I’ve been thinking lately about how much our first introduction to something shapes our attitudes towards and perceptions of it. Case in point: the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ which is the theme for this fortnight’s HSF challenge.
Lauren at Wearing History just posted about her historical costuming likes and dislikes (remember my post from three years ago about my historical costuming likes and dislikes (no? What! You mean you don’t have every.single.one of my posts memorised? What is wrong with you!), which, incidentally was inspired by a WH post), and her #1 dislike is being called a ‘Pretty Pretty Princess’. She describes the historical costuming community as being two camps: Historical Accuracy and Pretty Pretty Princesses. My response to this was: “Wait, what?”
My first introduction to the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ was through Kendra of Demode posting about the Eugenie Project – a highly research and historically accurate based attempt to recreate Winterhalter’s painting of the Empress Eugenie with her ladies in waiting. It never occurred to me that it was shorthand for costume froth.
I’ve always liked dressing up, but I’ve never been hugely princess obsessed (I may have exaggerated wanting to be a princess at 7 rather a bit in my Pretty Pretty Princesses description for literary impact). Remember the week Princess Di died? For me, that was the week Mother Theresa died. Later I was the annoying snot who insisted on telling my friends with Prince William posters how awful being a princess would be in great detail, illustrated with horrifying examples from my Infamous Queens paper doll collection (dear Mum & Dad who let me have a paper doll of a queen who was notable for chopping off her rivals hands and feet and pickling them, thank you. I think.).
What I do like about princesses is the scope for research in the life of a princess. Let’s face it, history hasn’t been great about documenting women, and the ones who were documented were more often than not royalty. We can usually extrapolate a fair amount about the life of an ordinary woman of any era, but to really connect, it helps to put a face and a personality to an era. The more details you have about one life, the more you can feel you know them as a person.
Princesses also evoke, for me, a bit of pathos: in a big way most historical princesses had the worst hand in life. To the men of their time they were merely pawns, their worth boiled down to their family links and their ability to have children. A common woman had a much better chance of spending her life with someone she liked. Princesses may have had the least choices in some ways, but they also had more opportunity than most women to influence the world, both in personal and incidental ways. Personally, they might be able to found charities, help the poor, possibly even change policies. Incidentally, just their marriage and the new things they brought from their birth country to their marriage might change fashions, customs and history. All of this makes them fascinating subjects for research, and while I am not precisely a historical accuracy fiend, I’m definitely not a ‘just about the looks’ girl. I guess the most accurate description of me would be to say I am a historical understanding fiend, focused on research, and thus, I like princesses.
I use the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ in a rather tongue in cheek fashion. Someone asked in the HSF group if “the point of this challenge is to go for luxe fabrics and princessy fabrics” and my response was “Not necessarily – the point of all of these challenges is to inspire research, and creativity. I’d be thrilled if you researched one of the poorer princesses, and were inspired by her wardrobe.” And that’s really it. A ‘Pretty Pretty Princess’ isn’t the one in the frilliest frock, or the one who was necessarily ‘pretty’. She’s the one with an interesting story, the one with the pretty personality.
With that said, here is a quick tour of my five favourite princesses (/queen, empress, arch-duchess, or a de-facto queen):
Emma is closest and dearest to me because she’s part of my heritage. Emma grew up in mid-19th century Hawaii, another Hawaiian noblewoman torn between old Hawaii and the new Missionaries. Her divide was literal: Emma was of both Hawaiian and English descent, which became an issue when she married King Liholiho. Emma was beloved as a Queen: devoted to the people, and noted for her charitable work: she founded a hospital (still in existance), and a number of schools and churches.
Sadly Emma lost her young son and Liholiho within a year of each other, and the death of the king also left Hawaii in crisis, as he had not appointed a successor. With no heir, an election was held to choose a new ruler: Emma ran against Kalākaua (he that built ‘Iolani Palace), and while she won the popular vote by a landslide, the Legislative Assembly got to cast the actual vote, and they elected her rival. Kalākaua was great fun, but evidence suggests Emma was the stronger person, and the stronger leader. She had wanted to return power to the native Hawaiians, and limit the influence of the Americans in the islands. I often wonder what would have happened to Hawaii had she been elected. Would she have been wise and strong enough to have kept the islands independent, or would her attempts to return Hawaiian lands and rights to the natives of Hawaii only have precipitated an earlier coup?
I won’t write a lot about her because I already have. She had spunk and personality, she overcame enormous obstacles (she was deaf and suffered from mental illnesses) in life, and she was willing to risk her own life to help others. Fun to hang out with + eminently admirable = my kind of woman.
While she did things which I don’t condone, I still admire Marie on a number of levels. First, though her marriage was terribly unhappy, she didn’t let this interfere with her feelings for her adopted-country-by-marriage, Romania. She was far more of a Romanian and far more of an advocate for the people of Romania than her Romanian husband. I admire the way she looked at being a princess as a job, and while she didn’t pick her status, or her husband, she was going to do her job, and her job was to represent her country, and do her best for them. Between World War I & II she fostered traditional Romanian arts, during during WWII, like Princess Alice, she risked herself to help others, and proved herself a clever strategist and leader. Finally, at the end of her life, she became a Baha’i, which obviously endears her to me.
This Polish Princess created one of the most liberal and intellectual courts in 18th century Europe, which is pretty awesome in itself, but she really has my heart for founding a museum. It was a very 18th century royal museum: private and rather silly, but it still helped to foster the idea of preserving culture, and expanding understanding.
5) Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony, Daupine of France
My admiration for Maria Josepha began with this story. I can’t imagine how tricky her life must have been: married at 15 to a husband still openly grieving for his first wife, with a mother-in-law predisposed in every way to hate her (the replacement for your beloved daughter-in-law is chosen by your husband’s mistress, and she’s the granddaughter of your worst enemy?), and a court just salivating at the thought of discord and scandal? And yet, through tact, kindness, and wisdom she managed to woo her husband, become friends with her mother -in-law, while staying friends with the mistress-in-law, winning over her father-in-law and resolving a feud between him and her husband. Plus she providing a much-needed, if all-too-slight, example of restraint at a court overrun with decadence, all without making any enemies. Her own daughter-in-law, who she did not live to meet, faced a similarly fraught situation when she married Marie Josepha’s son, but alas, Marie Antoinette lacked her mother-in-law’s talents. Would history had been any different had she had them?