by Constance Villalvazo, VPAM Student Tutor
In 1771 Marie Antoinette shirked convention by refusing to wear a corset. When compelled, she finally agreed to wear the loosest form in existence – that worn with a riding habit – and further shocked society by wearing it with a pair of men’s trousers on horseback. This was only the first time she chose to make a controversial political statement about her and her body’s place in society through her sartorial choices (Weber, 3). She did this most famously with the chemise de la reine or gaulle, a sheer loose white shift dress she is credited as popularizing, and which scandalised French society when she chose to wear it for a 1783 portrait by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun.
This dress, however, has its roots in the Caribbean, the setting and subject matter for much of the exhibition, Umar Rashid (Frowhawk Two Feathers): The World You Know is a Fiction. You Know We Had to do a Remix, Right? Vignettes of the Frenglish Empire in North America (1780-1795), recently on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum. Chosen as an alternative to heavier silk fashions of the period that did not breathe in the heat, it is today associated with the madras, or national dress of Haiti (Weber, 150). This was often worn with the tignon, or turban, a result of sumptuary laws, which prohibited women of African descent from showing their hair in public. These forms of dress, and those which recall its silhouette, can be seen in works by Rashid such as The DeCam’ron 1793 #11 (2018). Also recalling Caribbean history are the strong female subjects the artist often depicts, which may reference such historical figures as Cecile Fatiman, a leader of the Haitian Revolution.
Elements of this costume can be seen in Rashid’s You Can See My Anger But You Will Know My Vengeance (2015). In the publication Frohawk Two Feathers: Kill Your Best Ideas: The Battle for New York and its Lifeline, the Hudson River, Rashid explains that the subject of this work on paper is a fictional former slave named Akosua, who rises to become the leader of a group of female assassins, seeking vengeance for what was done to her and her sister.
Like the portrait of Marie Antoinette by Vigée Le Brun, the subject in Rashid’s work is depicted in three-quarter profile and stares directly at the viewer from a slightly raised vantage point, suggesting her power. Akosua wears the tignon, which became a symbol of resistance in the Caribbean and in Louisiana, while the silhouette of her dress suggests that of the chemise de la reine, with its wide belt. She wears a fur coat, a status symbol, and one embraced by early hip hop culture. Rather than the rose of France, which Marie Antoinette holds in the Vigée Le Brun portrait, Akosua holds a gold sword, a traditional symbol of the aristocracy. The tattoo on her left cheek is the symbol of the Ancient Egyptian mother goddess Hathor, and announces her participation in an order dedicated to women. In this portrait, Rashid uses clothes to make political statements about his subject, as well as to elevate her status.
Another portrait that makes heavy use of sartorial choices is Rashid’s Like this. With the big money all crushed (Orlande) (2015). The artist states that General Orlande, Duc de Rouen, “lived in a chateau by the sea, and the only war he saw was in books. He did dress the part, though” (Rashid, Kill Your Best Ideas 30). In the portrait, Orlande wears a military coatee with epaulettes and gold braid. His tricorne hat, placed at a cocky angle on his pomaded and powdered hair, as well as his heavily powered face, suggest influence from the 18th-century French court. His appearance is comparable to popular posthumous depictions of Haitian Revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. However, unlike L’Ouverture, Orlande is not a skilled tactician and has never seen battle. He “[changes] his clothing three times a day,” states Rashid, but it’s also interesting that the artist also chooses to write about him that he is “fearless,” and in addition, “foolish” and “frivolous,” all terms used to describe Marie Antoinette during her lifetime (30).
Like the French queen, the fictional subjects Rashid depicts are not always in control of their lives. Intended to be a reflection of ours, his works depict a universe that is dangerous and unstable. However, his subjects do have a penchant for style. In a world that can seek to determine who you are, the artist seems to suggest that self-creation, and self-fashioning, are powerful tools.
Learn more about Umar Rashid (Frohawk Two Feathers): The World You Know is a Fiction. You Know We Had To Do a Remix, Right? Vignettes of the Frenglish Empire in North America (1780-1795) here.
Forsdick, Charles. “Visualising Toussaint L’Ouverture.” The British Museum Blog, The British Museum, 12 Mar. 2018, blog.britishmuseum.org/visualising-toussaint-louverture/.
Frohawk Two Feathers and Bartholomew F. Bland. Frohawk Two Feathers: Kill Your Best Ideas: The Battle for New York and its Lifeline, the Hudson River. Hudson River Museum, 2015.
Maj, Lec, and Yale Center for British Art, “A West Indian Flower Girl and Two Other Free Women of Color.” collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670107.
Pierrot, Gregory. “To Be the Other of the Other: An Encounter With Frohawk Two Feathers.” ASAP/Journal, 2017.
Steele, Valerie. Paris Fashion: A Cultural History. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Weber, Caroline. Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The Revolution. Henry Holt and Company, 2006.