Fashion Book: Cleopatra
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:
*click on image above for item details
Have you read the book? What did you think?