Stage-Inspired Fashion: The Convent of Pleasure

Fashion from the fiercest Early Modern playwright.
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Fashion from the fiercest Early Modern playwright.

From the costumes to the set, from the words of the script to the movements of the actors, everything on stage tells a story. Stage-Inspired Fashion adds a little drama to everyday style.

The Convent of Pleasure

If you’ve never taken an Early Modern literature class, let me introduce you to the formidable Margaret Cavendish.

Behind the Scenes

Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, lived from 1623-1673. She was an extremely prolific writer, producing speeches, essays, poetry, letters, dialogues, prose, and plays and often focusing on the topics of science, philosophy, gender, and power

Although many female writers in this time period published anonymously, Cavendish used her real name. She wrote one of the earliest science fiction books, a utopian romance called The Blazing World, and paved the way for Mary Shelley to really bring science fiction to life.

The Convent of Pleasure, published in a collection of Cavendish’s plays in 1668, is a closet drama: a drama meant to be read in private rather than performed in public. The play focuses on Lady Happy, a woman who does not want her life to depend on men. Rather than become someone’s wife or courtesan, she secludes herself and any single women who wish to join her in a “convent of pleasure.” In this unconventional convent, they plan to do nothing but enjoy themselves.

Lady Happy falls in love with a princess who joins the convent, and she questions her sexuality. She decides to pursue a relationship with the princess (and they spend quite a few scenes dressing up in different costumes and reciting verses to each other), but a representative from the princess’ court appears and reveals her to be, in fact, a prince. Lady Happy marries the prince in the end, but the sense that they don't conform to traditional gender roles remains.

I have created three outfits based on The Convent of Pleasure using the themes of extravagance and elegance. Keep reading to see them all!

Lady Happy

Can Lovers love too much?
Yes, if they love not well.

Lady Happy

Products: Top, Skirt, Kimono, Flats, Nose Stud

For a luxurious look inspired by Lady Happy, mix textures and patterns by combining this pink ribbed crop top with a white tulle skirt and flowing kimono. The floral pattern references the pastoral scene in which Lady Happy dresses as a shepherdess and the Princess dresses as a shepherd, and the pink and red are the traditional colors of love and passion. Lace-up D’Orsay flats lend some structure to the outfit, and a rose-gold nose stud provides a classic symbol of femininity: the moon.

The Princess

Then well may I quit a Court of troubles for a Convent of Pleasure: but the greatest pleasure I could receive, were to have your Friendship.

The Princess

Products: Top, Pants, Loafers, Necklace, Watch

The Princess’s femininity or masculinity is never the subject of a joke. Although she dresses in masculine clothing, the women of the convent accept her and her sense of style.

For a modern menswear-inspired look, half-tuck a drop-shoulder tee into chic satin pants. Accessorize with loafers and a simple but elegant Leonard & Church watch. For the finishing touch, add a delicate floral necklace—the blue and green tones allude to the scene in which Lady Happy dresses as a Sea-Goddess and the Princess dresses as Neptune.

Margaret Cavendish

I dare not beg Applause, our Poetess then
Will be enrag'd, and kill me with her Pen;
For she is careless, and is void of fear;
If you dislike her Play she doth not care.

Margaret Cavendish

Products: Dress, Jacket, Heels, Patch

I’m breaking with tradition here and adding an outfit for the playwright. Be as bold as Margaret Cavendish in a fit-and-flare dress that certainly looks like a blazing world. (It’s a little expensive, but it sure makes a statement—and it has pockets!) Add matching royal blue pumps and a white bomber jacket, and sew on a handmade patch that says “pizza rolls not gender roles.”

Epilogue

As an English major, I’ve read a lot of fascinating Early Modern literature, but Margaret Cavendish has produced some of my favorite work from the period. If there’s one idea we can take away from her huge body of work, it’s to find out what you’re interested in and run with it.

Your Thoughts?

Have you read Margaret Cavendish's work before? Who are your favorite female playwrights? Are there any plays or musicals you would love to see covered in this column? Let us know what you think in the comments below!