Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile. Cleopatra: Egypt’s last great pharaoh. Cleopatra: feminist icon of the ancient world, or hedonistic harlot who ended an empire? Synonymous with pyramids, temples, hieroglyphs, and a lot of gold jewelry, every cliché associated with Ancient Egypt has found its place in the myth of Cleopatra. In reality, the woman herself lived two thousand years after the last pyramid was built. And, as a Ptolemaic Greek with both political and romantic attachments to Rome, Cleopatra most probably dressed not in the black wigs and gold headdresses we associate with her filmic depictions, but in the Greco-Roman style of the period.
Yet herein lies the magic of Cleopatra. The political maneuvers of her life are well documented, but the woman herself remains something of a mystery, thus making her an ideal blank screen on which to project whatever we want her to be. From Shakespeare’s tragic heroine to Elizabeth Taylor’s decadent diva, every era has its “own” Cleopatra–and in her we find the societal concerns and aesthetic ideas of its zeitgeist. In this talk, costume and cultural historian Amanda Hallay discusses varying interpretations of the ancient world’s most glamorized ruler, and how she would become history’s distorted mirror upon which to reflect its own image.