Posthumous Agency and the Language of Contemporary Film

We have been looking at and thinking about portraits of Elizabeth the I of England and Frida Kahlo. Both women, although born almost 400 years apart, in different countries and different cultures, to different classes of society, used clothing to craft their public image. In both cases the paintings were created while they were living, but neither painting is completely true to life. They controlled how their contemporaries viewed them and how they thought of them by wearing specific clothing that would communicate specific meanings understood by the people who inhabited their society. They also used the medium of painting to control their image – these works are full of agency. The subjects controlled the clothing, the style of the painting, the scale of the work, and their likeness. We see them as they wanted to be seen.

We have been trying to understand what they wanted us to see, their messages, by looking at the works, and reading about the clothing and how it would have been understood at the time. But what happens when we create a portrait of a well known person after they are dead? Who has the agency? Whose intentions and meanings are on display? How are they using clothing to tell us something about the subject? And even if they are replicating clothing we see in portraits – does it carry the same message to our generation of humans? What is the contemporary frame of reference in looking at a historical figure?

Watch of ONE of these films – portraits of these historical women – made many years after their death – into a world where clothing is worn and understood differently. What is the director trying to say with hair, adornment, and costume in these films made to be understood by a modern day audience (most of us who have not dressed up in Elizabethean finery!)? Rarely are historical dramas completely historically accurate, but then again, neither were the portraits the women painted (or had painted) of themselves. What can costumes tell us about how the director understands the character and about what they want to tell us?

Make you own interpretations and write them down.

Then look for interviews with the costume designer and director of the films in which they talk about the costumes.

Do their intentions and your understanding align? Where did they falter? What did they do well? Why did they feel these historical figures were important to discuss (through image and motion) with a contemporary audience?

Leave thoughts below. (Include a link to any interviews you read with your comments.)

(All of these films are available to rent through various streaming services.* Frida is also available through Netflix.)

Elizabeth (1998)

Elizabeth the Golden Age (2007)

(The Golden Age depicts the later part of Elizabeth’s life, like the Rainbow Portrait, but the first film made a greater cultural impact when it was released. Feel free to pick either one.)

Frida (2002)
Note the date on this film – it was made BEFORE her wardrobe was uncovered.
So the director/designer would have been working from images – paintings/photos/home-made films.