Earlier this year, Ryan Murphy premiered his last TV series, Feud, where he discusses and portrays the popular heated rivalry between Hollywood’s Golden Era biggest stars: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. This feud was exacerbated when the two actresses were invited to work together in the now classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Throughout the series, we learn how both women, who had been symbols of beauty and sex appeal, were then seen as old women holding on to past glories. This sentiment kindled a heated competition in which both wanted to demonstrate the looks weren’t the most important thing. They wanted to prove the audience that their glory was based on talent rather than beauty. What the series does great is to not only focus on the well-known rivalry, but also on how this was encouraged by the director of the film and the company behind it in order to engage the audience.
Rivalries like this have been happening for centuries. What has made them so popular because, just as it happened with Crawford and Davis, is that people love the drama. Regardless of whether or not the competition and feud is real, our interest and the rumors built around them exaggerate the stories and turn them into legends. One of these particular cases is the one that allegedly existed between María Luisa, the Queen consort married to King Charles IV of Spain, and Cayetana de Silva, the 13th Duchess of Alba, during the late eighteenth century. Together, they were the most important and powerful women of the realm. In fact, it’s said that both were considered the most influential women of the time, since both their husbands weren’t really apt for their political roles.
To make the story vaguer and vain, history has claimed that the rivalry was born out of a competition in terms of fashion and trends. Even worse, some even assure that this was just a matter of jealousy and a bloody fight to win the attentions and love of Manuel Godoy, a very important politician and aristocrat who was said to maintain affairs with both women, being the Queen the one who ultimately won his affection. Legend has it, their conflict was so intense that the Queen actually ordered Godoy to poison the Duchess.
As it happens with these stories, the trivialization is what survives the passing of time, and naturally, the most common stories around the Duchess of Alba are based on her wild and eccentric life, her many lovers (according to these versions she had a particular taste for bullfighters and commoners; although the gossip also includes famous painter Francisco de Goya, who painted her on several occasions), and the fashion rivalry with the Queen. The story goes so far that it’s even said that, once she found out what the Queen was going to wear at a public event, she dressed her maids with the same design only to ridicule the sovereign. This was the scandal that apparently signed her death sentence.
Now, some parts of the story have naturally proven to be right, and one of these things is the sassiness and personality of the Duchess. The difference, however, is the focus it’s been given, making her just a spoiled woman with absolute disregard for others. Now, as for the fashion episode, there’s no evidence that this is true, and the suspicions about her death have been proven wrong. The Duchess’ body was exhumed twice, once in 1842 to move her to the family graveyard, and in 1945, when she was subdued to an autopsy that revealed she had died from meningitis.
Still, her fashion sense is something very important when it comes to the persona she built, but not for the causes that have made her famous. In one of the portraits Goya made of her, we can see her with a sassy attitude wearing a Maja attire. The Majas were lower class women in Madrid who behaved in a freer way compared to the rest of the population of the time. Their style, both in terms of personality and fashion, was provocative. So the fact that the Duchess wore this style was a huge scandal. Now, unlike what it’s commonly known and said, she didn’t wear this attire only as a sense of rebelliousness. Her intentions were more politically motivated than we’d like to think.
Let’s remember that this was the time of the Enlightenment and of revolutions. Spain, being neighbor of France, was highly influenced by this country, in terms of thinking and political ideals. One of the best ways to avoid, in a way, the dangerous revolutionary ideas from the French Revolution was by promoting a deep and strong sense of nationalism. Yes, the Duchess was a very fashionable woman who always set trends in court. But she knew that one of the best ways to gain the affection of the people, and unite both the aristocracy and the commoners, was by worshiping the latter’s lifestyle. In that way, her Maja attire became a sensation among the court and the realm. It’s also said that she used to disguise as a commoner and visit the town during the nights to have fun like a normal person. That proximity allowed her to understand better what the people thought and needed.
During her life, she was a member of the Women’s council, an association that looked for ways to improve the nation. Unlike what many think, in this time, women weren’t as submissive, and they took part in the decisions for the betterment of their country. Thus, more than being just the spoiled aristocrat history has turned her into, she was a strong and intelligent woman who knew how to use her position to her advantage. She promoted nationalism, something that’s still quite strong in today’s Spain, but more importantly, female freedom.
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All the paintings were made by Francisco de Goya.