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Ophelia in Fashion

The drowning of Ophelia, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, has found its way into pictorial art since the 19th Century. John William Waterhouse, the late-Victorian painter whose birth year coincided with the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and whose paintings went on to resemble their style, was so preoccupied by the figure that she featured in no fewer than five of his paintings between 1889 and 1910. The Romantic associations of love, mental instability and suicide are all embodied in Shakespeare’s character and her figure continues to elicit an emotional reaction from viewers. It is no surprise then that the fashion industry has employed the character in numerous ways, with photographs exploring both the vulnerability and independence of the female through Ophelia.

Taken from the play itself, depictions of Ophelia’s death have tended to focus on her soaked dress and the foliage surrounding the pond. Each of the photographs displayed have, in their own way, focused on an aspect of Shakespeare’s description in translating the dramatic character to the photographer’s lens:

There is a willow grows askant the brookThat shows his hoary leaves in the grassy stream.

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the grassy stream.

This first photograph gives us the most Pre-Raphaelitesque depiction of Ophelia: she is shown lying on her back, arms proffered in willing embrace to an absence lover. The black dress and dark waters are in sharp juxtaposition to the pallid skin of her face and limbs; a mirroring of the white lilies that graces the banks. The two blocks of shrubbery have the affect of channeling the sight down towards the bottom third of the photograph; the oppressive weight of nature crushes the woman down into her watery grave.

Of crowflowers, nettles, daises and long purples, That liberal shepherds give a grosser name.

Of crowflowers, nettles, daises and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name.

This second photograph presents us with an eroticized view of the drowning scene; the innuendo of the Shakespearean passage (‘liberal shepherdes give a grosser name’) translating into a nude Ophelia where the Renaissance pun on petit mort is implied if not shown. This is encapsulated in the flowers that float on the waters surface, suggesting life where the scene itself heralds death. The red of the lips and nipple forms a visual line that is balanced by the corresponding line formed between the two pairs of flowers. This gives the photograph a poised balance that suggests serenity. Unlike the darkness of the previous image, this photograph is light both chromatically and emotionally; Ophelia finds a moment of peace in the chaos of her ending life. Although the tensed muscles in her neck indicate the difficulty of doing so.

Her clothes spread wideAnd mermaid-like awhile they bore her up.

Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up.

This third photograph focuses on Ophelia’s dress and its preservative ambiguities. Indeed, whilst initially it is the dress that bears Ophelia above the water – suspending her above the water’s embrace – it later acts as the means of death; the soaked garments dragging her under. Just as Ophelia is suspended over the water, we too, as viewer, are caught above the action: a moment of stasis before the water sucks Ophelia down into the photograph itself. This liminal moment in the life of the character is perfectly expressed through the gradience of lighting in the image: the dappled effect of the sun’s reflection on the left of the photograph fades slowly to black as we work our way to the right. The light performs the transition that the character must traverse.

Too much of water hast thou, poor OpheliaAnd therefore I forbid my tears.

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia
And therefore I forbid my tears.

This final image has a haunting quality to it that is captured in none of the previous photographs. The immediacy of the face in its closeness forces the eye to oscillate between the seduction of the lips and the despondency of the eyes. The skin’s pallour is highlighted through its contrast with the dark hair and black eye liner, and shows a woman who is either dead already or on the cusp of passing. The close-up on the face creates a sense of claustrophobia, with the leaves and flowers ready to take the place of Ophelia’s head as it dips beneath the surface. The water creeps in at the corner of her mouth in the seconds that remain before she is fully submerged.

W. J. Humphries

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