Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"One out of suits with fortune": Shakespeare's Rosalind, Vanity Fair, and women wearing the pants

O.K. all of you DG readers: take this PBS quiz and report back which Shakespearean character you are. (I turned out to be Rosalind from As You Like It.) Speaking of dressing as the opposite sex for necessity, fun, or profit, I recently came across a subset of same known as "bifurcated girls." Dian Hansen, the author of History of Men’s Magazines (Taschen, 2004) explicates as follows:
While France had a well-established men’s magazine industry by 1900, America was just showing its ankles in 1903. A magazine called Vanity Fair (unrelated to the current incarnation) was the raciest thing around, and rooming house loozies the hotties of the time. In this New York, tabloid girls who drank like men might strip down to their petticoats and fall into bed together, exposing their corset cover and stockings to peeping male boarders. The famously loose morals of stage actresses made them popular subjects for these shenanigans, but the biggest thrill of all was bifurcation. “What?” one may well ask. Bifurcation, meaning “split in two”, referred to the contours of a woman’s legs revealed by her donning men’s trousers. Bifurcation was a regular and very popular feature in Vanity Fair, it’s popularity leading to Vanity Fair’s Bifurcated Girls.

(Images from Wikimedia Commons.)
Of course writers like George Sand sported male attire in public, not only from a predilection for it but because women gadding about without male escorts at the time were subject to harassment and even arrest. (Vita-Sackville West, the inspiration for Virginia Woolf's Orlando, comes to mind.)
This photo of opera singer Joyce DiDonato riffs on the "trouser," "breeches," or "pants" roles that many mezzo-sopranos are offered in the repertoire: Octavian in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, Leonora in Beethoven's Fidelio, Sesto and Annio in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito and Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Siebel in Gounod's Faust, and scads of Handel and Rossini parts. Some roles were written directly for this voice type (usually those of boys or young men), whereas others require the daunting task of singing parts written for castrati (if a countertenor isn't handy, that is).
Thankfully, women nowadays can be chic and comfortable in pants without enduring grief from coppers!
DiDonato (left) as Octavian
Further reading from our stacks: Virginia Woolf; Shakespeare; opera

13 comments:

  1. Loved this. Thanks. Just shared on fb as "Good Girls Don't."

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  2. Took the quiz and got Ophelia, but if I met Hamlet reading, I would've "slapped him upside o' the head", as my Irish friend used to say.
    Which Shakespearian character would I be? (since no one asked). Richard II, for his great lines, and his submissiveness, that could be mistaken for femininity, in that he examines himself in a way macho leaders never do.
    "Bifurcated girls" gave me quite a jolt, till I read the text!

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    1. It isn't even submission, but a passive-aggressivity, that Richard shows. "Will His Majesty give Richard leave to live till Richard die?" "A little,little grave, an obscure grave;"--is Richard's odd reaction to his defeat.

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  3. Great stuff today, per usual! I also got quite the chuckle from "Bifurcated Girls." As for the quiz, I'm apparently Hamlet. If my sanity was questioned before, it's totally out the window now, haha:)

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  4. Totally rad post today!!! Took the quiz, I am Ophelia.

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    1. Two Ophelias & a Hamlet ... you'll have to fight over him (or go swimming together & forget the drowning bit).

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    2. HAHA! We don't have to fight. We'll stand equidistant from him and let him decide. If he keeps to form, he'll wear himself out trying to make up his mind.

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  5. I think the test must be flawed — it said I am a Rosalind too, which (although I do wear pants) doesn't seem that accurate to me.

    If I had to be a character in Shakespeare, as opposed to watching (or reading) the Bard, I think I would prefer to be Dogberry (Much Ado About Nothing, a self-satisfied night person of comic incompetence.

    Or, if in a more cynical mood, I could be Apemantus (extra points for the name, too), the misanthropic philosopher (Timon of Athens).

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    1. Dost dialogue with thy shadow?

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    2. Dogberry - what a great character! Thanks for calling him to mind and assuming him as an avatar. I guess Rosalind as an avatar speaks to the element of androgyny in all of us? Or to fundamental characteristics that have nothing to do with gender? Hard to say.

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    3. You've hit the nail on the head, JP. We learn that certain characteristics are masculine or feminine, when they are likely merely human, and we break our heads over distinctions that are only labelling.

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  6. You need to get mobistealth downloaded on your device to track device of your any relative at ease.

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