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Fashion Book: Cleopatra

2011 April 21

This month my book club is reading Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, a nonfiction account of the mythic Egyptian Queen’s life in the ancient world. I admit, I fell victim to the buzz behind this book. I was looking forward to reading a gripping account of a powerful woman in a world I know little about. However, I’m disappointed with the way things are turning out. I started the book when I left for vacation last week, thinking it would be a quick plane read. I am still chugging through the last 50 pages (the book is only 300 pages total).

The book has been successful in contextualizing the time period for me; for instance, I didn’t realize that Cleopatra was living only about 30 years before the birth of Christ, associating with Herod, Caesar, and other big names of the time. I’ve never read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or seen the famous Liz Taylor movie, so the Cleopatra I knew was all gold and snakes and seduction. In that regard, the book has been helpful in placing the myth in a real time and place. Schiff points out in her introduction, at great length, that we have nearly nothing of Cleopatra’s own voice or any of her contemporaries to help paint a vivid picture of her. All we have to go on are the words of several (male) writers of the time, most of whom were born decades after her demise. We are left with a shell of a woman, still no more human than the tales and iconography that surround her. However, I found where the book falls short is that it is very dry and not engaging. Schiff does little to explain what women’s lives were really like during that time, something she could have used to give us more frames of reference for Cleopatra. I have little idea what it was actually like to live in Alexandria during this golden age–all Schiff tells me is about opulence, and gems, and purple sunsets.

She does describe Cleopatra’s dress in a couple of passages, such as this one: “She coiled long ropes of pearls around her neck and braided more into her hair. She wore others sewn into the fabric of her tunics. Those were ankle-length and lavishly colored, of fine Chinese silk or gauzy linen, traditionally worn belted, or with a brooch or ribbon. Over the tunic went an often transparent mantle, through which the bright folds of fabric were clearly visible. On her feet Cleopatra wore jeweled sandals with patterned soles.”  Using that depiction as a foundation, here’s what I came up with for a modern-day Cleopatra:
Cleopatra

*click on image above for item details

Have you read the book? What did you think?

4 Responses Post a comment
  1. April 21, 2011

    This outfit is a thousand times better than the Halloween costume I had in fifth grade. I love that the dress is chic and sexy but not over-the-top at all.

  2. April 21, 2011

    I had the exact same expectations and same disappointing realization as you. I was really excited to read this, but I can’t seem to get through it. :(

    While reading it, I’m often questioning Schiff’s research and purpose. The sad thing is, I don’t really make a point to find out because the book isn’t engaging enough.

    I thought it would be more like the book by Bettany Hughes on Helen of Troy. I highly recommend it if you want to delve into what life was life for women in the ancient world. Hughes is an actual cultural anthropologist and talks about her excavation experiences.

    http://www.amazon.com/Helen-Troy-Story-Behind-Beautiful/dp/1400076005/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1303410506&sr=8-3

  3. kyley permalink
    May 2, 2011

    Cleopatra from Shakespeare and Liz Taylor is pretty much all snakes and seduction, too.

    I started the book in January, pre-hype, and looooved it. I had to put it on hold once the semester started up, but I’m really looking forward to picking it back up in a few weeks.

    I think histories are usually engaging in such a different way than literary fiction, that it can feel disappointing. They are slower, more plodding, and they always feel a little bit like work, which can make them easy to put down and not pick back up sometimes.

    I think Schiff’s book is a really interesting and important project redeeming Cleopatra. Because I think people largely still think of her as Liz Taylor: a sex object. But she was really pretty bad ass and smart and historically important as more than a sex object. It’s a bummer to not enjoy a book after a lot of hype, but I also think the hype itself might be helping to change the popular perception of Cleopatra as a historical figure, you know?

  4. kyley permalink
    May 2, 2011

    p.s. i love this look and would like it all please.

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