My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 2, Blithewood Garden, Red Hook, NY.

After climbing out of the metaphorical blackened crevasse of an ugly break-up in June, I decided that it was high time that I surfaced for some sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, living as a troglodyte for one month had its benefits. I finished reading my collection of Regency-era romance novels, and binge-watched Korean dramas for four weeks straight, increasing my boob-tube stamina and romantic acuity. However, by the time July rolled around, I knew what I had to do. I would take myself on 100 hot dates.


For date number 2, I rounded-up a selection of the finest cheeses (from my comprehensive personal refrigerator collection), and stopped at a local farm-stand for some fruit. My life brimming with cheese, and heart overflowing with cholesterol, I strolled over to the Blithewood Mansion and Garden, on the Bard campus, Red Hook, NY.


Now, if you’re as much of a romantic as I am, you’ll know that cheese does not inspire sentiments of love and enchantment unless it’s consumed in the proper setting. To achieve this illusion of fromage amour, I traveled with a cheese laden bag to the breathtaking Italian sunken gardens of Blithewood Mansion. The garden was constructed circa 1903 as an extension of the Georgian-style Blithewood mansion, constructed circa 1900 for Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie and his wife Francis. Both the garden and the mansion were designed by Francis L.V. Hoppin, of the Hoppin and Koen Architectural firm, adhering to the conventions of Romanticism which influenced the Gilded Age home.


At the time that I visited the garden, the rain had just subsided, and the sun began to glisten over the sopping wet flowers and walled structures of the garden. Sitting on a marble (or limestone) bench in the garden, I looked towards a sliver of the Hudson River, visible through a parting in the trees. With a mouth full of St. Agur cheese, I turned to look over my shoulder, and was rewarded with a vision of a double rainbow arcing over Blithwood mansion.


Perhaps it was the effect of massive amounts of brie and agur entering my body all at once, but at the sight of this, my heart skipped a beat. Love flooded my veins. These are the moments that are best shared alone, on a date with yourself, smelling of fermented dairy and oxytocin. Between the natural beauty of the garden, and my full stomach, I was content that hot date number 2 with myself had been a complete success. I was falling in love!

b6 copy  b7


My Own Muse: Hot Date with Myself, No. 1, Vanderbilt Mansion Italian Garden

In June of 2017, I had a summer of fun heating-up on the horizon. My boyfriend would return from Florida, I was on summer break from grad school, and I had a killer new collection of crop-tops to show-off my hot rib-cage with! Yowza! However, the ripe promise of June came with a rotten surprise. My boyfriend returned home, only to inform me that he had found a new life in the sink-holes of Florida (Pun intended. He sure found some holes that he liked). After being mercilessly cast aside for a southern gal, and left broken and alone in my Hudson Valley home, I spent the first month of my summer break from school carrying around a box of Kleenex, weeping like a professional mourner from Mark Meily’s Crying Ladies (2003).  In June, I dressed like Queen Victoria. I mourned in black. My rib-cage hidden from the world.

IMG_8365 copy

Then, in July, I got a hold of myself. I realized that it was unfair to my gracious friends to impose my driveling pool of gelatinous emotions upon them for another month. After recounting the fateful day that my ex-boyfriend unceremoniously kicked me to the singles curb about ninety-seven times, I took mercy upon my lovely friends, and decided to create a new narrative. I had to become that better me that I always read about in self-help blogs. I decided, on July first, I would date myself. I would fall deeply, madly, inextricably in love.

IMG_8159 copy

So, I threw-off my somber black attire, and armed my new and improved romantic body with a sky-blue, off-the-shoulder maxi dress. With bounce in my stride, I took my rapturous blue hide over to the Italian Gardens of the Vanderbilt Mansion, Hyde Park, NY. Strolling along the symmetrical pathways between the precise flower beds, I felt a semblance of control returning to me. The extravagance of Frederick William Vanderbilt and his Gilded Age home (designed by architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, and inhabited by the Vanderbilt family from 1895-1938) and gardens reminded me that I could indulge in a bit of decadence. In an act of pure hedonistic pleasure, I updated my beloved miniature calendar book, while resting in the shade of the pergola. God, do I know romance!

IMG_8247 copy

As I sensually penned dates into my itinerary for July, I was enamored by the sultry, shady ferns that surrounded me. There must be some significance in an entire garden devoted to the plant. After a bit of cursory research, I discovered a phenomenon known as Pteridomania (Aka. fern fever)! Throughout the Victorian period, there was a craze for collecting, hunting and cultivating ferns in both England and America. Much of this craze was fostered by botanists George Loddiges and Edward Newman. Owner of one of the largest hot-houses in London, Loddiges claimed that collecting ferns “showed intelligence, and improved both virility and mental health,” an assertion which his botanist buddy, Edward Newman, backed-up in his mid-century masterpiece, A History of British Ferns (1840). Frederick William Vanderbilt made sure that he was associated with the noble plant, thus ensuring his image of intelligence and manly virility with his handsome fern garden. Ugh. Where are all of these fern-cultivating men in the twenty-first century!?!?

IMG_8364 copy

So, dear reader. As I concluded the first date with myself in the Vanderbilt Garden, I decided that I was one hell of a gal, and that only a fern loving gent could take me away from me! Swoon! Also, you’ll be relieved to hear that it was time to bare my ribcage to the word, once again.


A Leopard Must Change its Spots….

I embark upon this new year, wearing plaid pants, a banana brooch, and a big-old leopard-print swing coat. Embedded in the threads of my loud and incongruous get-up are messages of hope, destiny and….what the hell am I doing with myself in 2018?!?! Like the clothes that I wear, this question is rhetorical.

As a Costume Studies grad student at NYU, I know that the clothing that I wear contains conative and subliminal declarations about who I am. I’ve written research papers about all of this. It must be so! But, this notion only makes me uneasy. Is my 1990s punk-revival/granny outfit a sign that I’m looking to the past for comfort, or that my future is likely to be a circus? Perhaps it’s just a flamboyant palette cleanser for a tart 2017. The past year contained moments of glory and growth, but also a few minor disasters. For example, in the midst of grad school, my long-term boyfriend cheated on me, moved to Florida, and left me with a dilemma about finding someone to help me pay the rent, while simultaneously filling the void in my gutted soul (OK. That was a bit dramatic, but I am dressed like a wild-cat!). With deft anger and scrappy resilience, I managed to resolve this problem, but, by-golly, am I left with a bad taste in my mouth! Holding onto my knickers, and finding comfort in loud textile patterns, I go forth.

IMG_3359 copy

In 2018, I have decided to look for a new job, publish my work, rekindle old friendships, and ignite new ones. Most excitingly, I am determined to go on 100 hot dates with myself. No historic site, museum, garden, mountain-top, restaurant or dive-bar will be immune from my romantic inclinations, and desirous heart. Oh, to find myself in a beautiful sunrise, or delicious flan! So, stay-tuned. Prepare to come-along with me through the annals of history, the paths of curiosity, all while wearing clothing of major connotation. In short, I will be my own goddamned muse!

Happy 2018, darlings! Mwah!


My Muses: Thalia and the Mona Lisa

As the Greek muse of comedy, Thalia is among my favorite of the fair affecters. She sparks a willingness to smile, and knows that a perfectly timed practical joke is worth a more than a picture and its thousand words. At least, that’s what my muse of comedy, Mona Lisa, could tell you!


On August 21st, of 1911, Mona Lisa was stolen from the Grand Gallery of the Louvre by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Perugia. Most people recognized this as a tragic blow to the art-world, but has anyone ever entertained the possibility of Mona Lisa just needing a little holiday?? I mean, just consider the famed “Mona Lisa smile.” I know that look all too well. That expression means give me a damn break! I’ve been entertaining crowds in the Louvre since 1804, and before that I had to hang about in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom in the Tuileries, for da Vinci’s sake! I need to get away!


Here’s what I believe happened. The winsome Mona presented to Perugia her most beguiling smile, and eventually (through her considerable charms) coerced him to take her away to see the sights. She decided to summer on the Riviera, and after getting quite a sun burn, insisted that she retreat to the Alps for some tranquil reflection. Her much needed respite ended in 1914, but reliable sources claim that she’s planning on another vacation, soon! Oh, Mona Lisa, you little minx!




The Victorian Bathing Suit of Winslow Homer’s “High Tide”


Winslow Homer’s Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide), which is exhibited in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, represents a transitional period in American art, clothing and society. Embedded within the appearance of the three young women on the seashore, rendered with lively brush-strokes, is a cultural cocktail of change and modernization. When Homer displayed this particular work at the National Academy of Design in 1870, critics reacted with uncertain, if not hostile remarks about his treatment of his female subjects and his overall painting technique. What Homer captured so aptly in this painting was a cultural undercurrent that was traveling just below the surface of Victorian mainstream ideals of “modesty, moral integrity, self-control, sober earnestness and industriousness.”Under the veneer of Victorian society, a natural world was pulsing.


Homer was an American-born genre painter, who depicted every-day American life with sensitivity and vigor. Unlike his romantic predecessors who depicted highly polished interior scenes or grandiose landscapes which echoed the sanctity of a holy church, Homer turned his attention to the home-spun American scene, with a “native and personal” naturalism. His illustrations and oil paintings of Americans participating in outdoor leisure sports was a new theme in painting, and for which he produced a prolific number of examples. The fact that he was painting during the height of the Hudson River School Movement was quite influential to his work, since the Hudson River School stressed that artists should go outside of the studio to capture natural light.


However, Homer’s summary hand, and the “unfinished” look of his antebellum paintings was a departure from the Hudson River School tradition, which subsequently drew much criticism from contemporaries. Harper’s Weekly commented on Winslow Homer’s High Tide exhibited at the 1870 Academy show, stating: “The pictures are not wholly pleasing; perhaps the bathing scene—like another he has in the East Room—is not quite refined. But this picture shows a fresh eye and a wholesome independence of conventions with spirit and vigor…If the critics must gibe, it must not be at such work, however faulty, but at the hopeless, conventional, dead and buried commonplace of many of the pictures, but suggest nothing but that the painter has seen nature only in very namby-pamby engravings. In the works of Homer…you are very sure that the painter has really seen what he paints, and really tries to represent it. When he fails, he is therefore a hopeful failure.” Homer was, in fact, just painting ahead of the curve. He is considered to be one of the forerunners to Impressionism, along with Boudin in France and Fattori in Italy.


While critics picked apart the “homeliness” of his subject matter and the lack of refinement in his painting surfaces, the American public embraced his work, and the National Academy elected him an Academician when he was a young man. At least one critic had this generous statement to make about Homer’s work, “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism, and cares not for such fantastic hairsplitting as the distinction between beauty and ugliness. He is a genuine painter; that is to see, and reproduce what he sees.”


The swimsuits that appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, are the result of a compromise between Victorian social mores, fashion and function. While it was considered immodest to expose the shape of the female leg, even when it was covered with stockings, weighty swathes of material made it physically impossible and dangerous for women to swim. The bathing suits popular from the mid-nineteenth century to around 1870 were a sartorial settlement between modesty and function, and were typically made of serge (a wool fabric) or flannel. The weighty material was fashioned into a paletot dress, which had a cinched bodice and short skirt that stopped at the knee. Underneath the paletot dress were ‘Turkish’ trousers, or bloomer-style pants.


Around 1848, dress reformers introduced the ‘Turkish trowser’ to lady’s fashion, in an attempt to free the female body up for engaging in more physical activities like popular “water cures”, or, in the case of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, bike riding. Just a few years prior to 1848, bifurcated undergarments had been slowly incorporated into middle-class women’s wardrobe. Such controversial undergarments made headway for bloomers or Turkish trousers.

images 2


However, the look of women wearing trousers in the nineteenth-century did not catch on with mainstream fashion, and magazines like Punch often poked fun at women who wore such emancipated attire.  The satirical cartoons in Punch magazine were a more humorous reaction to male fear that women were “appropriating male dress, and, by association, male privilege and power.” Because the trouser for women threatened the foundational gender codes of the Victorian era, bloomers and Turkish trousers were typically only worn when pursuing genteel pursuits of recreation, and were made less threatening to the male sartorial sphere by incorporating current female fashionable silhouettes and details into the overall look of the sportswear.


Apart from the main body of the bathing dress, oiled linen caps were worn to protects the hair, while straw or sunhats hats were worn to guard the face against sunlight. In addition, lisle gloves were shown in fashion plates of the time to protect the hands from the sun, and gum shoes to protect the feet. While historians and mid-nineteenth century fashion magazines imagined Victorian women in bathing suits which covered them from head to toe, complete with black stockings, gum shoes, a linen cap, sunhats hat, gloves, bloomers or Turkish trousers and a shirt dress over a short dress, an illustration by Winslow Homer, which appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1858, gives us another glimpse into the world of Victorian sea bathing. Women appear swimming alongside men, and bare feet, naked calves and arms and elbows can be observed bobbing out of the waters in the illustration. Although ladies wear straw hats on the shore, the women swimming in the ocean only wear their linen caps.


Patricia C. Warner uses this particular illustration by Homer to argue that contrary to some historian’s beliefs about mid-nineteenth-century sea bathing, women did not always wear every article of clothing prescribed by fashion plates from the time.  Homer, with his tradition as a genre painter and his acute eye for detail, captured the actual way in which women wore bathing suits, unencumbered by excessive articles of clothing and material, like gloves, straw hats, shoes and trousers. Furthermore, Homer was hired to record what he saw for the magazine, not reinterpret.  The fashions for bathing suits scarcely changed between the 1858 and 1870, so his illustrations of sea bathers for Harper’s Weekly and oil painting, High Tide, reaffirmed this image of young women swimming at the seaside with their bare legs exposed. Victorian art critics, viewing paintings from terra firma, may have been shocked by Homer’s realist rendering of “exceedingly red-legged and ungainly,” young women, but for enthusiast sea bathers, such opinions about the immodesty of bare skin might not have mattered. While the wearing of black stockings with a bathing suit was popular for American women from the mid-nineteenth-century and into the twentieth-century, it is highly likely that some more forward thinking or active women saw fit to remove their stockings while sea bathing.


There were two imperatives for preserving the social status of middle-class beach-going women: safeguarding white skin against sun exposure and conserving one’s modesty, by way of concealing the body’s supple contours beneath ample clothing. The breach of these two precepts in High Tide caused negative reactions in critics after he displayed the piece. In this painting, the maintenance the young lady’s lily-white skin is in jeopardy while the two figures in the foreground expose their bare legs and faces to the sun. White skin was a marker a nineteenth-century beauty and class, indicative of a life spent indoors in the domestic sphere, and also of a woman’s delicacy and refinement. Milky-white skin was preferable.  Evidence of this preference for white skin during the Victorian era can be surmised by looking at the cosmetics which were on the market during the mid-nineteenth-century, such as “Rowland’s Kalydor,” which claimed in its advertisement that it had power to “cool and refresh the face and hands of ladies and all exposed to the hot sun. It removes freckles, tan, sunburn, redness and roughness.” This Victorian beauty ideal for white skin, and a subsequent rejection of tan and red skin, explains the negative reaction one critic had to the exposed red skin of the young woman in Homer’s painting, High Tide, calling one of the figures “exceedingly red legged and ungainly.”


There is one more cultural aspect that can be ascertained from the appearance of the young ladies on the beach: the mid-nineteenth-century development of the idea of leisure time and recreation, in the wake of urbanization and an expanding middle-class. Urbanization and industrialization began to replace agrarian life in America, and thus the way in which time was spent moved away from the rhythms of the natural seasons, and became more in-tune to the rhythms of capitalist industry. The stress from “unnatural” modern life, formed by a shift from an outdoor existence to an indoor existence, created a need for leisure and recreation for the middle-class, and “natural” spaces where the bourgeoisie could retreat to became a necessity.

images 1

By 1840, there was a boom in the creation of mountain and maritime resorts to meet the demand for recreation and leisure. It was also during the mid-nineteenth century that public parks were being constructed to better the lives of urban dwellers, as in the case of Central Park, in New York City, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in 1857. Aside from creating a demand for “green spaces” and retreats to seaside resorts, modernization and industry also made it possible for more Americans to travel and visit remote wilderness areas like mountains and beaches. By 1841, an expanded national railway system enabled the American middle-class to travel to natural havens, like the seaside, in large numbers. These presumably middle-class girls which appear in Homer’s painting, High Tide, occupy the space of a beach in Massachusetts because of new middle-class concepts of leisure and recreation, and because of innovative industry and technology which allowed for extensive travel.


These three young ladies represent a number of changes occurring in America during the mid-nineteenth-century. Hidden in the contours of their bodies lies a message about the advent of impressionist painting, the introduction of active-wear for women, and the emergence of leisure and travel for a burgeoning middle-class.




Lois W, Banner. American Beauty. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1983.


Deitz, Paula. “Parks and Public Places,” Of Gardens. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.


Downing, Sarah Jayne. Beauty and Cosmetics: 1550-1950. Shire Publications, Oxford, 2016.


Fischer, Gayle V. “Pantalets and Turkish Trowsers: Designing Freedom in the mid-nineteenth-century United States.” Feminist Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1. Feminist Studies, Inc. 1997.


Goodrich, Lloyd. Winslow Homer Essay. George Braziller, Inc., 1959.


Goodrich, Lloyd. “Winslow Homer.” Published for the Whitney Museum of Art by MacMillan Co., New York. 1944.


Kushner, Marilyn S. and Barbara Dayer Gallati, Linda S. Ferber. Winslow Homer: Illustrating America. Brooklyn Museum of Art, George Braziller Publisher, NY, 2000.


Sandiford, Keith A.P. “The Victorians at Play: The Problems in Historiographical Methodology,” Journal of Social History, Vol. 15, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1981.


Shrimpton, Jayne. Victorian Fashion. Bloomsbury Publishing, Oxford, 2016.


Sloan, John. “The Origin, Growth and Transformation of Maritime Resorts Since 1840,” Built Environment. Vol. 18, No.1. Alexandrine Press, 1992.


Patricia Campbell Warner, When Girls Came Out to Play: The Birth of American Sportswear. University of Massachusetts Press, Boston, 2006.


“Eagle Head, Manchester, Massachusetts (High Tide),” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.


“The Hudson River School”. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art and History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (


Winslow Homer. “The Bath at Newport,” Harper’s Weekly, September 4, 1858. Courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Special Collections and Archive.





My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin


Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.


Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.


Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.


Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:


“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus


“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus


“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds


Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.



My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena


I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.


images                             images-1

Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)


Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.


After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.


The Public Enemy: Disenchantment With the American Dream


The Public Enemy was a terrific example of the gangster genre, which emerged in full force during the early 1930’s. As the film came out in in 1931, and was unhampered by the restrictive measures of the Hollywood Production Code, enforced in 1934, The Public Enemy retains its punchy lines, seedy settings and bawdy women: grit essential to the murky vigor of organized crime. As I was watching the film, I quickly understood why audiences, some eighty years ago, were struck by the gangster drama. As the American psyche was inextricably bound up with the accumulation of wealth and success, a story of a self-made man seems irresistible. However, The Public Enemy is, in actuality, a cautionary tale which debunks the reliability of the American Dream.


The intoxicating allure of upward social mobility was instilled in the collective American conscience by stories designed by Horation Alger, and inspired by men like Rockefeller and Carnegie. The American myth, that anyone could make it to the top if they just worked hard enough, or possessed the right character, was a misconception understood by most Americans during the 1930’s, and is a myth that stands strong to this very day. Circumstance and luck had nothing to do with success in the traditional Gilded Age understanding of the word. Just as personal success was attributed to character, so too was poverty; thus, poverty took on a meaning of laziness and personal inadequacy. However, after the fall of the stock market in 1929, around 25% of the American workers found themselves jobless and poverty was thrusted into the face of the middle-class. Poverty was too big of an issue and too close to home for average Americans to sweep under the carpet, and so poverty was beginning to be comprehended as a problem with the economic and government system, not an individual’s lack of character.


With the disillusionment of the American Dream in mind, consider the plotline of The Public Enemy. James Cagney is mesmerizing on screen as the fast talking, quick moving and unapologetically bad Tom Powers. Tom’s humble beginnings and harsh childhood allow the audience to empathize with the hero’s descent into the world of organized crime. During the 1930’s, when jobs were scarce and waist-belts were tight, audiences would have understood Tom’s involvement in the crime world as an act of survival and courage. Now, that the audience is fully empathetic to Tom, it can revel in the themes of violence, sex and money, along with Tom; hence, living vicariously through Tom. Throughout most of the movie, Tom takes what he wants, whether it’s a punch, a dame or some dough, and this is the part of the movie which served as escapist fodder for audiences. His violent and uncaring behavior is a reflection of a bloated sense of unfettered individualism and ego– a dark facet to the American Dream. It seems that Tom can ride the swell of personal success and unlimited power, doing just as he pleases without any regard for the well-being of other people. However, the principles of laissez faire society had to be tested, as seen in the concluding scenes of The Public Enemy. The ebb was coming.


As a parallel to the collapse of the economy and the integrity of the American Dream, The Public Enemy takes the audience on a thrilling ride to the top, where money sex and power are plentiful, and then rips success away from the hero; leaving him, in the final scene of the movie, as the powerless, bound and mummified remnants of a once “great” man (A misogynist murderer is certainly not my idea of a great man, but this is the dirty thirties). The shocking image of Cagney left on his mother’s doorstep, bloodied and wrapped up like a package, reminds the audience of how quickly a man can be humbled—no matter how powerful. Cagney’s character fought the stagnant world of convention and mediocrity and lost. He was a self-made man, like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, but fell prey to the gods of circumstance and chance. Perhaps Cagney’s character reminded people facing hard times, or the threat of hard-times, that it wasn’t a person’s fault if they failed, it was merely the hand of fate. “The gangster film became a contemporary version of the Gospel of the Gilded Age. But the gangster film always dealt with both rise and fall; when the gangster, sitting “on top of the world,” dies spectacularly alone, his success proves hollow and short-lived, like the bubble of prosperity in the 1920’s.” (228, Dickstein)


Likewise, the hero’s involvement with the crooked Puttynose, illuminates not only to the ways in which environment and circumstance can forge a man’s life, but how unreliable people and organizations can be when you really need their help. While Puttynose was responsible for putting malicious ideas in the mind of Power’s character and a gun in the youth’s hand, old Puttynose failed to support the very beast he had created when it came back to his creator. This, again, parallels American society– filling youth’s heads with ideas of grandeur, informing them of the steps they need to take to be a success and then turning its back on youth when the rug of the American Dream is pulled out from under them. Just as the veteran soldiers of WWI formed the Bonus Army and trekked to Washington in search of help, only to be hosed off the pavement and whisked away by a fellow officers of the army, so too did Puttynose reject his own.


Aside from the theme of the individual being explored—an idea most cherished by American culture— the importance of community and sticking together is found throughout The Public Enemy. Take the scene in Public Enemy where Powers questions Patty’s (owner of Patty’s Pub) decision to do him a favor:

Tommy: “Why do you want to front for us? We ain’t ever done nothin’ for you.”

Patty: “Maybe not. I might need a friend sometime. I’m older than you, and I’ve learned that nobody can do much without somebody else.”


Contrary to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and individualism, the idea of needing to depend on other people for survival or success is explored in many of the Golden Era films, The Public Enemy being no exception. With a growing awareness of the fragility of the American Dream, many Americans began to look at socialist models for society as an answer to the capitalism gone amok. The American government, for the first time in its history, took responsibility for the well-being of its people through government programs, designed to support those who were less fortunate and needed financial aid. These programs were a part of the New Deal, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s command, and acted as a buffer against the American Dream, which was chafing under weight of grief, stress, loss and despair felt by many millions of jobless Americans.


The Historic Crescendo of Indian Cotton Muslin in the West (1770-1820)


Muslin fabric was the textile of emperors.  While the Indian continent historically boasts many different varieties of textiles—from calico to ikat— it was the remarkably translucent, wonderfully white characteristics of cotton muslin that the Indian Mughal court revered. When The British East India Company received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, a long history of trade between Europe and India began. Cotton textiles were among the most popularly imported items from the exotic, far-reaches of India, and chief among these cotton textiles was muslin. During the eighteenth-century, the production of the cloth had reached its zenith in popularity amongst Europeans, and up until the close of that century, the quality of the fabric was far-superior to anything that Europe could produce.


            In a global sense, India had been ahead of the cotton-based textiles game for a couple millennia. Cotton had existed as a domesticated and cultivated plant on the Indian continent for thousands of years, proof of which can be found in the domesticated cotton fibers and seeds which have been found in excavation sites in Baluchistan, dating from around 6,000 BC.  By the time European companies started trading with India in the seventeenth-century, the spinners and weavers of India had the advantage of working with cotton for a long period of time.



            The cotton muslin which pre-dates the twentieth-century is much different in appearance and quality than what is modernly termed as muslin. The muslin fabrics produced in India during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century could be defined as a plain-weave, cotton cloth with a translucent appearance. Because of its sheer and airy characteristics, it was originally named after the French word for mousse: mousseline. Later, it was adapted into the English language, and mousseline became muslin. Because the fabric was so diaphanous and sheer, it acquired other monikers which denoted the degree of the fabric’s delicacy. “Woven-wind” and “evening dew” were just a few names which were attributed to Indian cotton muslin. “In the 1760s the Dutch traveler Stavorinus wrote that ‘Bengal muslins were made so fine that a piece twenty yards in length or even longer could be put into a common pocket ‘tobacco box’”


The delicacy of the cotton thread used to construct muslin textiles and the difficulty of weaving muslin fabric allowed for India to corner-the-market on fine muslin, so to speak. The art of making a fabric which could be described to be as dainty as “spider web” required specialized skill and unique conditions. It was Dacca India which was known, during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, for making the most exquisite and translucent muslin fabric. But how did a rural region which was made up of small villages produce a fabric which was unparalleled by modern western countries? Fortunately, for the western world, the answer has been preserved in a written record by the medical officer, James Taylor, who lived in Dacca India between the years 1828 and 1846. Although his report post-dates the period which has been highlighted in this paper, the slow-moving technology changes in rural India make it highly plausible that the techniques described in Taylor’s report apply to the manufacture of the fabric in the eighteenth-century.


The process for making delicate muslin begins with the cotton plant itself. In the flood-planes along the Brahmaputra River, the land is seasonally covered with a fine silt, making the soil fertile. The cotton which grows in the silty soil of the region has been cultivated to produce a boll with exceptionally long and thin fibers.  Such choice cotton bolls were cleaned in an ancient technique, where women used the small teeth attached to the jawbone of the boalee fish to comb out the seeds. To remove the dirt and knots from the processed boll, the cotton fibers were laid out into a pile. The next step to the process was quite simple, but clever. Workmen struck a large stringed bow with a wooden mallet, and set the bow against the pile of cotton, where the vibrations of the bow shook the dirt from the cotton, while simultaneously fluffing the fibers. Now, the cotton was ready for spinning.



The spinning process could not be left to just any hand. Because of their nimble young fingers and acute eye-sight, women under thirty years of age were chosen to spin the cotton yarn.  The relentless humidity of Dacca eased the stress on the fibers, making it more pliable for spinning and weaving. William Ward observed in 1818, “Women of all castes prepare the cotton thread for the weaver, spinning the thread on a piece of ware, on a very thin rod of iron with a ball of clay on one end, this they turn round with the left hand, and supply the cotton with the right.”


The weaving portion of muslin cloth production was customarily performed by men. The work of weaving required great restraint and dexterity to work with cotton yarns which were so fine. The weaving work was executed on a simple loom, where the warp yarns were strengthened through a process of soaking the yarns in rice paste. After the cloth was woven, the starchy rice paste was washed out of the fabric in a running stream, and laid out in a field to bleach in the sun. The resulting fabric appeared sheer and filmy, and as it was stretched on the ground to dry and bleach, it resembled spider webs, or in the hazy morning sun, dew.


Before the nineteenth-century, Indian cotton textile production was ordinarily carried-out in villages, and was performed at the house-hold level, where every member of the family was involved in the production process. Children would clean and card the cotton and assist the weaver, women would spin the cotton, and men would weave the fabric. Each district specialized in one textile—Dacca specializing in fine muslin. These localized centers for production were called aurangs. The cleaning, spinning and weaving processes were further specialized and determined by caste and occupational factors. In a sense, the divided labor system of the aurangs resembles an assembly line in a modern factory, where each separate “part” or step in the production was allotted to one person or group who specialized in just one task. Such aurangs in Dacca fell under the patronage of the Mughal Court, who controlled the production over the best weavers. While the Mughal Court allowed muslin to be sold to Europeans, the finest muslin was reserved for the Court. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth-century, after the British conquest of India, that the British took control over the aurangs, and, in turn, gained access to the highest-quality muslin fabrics.


You may be wondering why it was so important for the European trading companies to get their hands on fine muslin woven in Dacca. The answer has a lot to do with the changes in western philosophy, aesthetics and fashions, and the increased demand for textiles which were suited to these new ideals. During the second half of the eighteenth-century, Neoclassicism had taken a hold of western Europe. The architecture and fashion of the time had a dominant Greco-Roman appeal, spawned by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748.  The fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture encouraged the wearing of beautiful white fabrics in the form of the fichu, shawl and dress. It was Indian cotton muslin which was the best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions, with its elegant, soft drape and gossamer sheerness.


By the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became popular, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment. Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric.


During the first two decades of the nineteenth-century, the empire-waisted muslin dress was the reigning fashion, and can be seen being modeled in early nineteenth-century fashion-plates, and portraits of royalty and aristocrats.  Empress Josephine de Beauharnais—Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife— cemented the look in popular fashion, reflecting her husband’s politically fashioned, Neoclassical imperial style through the white empire dress. Josephine and her fashionable friends were known to splash water on the filmy muslin material of their gowns, causing the fabric to cling to their figures, while simultaneously becoming even more transparent. Not only was the wearing of muslin fabric a political statement, but it was a seductive act, as well. The prevailing cultural climate consisting of Greco-Roman inspired Neoclassicism, “Anglomania-style,” which elevated simple country wear to high fashion, and the idea of the return-to-nature, supported by such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, coupled with the inherent alluring qualities of the fabric all ensured the ready adaption of white dresses and accessories made from muslin into popular fashion.


Aside from the fabric’s visual appeal, muslin possessed practical qualities, as well. Not only were cotton textiles more cost-effective than textiles like silk and wool, but cotton fabric was color-fast. This meant that clothing and bedding made of cotton fabric could be dyed a color, or feature dyed popular motifs and designs, and withstand exposure to sunlight and washing. In the case of cotton muslin, it was a good choice for undergarments because the fabric could easily be washed. Because both outer-garments and undergarments made of cotton were washable, new concepts of cleanliness emerged in nineteenth-century European culture. Cotton muslin was a marvel of both beauty and hygiene.


Although Europe tried to emulate the cotton muslin fabric, they were, at first, only able to produce cruder, lower-grade muslin fabrics. It is for this reason that Indian muslin was highly sought after by European traders.  Especially during the mid-to-late eighteenth-century, the European demand for Indian cotton muslin reached its peak. In the decade between 1760 and 1770 alone, it is estimated that European companies imported around 1,400,000 pieces of Indian cotton fabrics. The exceptionally sheer and delicate muslin fabric known as jamdani was the variety which was most difficult for Europeans to replicate. Jamdani is an-ultra-fine muslin fabric which has been embellished with cotton yarns, introduced as weft threads during the weaving process, forming a white-on-white pattern. In the caste-conscious culture of India, it was the Muslim men who wove jamdani muslin, and the Hindu men who wove plain muslin.


As fine and beautiful as the hand-woven Indian cotton muslin was, the cottage industry system which ruled the production of the fabric in Dacca could not compete with the developing machinery emerging out of England at the close of the eighteenth-century. In 1779, the spinning mule was invented by Samuel Crompton, which revolutionized yarn making. The spinning mule could generate yarn that was both smooth and fine, and could be produced at a much faster rate than by hand. By 1800, English cotton mills featured steam-powered spinning mules and steam-powered looms which out-classed and out-produced weaving centers in Dacca, India. By the dawn of the nineteenth-century, the age of the machine and the Industrial Revolution had come into its own. While the Industrial Revolution began in England around 1780, it was in the year 1800 that a steady advance in efficiency and technology occurred. Machines and technology that produced textiles made up 43% of productivity advancements, which points to the importance of textiles as both utility, luxury and commodity.


 Truly, it was the sound of the steam engine’s pistons, cogs and wheels that signaled the end of the millennia-old muslin weaving tradition in Dacca, India. Around 1790, machines in England were producing most of the cotton textiles that were sought after in the commercial market, which spelled a declining demand for the Indian made muslin. While the exotic beauty and functionality of Indian cotton muslin had captivated the desire and imaginations of western Europe, beginning in the seventeenth-century, the ethereal hand-woven fabric was inevitably left behind in the annals of history as time marched forward, into the age of machines.
























Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015.



Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014.



Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.”



Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009.



Crill, Rosemary. Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia. Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016.



Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012.



Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999.



Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.



Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.



McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.



Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010.



Riello, Giorgio. “When Cotton was Banned: Indian Cotton Textiles in Early Modern England.” Fifteen Eighty Four. Cambridge University Press, 2013.



Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.


Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818.

[1] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.

[2] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966. 1.

[3] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.


[4] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[5] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 119.

[6] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[7] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[11] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[12] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[13] Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818. 93.

[14] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[15] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR. Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[16] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 126.

[17] Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.”

[18] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

[21] McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

[22] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[23] Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010. 11.

[24] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 124.

[25] Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

[26] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. 2.

[27] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 13.

[28] Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009. 122.


Les Daoboliques: Synergistic Celluloid


There are a plethora of articles, essays and books devoted to uncovering the devices which make Henri-Georges Clouzot’s film, Les Diaboliques, the model of suspense-thriller perfection. But, I cannot determine that it is any one thing which makes Clouzot’s masterpiece run like clockwork. Rather, it is the collective result of expertly fused elements which wind the viewer’s mind up to the point of breaking under the slight hand of suspense. Yes, it is true that there are many effective and entertaining thriller movies which have been made after the release of Les Diaboliques in 1955. However, there are very few films which can stand up to Clouzot’s tight construction; the sort of celluloid architecture which will ensure that his films remain intact and relevant for years to come.


The Merrium Webster Dictionary definition of synergy is, “the interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.” If I were to apply this principle of synergy to the film, LesDiaboliques, then I would first have to pick out each individual component of the movie to understand why it is so powerful in its entirety. The original story, characters, setting, understanding of human psychology, application of pairs of opposites and use of symbolism are superbly manipulated by the director, Clouzot, resulting in a nonpareil story of intrigue and murder.


The original story, Celle qui n’etait plus, was written by the French crime-novel writing team, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcajac. Clouzot–  who supposedly purchased the rights to the novel just hours before Hitchcock– worked with three other writers to arrive at the sordid screenplay for Les Diaboliques. The Boileau and Narcajac novel, which Clouzot worked from, involves a despicable man whose wife and mistress plot to murder him. So far the story on paper and the story on the screen match up. It is not until the conclusion of the narrative that marked differences separate the novel and the film. In Celle qui n’atait  plus, it is revealed that the two women are secretly lesbian lovers and, there is no punishment dealt nor moral guilt suffered for the murder which they have committed. The story ends with the two women getting away with “the perfect crime.” To the audience, the finale of the Boileau and Narcajac narrative is delivered like a neatly wrapped present, tied up with a bow; the lecherous character is snuffed out and two people in love are able to be together.

The film version of the story offers no such pretty packaging. In the finale, Clouzot executes a double twist ending, as skilfully as a professional ice skater might pull off a double axle jump. But unlike an Olympic figure skater, Clouzot does not let the spectator down easily. The character the audience is naturally sympathizing with ends up the murder victim, the friend that we’re rooting for turns out to be a traitor, and the sadistic bully that we were so happy to see drowned gets up and walks away from the scene of the crime. The edge is never fully taken off the audience’s conscience which, in effect, leaves a viewer speculative, slightly uneasy and biting his or her nails.

After the word fin appeared on the last movie frame, I had speculations of my own. What exactly was Simone Signoret’s character, Nicole, gaining by helping Michel kill his wife? Has Cristina transformed the film from a factual crime drama to a fantastic ghost story with her post-mortem interaction with a student?  Why did Clouzot choose to alter the ending?


To begin with the mystery of Nicole’s collusion with Michel, it helps to reverse the chronology of events. True, the two characters embraced at the end of the film and claimed that they could finally be together, but it didn’t seem to me that Michel was very charming in the beginning of the film. Not only was it implicated that he physically abused Nicole, but he mentally abused her through humiliation; rubbing his relationship with his wife in her face. Michel’s character was so repulsive that the original story’s resolution, where the two women get rid of their abuser and run away together, seems more plausible and just more….well…. fun! Furthermore, the gooey words that Nicole uttered to the guy who had most recently given her a black eye made my head spin in disbelief. After Cristina has been killed off, Nicole speaks to Michel in a nurturing tone, “My poor darling, you are all wet!…Here, get changed quickly…How you must have suffered! This time I was the one who was afraid.”


 Nicole hardly seems like the type of woman who would put up with abuse and appeared to have enough gumption and self-esteem to stand up to people. But, just as in real life, a person’s actions are not always rational. After watching a few of Clouzot’s films one starts to get the notion that his characters are like case studies in a Human Psychology textbook, only with better clothes and sharper dialogue. Since Clouzot was obviously fascinated with human nature, perhaps it was a statement on the ability for some people to go back to their abuser again and again and find comfort in their violation because that is what they know. But, given Clouzot’s constant portrayals of seedy, wanton characters, it is more likely that he chose to showcase the ugliness and unpredictability of the human soul.


 Aside from pulling a 180 degree turn-around on his character’s persona, Clouzot throws the audience off, yet again, by leaving little bread crumbs of clues that Nicole and Christina’s could be romantically involved. In two separate scenes it is implied that Nicole and Christina are sharing the same bed, and there was a particularly suggestive moment when Nicole comes up from behind Cristina, puts her hands on Cristina’s arms and holds her firm, in a manner of reassurance. This is a posture between two characters which a viewer can see time and time again on film, but it is typically the physical arrangement of two lovers. Nicole and Cristina’s mutual humiliation and abuse creates a natural bond between them, and it makes logical sense that they would find refuge in one another when they shared the malevolent hand of Michel. It may be that the subtle, yet evocative, signs that Nicole and Cristina are paramours is merely a device employed to lead the audience down the wrong path, or perhaps it was Clouzot’s way of paying homage to the Boileau and Narcajac original story. Either way, Clouzot creates a mysterious depth to his seemingly objectified characters.


To address the question of whether or not Cristina continued her legacy at the private boy’s school as a scholastically inclined poltergeist, I am going to look at the back and forth volley between the rational and the supernatural forces that Clouzot presented on screen. The disappearance of Michel’s body, the reappearance of his Prince of Wales suit, his post-murder appearance in class pictures and the sound of his footsteps in the last climactic scene suggest two different culprits.  Are these puzzling events the work of a blackmailer seeking revenge against Cristina and Nicole, or just Michel exercising his inherent duty as a meddling ghost in his afterlife? These two hypothesis are represented by the lead women in the film.

The audience can choose to follow the reasoning of Nicole: the science teacher and the rational voice, or Cristina: the ardent Catholic and the superstitious. Since neither rationale can be proven reliable until the end of the film, the viewer is forced to mentally engage with the story from beginning to end. The sequential uncertainty in the narrative gives the movie terrific momentum, and to inspire an audience’s thoughtfulness long after the film has ended, Clouzot plants one more seed of doubt in the mind of the spectator.


During the last few minutes of Les Diaboliques the story appears to be wrapped up; Michel and Nicole’s scheme has been uncovered, Cristina’s dead body has been taken away and the Delasalle school is closing down. However, the hapless student, Moinet, is seen breaking another window with the sling shot that had earlier been confiscated by Michel.  When one of the teachers asks the boy how he came into possession of the sling shot once again, Moinet answers, “Mme. Delasalle…she opened the door gave me back the slingshot.” The boy goes on to claim, “She said, ‘This is for you, Moinet. Have fun.’”

The teacher, certain of Moinet’s self-induced hallucinations, answers, ”You know that she’s dead and her body has been taken away today.” Where after, Moinet attempts once more to defend his claim, “She’s not dead. She came back.” Moinet pouts. Despite Moinet’s mischievous nature, his account of Michel’s appearance at the school earlier inthe film proved accurate, so it would be logical to believe the boy’s latest allegation.  Just when the audience is content to believe that the film is a crime-thriller, Clouzot points to the fantastic, thus throwing the viewer off balance and disturbing the inertia of the ending. “The genre is defined as the moment of hesitation between the supernatural and the uncanny. It is that moment which spans the gap between rational explanation and the irrational one: it is an ephemeral bridge which disrupts the flow of the test and suspends the reader’s/spectator’s imagination in mid-air.” (Hottell, p. 255)

The juxtaposition of the fantastical and the factual is just one example of Clouzot’s treatment of pairs of opposites in the film; a method which enabled him to create tension on the screen. Whether it was good and evil or scientific and supernatural forces which were in conflict, the constant back and forth pull between these opposites created uneasiness, anxiety and is the perfect recipe for suspense. Nicole and Cristina represent one of the boldest examples of paired off opposites in the film. Clouzot essentially traps these two opposing personalities in a movie frame and lets their variance in nature create interest and contrast both visually and conceptually.

If you were to break down the appearance of both Nicole and Christina, it is easy to see that their clothes and their manner further cement the archetype which they represent; the feminine and the masculine. The contours of Cristina’s clothing are delicate and girlish. She wears her hair in long braids like a young school girl, while projecting fragility and vulnerability in her manner. She prays and lights candles of devotion to the icons in her bedroom, putting her hopes and intentions in the hands of ethereal beings. Cristina embodies the classical idea of femininity. Nicole, on the other hand, dons angular clothing and a short, cropped hair-do. Her speech is dry and abrupt and her posture is rigid. The way that she tosses her cigarettes aside indicates that she is not to be trifled with. She doesn’t rely on the favor of God to get what she wants. Rather, she takes her fate into her own hands and assumes a masculine aggression.


There is a fantastic scene which exhibits the masculine and the feminine assigned roles of Nicole and Cristina quite brilliantly. The two women are hatching a plan to kill Michel by the swimming pool, and if one froze the film and looked at the frame where the two women are side by side, one would be amazed by Clouzot’s mastery of composition. Like a pre-raphealite painting, everything you need to know about these two characters can be understood by the symbolism, colors and layout which exists in the arrangement. Here you see the women perfectly divided, in the scene, by the pool slide pole which stands between them. On the left hand side Christina is wrapped in a soft, white shawl and on the right hand side Nicole is wearing a severely tailored cardigan and a black dress, thus cementing the idea of the masculine and the feminine. Furthermore, Christina faces the camera with her innocent, doe-like eyes wide open and Nicole angles her body away from the camera with her heavy sunglasses shrouding her eyes. In that single composition, the astute viewer may determine that Christina is open in her demeanor, while Nicole hides her intentions and is not so easily lead. This was, at least, what Clouzot wanted the audience to think about his characters. Obviously, by the end of the film, our understanding of each character is flipped on its head, for it was Cristina who had the most resolve. And Nicole, for all of her show of swagger, was pliable and weak.


Clouzot’s exaggerated characters might appear to be over-simplified versions of a stereotype, but the plastic appearance of Michel the masochist, or Cristina the meek is more like the disguise used in a masquerade.  The audience becomes invested in the identity of each character, which allows for a viewer to anticipate the character’s next move, based on his or her understanding of human nature. From childhood on we are taught by faerie tales and fables to interpret a person’s essentia based on their looks, their actions and their speech. Thus, we form our opinion of each character as soon as they step onto the screen and hold onto that first impression for the remainder of the film.

However, Clouzot was notproducing a faerie tale. He was not interested in instilling valuable lessons in his audience, nor was he concerned with morals and ethics. To thrill and simply entertain the audience, Clouzot made us believe in his characters and then, at the end of the film, had each one take off their mask and reveal their true identity. The sweet tempered princess was really capable of murder, the pushy step-sister was really a romantic woman in love, and the evil prince was able to kill off the most sympathetic person in the story.


This is hardly a faerie tale ending where good and evil are clearly defined, and justice is served to the wicked. Clouzot touched on the true lesson which should be taught about human beings; that people are multi-dimensional and one never knows their capabilities or their hearts until they are tested.  “It may be tempting to think of Clouzot as a belated Friederich Nietzsche, looking back sardonically on the intellectual and moral pretentions of the nineteenth century.” (Moon, p.268)

I find Clouzot’s deviation from classical forms of narrative refreshing. By our twenty-first century standards of books and film, we are quite used to shocker endings and amoral heroes and heroines, but in 1955, when Les Diaboliques was filmed, nothing like it had ever been seen before. The French film even achieved popularity with American audiences, which was a first for a foreign film to take the box office by storm. Clouzot’s film could be held responsible for America’s first real awareness that there were fantastic movies waiting for them outside of Hollywood. Les Diabolique was like a beacon of light for international film; an eerie and ghoulish light. Despite the film’s popularity with average theater goers, the new wave French film snobs considered Clouzot’s work to be dated and old, or “cinema de papa.” However, it is ironic to consider that the experimental films, so praised by the nouvelle vague during the 1950’s and 1960’s, retain more of a dated feel to the twenty first-century viewer than does Clouzot’s classic. An avant- garde film from 1955 can easily be recognized as the product of a certain film movement, but Les  Diaboliques plays out in a timeless manner. The focus of the film is never on a time period. The viewer is instead enraptured by the unpolished and fallible figures which sully the screen, and swept away on a wave of mystery.


Of course, were it not for the estimable actors and seemly set, the mesmerizing rhythm of the story would not work. Simone Signoret sheds her blonde-bombshell skin to reveal a tough vixen. Her speech is an interesting combination of languor and venom; reminding me of a sleepy snake that might bite if you get too close. The way she dangles cigarettes on her lips she could be mistaken for a truck-driver, but Signoret’s underlying sexiness reminds the audience why the character Michel might kill to be with her. Vera Clouzot (wife of Henri-Georges Clouzot) was not a seasoned actor like her co-stars, but her inexperience on the screen enhanced the timidity and nervousness in her movements and the vulnerability in her voice. The fact that Vera was not a confident movie star with a burgeoning ego meant that her character, Cristina, came off as genuine.


The sets themselves take on a character of their own. Whether it is the dingy school where the walls appear to be creeping in on you, or Nicole’s impossibly cluttered home in Niort, each setting conveys a feeling of oppressive decay. In the case of Cristina’s room, the heavy wooden walls and her corner of devotion, complete with icons and candles, causes one to imagine they are smelling incents in a Catholic cloister. Water features are especially important to the scenery of Les Diaboliques since they symbolize both stagnation and purification. Shots of a murky swimming pool remind the viewer that scum is teeming in the water as well as in the Delessalle private school. Later, running water in a sink is used to wash away the evidence of drugged whiskey, and water symbolizes purification for Cristina. Most memorably, water is brimming over the sides of a tub which contain a dead body, and water is used to signify that the characters drowning in their sins.


The way that Clouzot melds both the characters and the set together is quite genius. For example, in the opening scene where we first meet Nicole outside of her classroom door, our eye is lead to her by a group of teachers coming forward from the background. In the foreground, a train of students leads a path of action around Nicole and right in between the stationary teachers. Clouzot encourages the viewer’s eye to explore every depth of celluloid, with glimmers of life in the foreground, middle-ground and background. It is almost like watching fish in a fishbowl, but instead of peering into a round bowl, you get to spy into a rectangular film frame.

Perhaps most important to the synergistic break-down of Les Diaboliques is the creator and manipulator of all of the components which make up the film. It is Clouzot’s arrangement of the set and characters and dialogue which makes the movie outstanding. If the characters, details in a scene and dialogue were to appear out of order, then their impact would be marginal. Clouzot had the reputation of a difficult director to work with, and was even capable of cruelty on the set, but the end result of the behind-the-camera tyranny was beautiful.

It was reported that Clouzot had stamped on Brigitte Bardot’s foot during the filming of La Verite  (1960) to encourage her tears during a particularly emotional scene. When physical abuse did not elicit the temper that he wanted on camera, Clouzot next tried the route of emotionally abusing Bardot to get the results he desired. Clouzot had taken Bardot aside and confided in her that “people had a low opinion of her” and that “her life was a mess.” After her demoralizing experience, Bardot was able to put on a great show of tears for the camera and her performance garnered her a round of applause. “Such stories, which became legendary in the film industry, earned Clouzot the label of a sadist. But, as he would wryly observe, when his collaborators were praised for their contributions to his films, he was quickly forgiven.”  (Thompson, p.)  It is difficult to condone Clouzot’s methods, but it is even more difficult to deny him of his achievements.


During the filming of Les Diabolique, it was rumored that Clouzot actually served rotten fish to the actors in the scene where the teachers and students are having lunch. In this case, their reactions of revulsion were real. Michel’s, and subsequently Clouzot’s, order for Cristina to swallow the rancid fish is even more painful to watch if you consider that not everything seen on the screen is acting. To sum up the festering state of the entire movie, Nicole pipes in, “Disgusting. Some things are hard to swallow and I’m not talking about the fish.”

If an actor’s performance was not to Clouzot’s liking, he would make them re-do the scene over and over again until he was satisfied. Because of Clouzot’s zeal for perfection, the filming for Les  Diabolique went well over the eight weeks scheduled, reaching a total of sixteen weeks. This was problematic for Simone Signoret because she was supposed to be rehearsing for the stage version of The  Crucible and Clouzot refused to rearrange the shoot schedule for her. Stuck in a contract to finish the film, and bound to rehearsals for a play, Signoret got very little sleep the last few weeks of the filming of Les  Diaboliques.  When the shoot was finally wrapped up, former friends, Signoret and Clouzot, were no longer on speaking terms. “I knew that I was getting myself into a hell of a time,” Signoret said, “But I had no idea it was going to be as wretched as sixteen weeks.” (Ferrara, TCM)

Aside from governing the actors on the set, Clouzot would ensure that his vision for the film layout was fully realized by drawing out elaborate storyboards, much like his rival, Hitchcock. Clouzot’s grasp of converting a narrative from text to a visual feast for the imagination was profound, and he felt that the best way to convey, or more likely control, his artistic understanding was to lay out a sort of blueprint for the movie. One would imagine that Clouzot had a foundation in architecture, but in his early adult hood he actually first sought to join the Navy (but his ill-health had him disqualified), and later pursued a career law, followed by a short stint in politics. Finally, he tapped into the world of movies in 1931, working as a script writer for film producer Alphonse Osso.  But before Clouzot’s career in film could take off, he hit a speed bump, so to speak.

Stricken with a tuberculosis related illness, Clouzot spent four years confined to a Sanitarium. This might have appeared like a terrible set back, but his invalid state afforded Clouzot the opportunity to pour over mountains of books; French literature, crime thrillers and dramas. By the time he recovered and resumed his screen writing career in 1938, he was the best read screen writer in Europe. Clouzot’s ability to recognize a film worthy story and his talent for transforming words into to images was largely due to his years of being bound to his bed with nothing but a book for a friend.


In 1942, Clouzot met his chance to make a full-length film. However, his debut as a director was to cause him grief years later. His film, L’asassin Habite au 21, was shot during the German occupation of France during WWII, and the Continental Film Company, which he worked for, was under German control. After the war ended, his association with the German film industry resulted in his being banned from making films for two years. Critics claimed that Clouzot was a German collaborator, but really Clouzot was apolitical, just as his ethics were amoral. Clouzot did not take sides in the war. Rather, he found opportunities from both friend and foe to follow his passion for thrilling audiences.  On his making of the film Le Diaboliques Clouzot remarked,“ I sought only to amuse myself and the little child who sleeps in all our hearts- The child who hides our head under the bed covers and begs, ‘daddy, daddy, frighten me.’” (Stafford, TCM)  Clouzot never sought to instruct, nor make friends on the set, and he certainly had no motive to impress the politically correct. His only purpose was to make a damn good film, and to that end I believe he succeeded.












Works Cited:


French Film guide. “Les Diabolique” (1955)


Ebert, Roger. “Diabolique” Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot.

Sun-TimesNews Group. February 17, 1995


Ferrara, Greg. “Diabolique” (1955)  Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot


Hottell, Ruth A. “The Diabolic Dialogic: Les Diaboliques by H.G. Clouzot”

Literature Film Quarterly 1996, Vol. 24, Issue 3


Moon, Perry. “Une Peinture Morale: Intertextuality in Clouzot’s LesDiaboliques”

The Trustees of the Columbia University

The Romantic Review, volume 103. January 1, 2012.


Stafford, Jeff. “Diabolique” (1955) Review of Diabolique, dir. Clouzot


Thompson, David. “The Devil od Detail”

Sight and Sound 00374806, volume 19, issue 12. December 2009