trait that made Diana “dangerous.”)

Olympe de Gouges
Elizabeth Gordon questioned whether Diana stirred up the “same fear and unease” that caused patriarchal unrest in earlier situations. Like when sixteenth-century Protestant theologian John Knox denounced the “monstrous regiment of women”—referring to the two female monarchs of the day (Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth of England), contending that rule by females was contrary to the Bible. Or during the height of the French Revolution, when what were called “Amazon bands” of women protesting in the streets were ordered back to their homes (women were considered “passive citizens” beholden to men); then their leaders, including playwright Olympe de Gouges who wrote the famous “Declaration of the Rights of Women,” were sent to the guillotine. Or the backlash in 1990s America against what was called “bitch power” when several women were advisers to the President of the United States, Bill Clinton: his wife, an outspoken First Lady; the first woman appointed as Secretary of the Air Force; and two strong-willed female cabinet appointees—the Secretary of State and Attorney General. Making the patriarchal forces even crankier, a second woman had been nominated and seated on the Supreme Court. (And a couple years before this, Anita Hill testified about a male nominee who had sexually harassed her in the workplace—there were other women who were not allowed to testify—but he still won his seat on the highest court in the land.) Uppity women were getting in the way of men’s power and privilege!

Is it that the “fear and unease” created when women came/come into power “suggest something unpredictable and unknown”? In the world of Princess Diana “no one knew what she might do next,” shared Gordon. “And no one knew the power of those whose causes she espoused.” Is the narrow-minded fear and loathing of powerful women just as much about women shaking up the seat of power and man’s place in it as it is about fear of “the other”? “We do not know how to cope with those whom we reject,” Elizabeth Gordon continued, “the shadow elements at whom we dare not look too closely.” The “making men to mourn” funerals of both the beautiful Amazon warrior Penthesilia and Princess Diana—ceremonies fit for queens—forced their opponents to look closely until they not only saw their own shadow side, but the light of their own humanity.

The death of both women awakened something in the world—yet the degree of light ignited by such a spark depended on what we did next. How courageous could we dare be? It would take courage to keep living in that open-hearted vulnerability many experienced at Diana’s death.

We could now see that Diana’s life example “may have been inspiring and at the same time both uncomfortable and conscience provoking,” Gordon remarked in 1998. “At the very least it changed, perhaps forever, the way that many of us now feel about so-called charity work”—Diana reached out to touch, embrace and make direct eye contact with those many didn’t want to see. Almost a thousand years before, Saint Francis of Assisi said: “Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.”

As a woman passionate about her study of the Amazons, author Elizabeth Gordon revealed that in the image of Princess Diana “something of the Amazon archetype stirred us to consciousness, the harbinger of change and of a new value system.” It is within this new awakening consciousness we are living today.
After the Amazons marched in victory with Dionysus, then were nearly annihilated (not in battle, but by Dionysus’ own men when the women “demanded their share in the spoils of battle”), the story of the Amazons takes a different turn. The story goes that those who survived Dionysus’ bloody fury took refuge at the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. (Goddess Artemis to the Greeks, Diana to the Romans.) Gordon tells of their transformation after a wild, exhaustive holy rite of a “war-dance” circled around the image of the goddess. “It enabled them to turn their swords into ploughshares, to sacrifice their power in service of the sacred”—and they never fought another war.

“Transformation is a word that has been used also about Diana,” Elizabeth Gordon wrote, seeing Diana transform her personal suffering into devoted service to others—and bringing those “loose cannon energies” of the Amazon to rest, “channeled into some kind of service to the sacred.” When human beings wake into a higher consciousness, do they naturally put down their swords and pick up “ploughshares”—tools of a peaceful society?

In her mythical art exhibition of The Dinner Party, created in the 1970s, feminist artist Judy Chicago depicted a symbolic Amazon representing the “mother cults” rather than a particular woman (although the names of many warrior queens were known, mostly through stories from the ancient Greeks.) Not unlike Mary Beard and other historians, Judy Chicago questions this history and the “evidence of warrior queendoms.” Perhaps “matriarchal societies fought in battles only when their power was being challenged in a vain effort to turn the tide.” Perhaps it’s all part of the patriarchy’s long attempt at controlling the narrative, therefore controlling women, and pitching women as “the other”—along with any group they considered inferior to them.

This isn’t to say that there were no women trained as warriors throughout history. We have proof of “nomadic women who trained, hunted and battled alongside their male counterparts on the Eurasian steppes,” reported Derek Hawkins for the Washington Post in late 2019. “In a landmark discovery, archeologists unearthed the remains of four female warriors buried with a cache of arrowheads, spears and horseback-riding equipment in a tomb in western Russia—right where Ancient Greek stories placed the Amazons.” There have been other excavations, but this was magnificent for its detail. The burial site is dated some 2500 years ago; the women were identified as Scythian nomads; one in her early teens, two in their 20s, and one aged 40 to 50—she was “found wearing a golden ceremonial headdress, a calathus, engraved with floral ornaments—an indication of stature.” Hawkins cited Adrienne Mayor, author of The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, who felt that the find not only proved they existed, but “‘the lives of those women warriors really did influence the Ancient Greek ideas and visions of what they said about the Amazons.’”

Real, imagined, mythological—whatever the truth of the Amazons and warrior queens, there is a “wonder woman” spirit brewing in the world today. ~


February 20, 2020

{That Downton Magic}

I recently visited Biltmore Estate, the latest host of DOWNTON ABBEY: THE EXHIBITION…called an “immersive exhibition that offers a chance to relive the story of the beloved television series—complete with set recreations, exclusive multimedia elements, and an up-close look at more than 50 official costumes.”

In the area showcasing the set recreations, in Biltmore’s new Amherst facility, the exhibition provides a fascinating look at the post-Edwardian era in which the popular TV series was set as well as insights into the remarkable events that shaped the world during this time, such as World War I. As a social historian, I especially enjoyed this broader look into the era.

Of course, as a fashion historian, I headed straight to the costume exhibition at a second location in Biltmore Legacy in Antler Hill Village! A display of more than 50 costumes from the series’ six-season run, but also for the first time, costumes from the 2019 Downton Abbey: The Movie were on display—three ensembles worn by the Royal Family. 
It was especially wonderful to see the extraordinary “up close” details of Princess Mary’s evening gown (on the right in photo below)—perhaps now my favorite design by costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins! (Wish I taken some up close photos!)

However, it was a bit of a disappointment for me that the labels identifying who wore each costume and for what occasion did not include more details of its design—or its designer! (Downton Abbey had four unique costume designers during the various seasons.) So with that in mind, I’ve shared details below about another favorite Anna Robbins design from the finale of the series which was featured at the exhibition—Lady Edith’s wedding gown! (The script is taken from my talk “Vintage Inspiration: The Brides of Downton Abbey”…enjoy!)

For Lady Edith’s gown for her 1925 New Year’s Eve wedding to Bertie (who went from being his aristocratic cousin’s land manager to Marquess of Hexham practically overnight), Downton Abbey's season six costume designer, Anna Mary Scott Robbins, created a custom-made gown from lacy vintage “parts.”

The designer said that Edith's dress started out as an original Brussels lace dress she found. Then she merged it with Brussels lace yardage found in vintage fairs with two other pieces that had a different, more light, gauzier weight to it. These were cleverly used to create this transparent sheer drop-down to give the dress more length.  She created the sleeves and the neck out of another piece of vintage lace.

Anna wanted the finished dress to be much more delicate, so they cut away the heavier neckline on the original dress. And with attention to such detail, she even wanted to create a soft transition when you see Edith in the dress….“something almost light as air as it came up on her skin and neck."

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition runs through April 7, 2020 at Biltmore Estate…unless 'tis held over like it has been at the other venues during its run!

January 3, 2020

{Visiting Another Chapter...}

I'm sharing another chapter, divided into several parts, from my ongoing and long-in-the-making book...tentatively titled The Spiritual Mission of a PrincessEnjoy!

Fear and Loathing of Women 
{Part One}

“Diana appeared at the end of her life as a new and confident workingwoman with a political agenda,” observed Dr. Colleen Denney in her study of Princess Diana as a cultural and feminist phenomenon. And during this same time, as the social and political culture was becoming more egalitarian, Jungian professor Andrew Samuels wrote that “Diana emerged as a new kind of leader...she became the visible aspect of long-standing alternative ideas about leadership, which had been dubbed ‘feminine’ or ‘maternal’.” In his exploration of Diana’s influence, Samuels considered the “changing of relations between politicians who lead and citizens who are led is on any thoughtful contemporary agenda, and the Diana phenomenon may be understood as part of this move.” 

Diana was thrilled when the young Tony Blair and his Labor Party won a landslide victory in May of 1997. “His victory,” wrote Tina Brown, “after eighteen long years of Tory dominance, was welcomed with the euphoria of a new dawn. A young, modernizing, and empathetic Prime Minister and his independent, high-powered wife were pledging to end the corrupt, uptight ways of the crusty old Establishment.” And best of all for the Princess, Blair appreciated and supported her! 

Tina Brown talked about a lunch with Diana in New York following the “wildly successful” Christie’s charity auction of her dresses—just two months before the Princess’ death. Now divorced and free of many of the restrictions of the monarchy, Diana “was so self-processed, so exhilaratingly focused,” Brown shared. “She saw Tony Blair’s election as Prime Minister as a broom that would sweep her old life away and entrust her with a humanitarian mission.” Diana was ready to go to work! (She was just back from Angola with the Red Cross and her famous land-mine walk—her “purest synthesis of courage, calculation, and brilliantly directed media power.”) After that lunch, Brown thought Diana “a woman of substance who had found her future.” Or as Elizabeth Gordon expressed about Diana in When a Princess Dies: “It seemed that in the last months of her life she emerged not only as a ‘woman in her own right’ but also a person with a sense of her own vocation and purpose.”

As a member of the royal family, Diana had been “well-trained” in keeping a busy work schedule (the Queen had more work engagements than days of the year.) If Diana had lived, what kind of “workingwoman” would she have been? Diana was passionate—and fearless—about her work on behalf of land-mine victims and AIDS patients and she knew how to use her star power to get media attention for her causes. Brown wrote in The Diana Chronicles that Tony Blair told her “he had Diana in mind to boost the Africa initiative on overseas aid and debt cancellation that became the Millennium Campaign.” Like many modern, high-profile women who were in leadership positions in business or politics or working with social-awareness campaigns, Diana was used to being criticized, even maligned, and held to a different standard. She also knew of the backlash when a woman stepped on the toes of powerful men or stood up to the patriarchal establishment. But she was enjoying a high-approval rating with the public and the press at this time—and she needed that to thrive, because in Diana’s personal life, as Tina Brown explained, “love, or the lack of it, always dragged her down.” 

Would she have been willing to risk losing the public’s admiration or the possibility of a stable love relationship by taking a stand unpopular with her public? What would Diana have put on the line as scores of working women of her generation did—and like women of today still do? Like the women, and you may be one of them, who put themselves in the line of fire just because their “ambition” and ability and intelligence and vision placed them in an often-edgy position of telling men what to do. 

How would Diana have fared in the post-2016, Trump-led backlash against outspoken women—even pretty ones if they didn’t favor him—who threatened the patriarchy’s privileged lifestyle at the expense of others? Although divorced, but as the mother of a future king, Diana would continue to have restrictions on what she could say and do, and the work she could take on—the Queen would still have been her boss. Nevertheless, I don’t think Diana, with her intense and steely mother-spirit, would have remained quiet amidst such hypocrisy and blatant cruelty in the world of Trumpery. 

Writer and teacher Martha Caldwell wrote about her experience in 2005 attending the first Global Women’s Leadership Conference sponsored by Zayed University, the women’s college in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. She describes a glorious gathering of 750 women from forty different countries—diverse in their heritage, background, skills and challenges—most under the age of 25, all aware of the changing and expanding roles of women and all committed “to lead the larger world into a new vision.” To open the conference, Caldwell reported, a short film was shown “in tribute to important female leaders” featuring images of Indira Ghandi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher and others. Then, “near the end of the film an image of Princess Diana appeared, a photo of her visiting a children’s hospital. Spontaneous applause erupted throughout the room—the only time during the film this happened.” 

For Caldwell, the moment was a surprise—and a mystery. “Why, after so many years, does Diana’s legacy continue to evoke such a passionate response?” The rich connections and shared experiences during this confluence of international women—mothers, executives, teachers, designers, entrepreneurs—clarified her inquiry when a “style of leadership that is particularly female began to emerge from the shared work of the conference.” Martha Caldwell described this vision and what she discovered because “this very feminine style of leadership” that Diana encouraged is such a brilliant model for women today:

A style of leadership…based on a vision of deep care and compassion, a love of the Earth and her people, a style of leadership that strives to express itself in the sustainable nurturance of the whole human family. As much as anyone else in recent history, Diana, with her open spirit, her great personal warmth and charitable gift to humanity exemplifies this very feminine style of leadership. It is because of her archetypal role that she continues to be the Princess of the people.


December 22, 2019

{Something Blue and New}

...and something from Vogue: 
The English custom of brides wearing “something blue” on their wedding day dates back to the 1890s and a little old rhyme you may have heard of: “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, a sixpence in your shoe.” The blue bridal token was said to symbolize purity, love, and fidelity.

More than 100 years later, there’s no denying that incorporating a pop of blue is a custom with both meaning and wherewithal, but with 2019’s biggest wedding trend showing a shift toward fresh, fun, laid-back celebrations, it’s only fitting that this time-honored custom would follow suit.

November 23, 2019

{Eco-Friendly Weddings More Important Than Ever}

Attention on planning a “green wedding”—an eco-friendly wedding where the couple tries to decrease the impact of their event on the planet—has been part of wedding planning consciousness for years now. But the stakes have never higher to raise our awareness even more, putting this concern at the front of wedding planning! 

The Knot, the popular wedding magazine and website, has had many articles through the years encouraging brides and grooms to tread lightly; like Tia Albright’s “Your Eco-Friendly Wedding Guide.” And there was a run of guide books a decade or so ago that are still informative: Emily Elizabeth Anderson’s Eco-Chic Weddings from 2007; Wenona Napolitano‘s The Everything Green Wedding Book and Kate Harrison’s The Green Bride Guide, both from 2008; and Mireya Navarro’s Green Wedding: Planning Your Eco-Friendly Celebration from 2009.

Current articles to read: Kenzie Bryant wrote for Vanity Fair, “Are Carbon Offsets the Wedding Registry Gift of the Future?”; from Green Wedding Shoes, a “Sustainable Gift Guide” looking to the holidays; and another way to be more “sustainable” is to wear a dress that is truly re-wearable like a “cool, nonchalant and real” one from designer Karen Walker, as shown in Vogue; and “The Ultimate Guide to Ethical Wedding Dresses” is full of creative ideas!

However, with the current climate crisis, it becomes the responsibility of all of us—whether it’s everyday life or special occasions—to raise our consciousness, educate ourselves, and be aware of what we can do to do no damage!

October 26, 2019

{Winning the Vote}

Thanks to the dynamic College of Human Sciences at Auburn University for recently kicking off the 2020 Suffrage Centennial in the state of Alabama! I was delighted to be the guest speaker at their Grisham Trentham Lecture Series and give my talk, Losing the Corset & Winning the Vote: How Fashion Shaped a Revolution (an audience of students, staff and guests.) Sharing these talks around the country is my way of honoring this aspect of women's heritage and the courage of thousands of women who gave their lives so we have many liberties. 

From Sidney James Nakhjaven, executive director of Auburn's Cary Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy (which includes the Women's Philanthropy Board): “Yesterday was absolutely delightful.  Thank you for a wonderful presentation. Please know how very meaningful your program was....I learned a great deal and have a new boost of energy and curiosity around all things women.”

October 5, 2019

{The Glorious Renée Harris}

Enjoy this reprint of my article on Confluence Daily about the first woman Broadway producer, Renée Harris, and the new book about her life by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper.

Don't you love learning about women trailblazers of history?

What a Dame! The Glorious Renée Harris

I first “met” Renée Harris when researching for “Glamour Onboard the Titanic,” a talk I was to give at the Biltmore in Asheville, NC, a few years ago during their costume exhibition. Renée and her husband Harry, a famously successful Broadway producer, were passengers on the RMS Titanic returning home to New York City in 1912 from a working holiday abroad. She made it; he, like many other men, went down with the ship.

During my research, I became curious about the lives of a number of women after they survived the Titanic disaster. It took a lot of courage and determination to live through such an ordeal—and they would need that tenacity in the changing world culture. The early years of the 20th century were a transformative time, especially for women who, in the United States, were revving up the nearly-seven-decades-long campaign for the vote, to continue moving their lives out of the “domestic sphere” into the “public sphere”—and the patriarchal powers-that-be were pushing back!

What had women, like Renée Harris, undertaken in this brave new world once they arrived home? I later wrote about some of these trailblazing women, but the information was often limited since history tends to ignore or gloss over a woman’s story. Therefore, I was delighted to learn that my historian friend Randy Bryan Bigham had co-authored, with Gregg Jasper, also a historian and collector, a first-of-its-kind biography of Renée—Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris. And what a great “dame” she was!

Once back home in New York City, the vibrant and “unsinkable” Renée Harris, while grieving her beloved husband, not only took on his business enterprises—when the “Harris theatrical empire was on the brink of bankruptcy”—she also had to take on an unwelcoming man’s world! However, she had the right combination of good humor, hutzpah, business savvy, and the wisdom to listen to her intuitive vibes to not only win over the guys (most of the time), but also to become a successful and innovative owner and manager of the elegant Hudson Theater. Indeed, Broadway’s first woman producer!

Glamorous and spirited—"one of the great personalities of the Jazz Age”—Renée produced and managed 200 plays (some on controversial social topics) and musicals (including the “Hot Chocolates” revue with a young Louis Armstrong playing trumpet) during her 20-year run. She lived life abundantly, enjoying the wealth of her success—yearly trips to Europe, a home and yacht in Palm Beach, lavish entertaining, and a fabulous wardrobe of designer hats and furs. But she was also an active supporter of better working conditions and increased salaries for the performers and behind-the-scene workers—often going up against her male counterparts to champion workers’ rights.  

Renée (who added that second “e” to her name just because she thought it had more élan!) had feminist views but didn’t need a label in order to speak and act true to her egalitarian convictions. And she was wise enough to recognize her secret weapon: she trusted in, as she said, the “female perspective” and a woman’s “quick intuition.” “A woman can do it as well as a man,” Renée shared in an interview about producing Broadway plays. “A woman does not go about this the same way that a man does, but the results are the same. Sometimes I think they’re better. A woman brings to the stage a woman’s point of view. After all, it is what in the long run pleases a woman that makes a show a success.” (You see why I love her!)

Randy and Gregg’s biography is full of marvelous stories and never-before-published photographs gathered from various archives—including Gregg’s own collection of Broadway memorabilia. The book’s many images set the tone for this exciting, groundbreaking age in history and since Gregg knew Renée in her later years, his experiences add an intimate and personal quality to the narrative.

The co-authors tell the story of a woman who found her confident voice—encouraged by the memory of a husband’s love and faith in her (“I never take an important step without consulting Renée,” Harry told a friend only months before his death on the Titanic. “If anything happened to me, she could take over the reins.”); a woman who was unafraid to put her social conscience on the line and on the stage; and who, when she lost it all soon after the stock market crash in 1929, kept her resourcefulness, optimism and light-heartedness, continuing to enjoy life and live 93 legendary years!

Thank you, Randy and Gregg, for an inspirational and entertaining book about a strong, glorious woman that history almost forgot until you two were determined to tell her full story. ~

Broadway Dame: The Life and Times of Mrs. Henry B. Harris by Randy Bryan Bigham and Gregg Jasper available at