Lindsay Swapp

A Charming Prince, Drama, and Fashion!

What more could a girl want?

In my recent study of Cinderella I found many articles and analysis of the story. Some focused on the psychological aspects of Cinderella as a mistreated stepchild. Other articles focused on what they identified as the misogynistic theme of a dashing prince once again saving a damsel in distress. Even more articles presented the idea that Cinderella was a distressed and desperate housewife mistreated by the Prince. In Charles Perrault’s Histoires, ou contes du temps passé (the Mother Goose Tales) published in 1697 we see a very different vision of the Cinderella figure. Cinderella, the titular character, is actually the heroine in a struggle of jealous women oppressing one another to gain power. The prince charming, whom she meets at the ball, is merely the prize for which all the women are fighting.  These jealous women fighting use fashion and charms to demonstrate their power and persuade in the presence of the King and Prince. Into this mix, Perrault presents a capable, socially adept, and charming Cinderella who is able to break free of those who oppress her and find the place in society that she was destined for.

The Prince

Unlike the story the contemporary image above tells, in Perrault’s version it is not the Prince who saves the poor peasant girl Cinderella from her lamentable state. First, Cinderella brings plenty to the table. If she is a threat to her stepmother, it is because, according to the first description in the story, she descends from a “gentil homme,” a man of noble heritage and possesses the sweetness and goodness of her mother. In short, she can be considered an excellent candidate for marriage to a prince. In fact, Cinderella also knew she had to appear to be someone of great importance before meeting the prince in order to present herself as a viable marriage choice for him. . If she had continued to look like a peasant, her beauty (although it shone through) would mean nothing, and she would have had no chance of marrying out of her oppression. She knows all of this and acts accordingly. As further proof of her station, it is her estate—again, a noble home—that receives an invitation to the ball, and her stepsisters get to go because they live there. Cinderella’s stepsisters joke that she should come along, knowing that she had nothing suitable to wear to the ball, which again reminds us that she could come, had she something suitable to wear. This scene will be revisited in the next section, but it is important to note that Cinderella’s oppression by her step-mother is in direct correlation with the fact that she is a much more desirable candidate for marriage than her stepsisters. And that’s long before she meets the fairy!

Cinderella’s beauty is not the only thing people notice about her when she first arrives at the ball. Perrault sends a message in the way he describes her reception by focusing on the King’s reaction: “The King himself, as old as he was, could not stop himself from watching her, and in a low voice told the queen that it had been a long time since he had seen anyone as beautiful or as amiable” (160). (“Le Roi même, tout vieux qu’il était ne laissait pas de la regarder, et de dire tout bas à la Reine, qu’il y a avait longtemps qu’il n’avait vu une si belle et si amiable personne.”) It is important to note here that Cinderella is not only beautiful but a very socially adept woman, capable of charming all those around her.  The prince couldn’t help but be charmed by her, offered her a place to sit, and dances with her. Although he appears in the grammar to be the actor in the sentence, all of these gestures are in reaction to her. Perrault notes further that, “A delicious and full brunch was brought out before them, in which the Prince did not eat anything, as he was too occupied considering and watching her” (161). (“On apporta une fort belle collation, dont le jeune Prince ne mangea point, tant il était occupé à la considérer.”) In all of his actions it is the Prince who reacts to Cinderella. She is the one that draws all the attention. It is notable, too, that she does this effortlessly as it is part of her character thanks to her upbringing. She is both beautiful inside and out which leaves the prince, as well as all the other nobles, in a completely mesmerized state. Cinderella seems to come and go as she pleases. It is Cinderella that tells the prince she must leave at midnight, and does so, even though he wished her to stay. She is clearly the director of the action.

It is also interesting to note that it is Cinderella who holds the key to her identity.  She leaves behind a glass slipper at the ball unintentionally, but it is not an accident that she still has one of the two glass slippers with her. The slippers were a gift to her from her Fairy godmother, and were not magically made, thus they did not change at midnight. The prince who is pining over Cinderella and her disappearance sends out a decree that he will marry the woman that fits the shoe. He sends his servants out to find this woman, using only the shoe to identify her because that’s all he has. To verify the ownership, the servant must try the shoe on every eligible woman in the country—that’s a lot of hard work, which may explain why the mesmerized and miserable prince does not do it himself.  Furthermore, Cinderella neglects to go to the prince, although she has all the evidence she needs. She holds herself back once, again becoming the director of the plot. It is not until the servant comes to her household that she decides to reveal to her family and the prince that she is the “Princess”. But even in this scene, she is tactful and cagey. As the servant tries the shoes on her sisters Cinderella watching them, and seeing her shoe, laughed, saying “What if it fit me?” (164). (“Cendrillon, qui les regardait et qui reconnut sa pantoufle, dit en riant, que je vois si elle ne me serait pas bonne.”) In a mocking tone, Cinderella taunts her sisters with the idea that she could actually be the princess. It is not until the servant tries the shoe on Cinderella and we see that the shoe actually fits that “Cinderella pulled from her pocket the other small slipper” (164). (“Cendrillon tira de sa poche l’autre petite pantoufle.”) Because the prince is absent from this scene, she proves first to her sisters and stepmother, not to him, that she is the true princess. This detail goes to show that the principle struggle in this story is among women in which the Prince is the reward for true domination. Cinderella marries the prince, but the Prince all in all, has very little place in the story, and no place saving her.

Girl Fight

 

As mentioned above, this story is principally about four women and the power struggle that ensues as their families are joined together. Although there are four women in the story there is a fifth woman mentioned in the beginning of the story that helps us differentiate the women by degree along a spectrum of feminine identities.  We hear first about the stepmother. Perrault describes her as a “the most haughty and proud woman on could ever see” (155). (“la plus hautaine et la plus fière qu’on eut jamais vu.”) It is interesting that we are first given the image of the most horrible woman in the world. It is followed immediately by the image of her two daughters, who are just like her “in all ways.” Later in the story Perrault explains a little more about the two stepsisters. They are not both completely evil, in fact, the youngest sister is kinder to Cinderella, which we discover because she coins the name we know: Everyone in the household [the eldest sister and the stepmother] called her Cinderass, while the younger sister who wasn’t as malicious as her elder sister called her Cinderella” (156). (“On l’appelait…Cucendron, […] La Sœur Cadette qui n’était pas si malhonnête que son ainée, l’appelait Cendrillon.”) The term “Cucendron” literally refers Cinderella sitting or putting her “ass” in the ashes. The kinder term “Cinderella” makes mention of the ashes, or cinders, but doesn’t mock her with a lewd reference to her derrière and ashes sticking to it. We could describe the younger sister, elder sister, and stepmother as fair, worse, and worst on a scale of cruelty.

If Cinderella’s stepmother and sisters are on one side, Cinderella and her mother are on the other side, Cinderella could be described as very good, and her mother as best. Perrault describes the two in very similar terms, noting that the mother exceeds the norm: “a young woman, of a softness and goodness without compare, she got that from her mother, who was the best person in the world” (155). (“une jeune fille, mais d’une douceur et d’une bonté sans exemple, elle tenait cela de sa Mère, qui était la meilleure personne du monde.”) Aside from the fact that Cinderella’s father had an apparent attraction to superlatives as he married not only the best woman in the world but also the worst, Perrault clues us in to the different degrees of goodness or evil that these five women represent.

This story primarily becomes a struggle between the four women that are still living. As mentioned above, the Stepmother saw Cinderella as a threat to her own daughters: “She [the stepmother] could not bear the good qualities of the young child, which rendered her own daughters more and more disliked in comparison” (156). (“ Elle ne put souffrir les bonnes qualités de cette jeune enfant, qui rendaient ses filles encore plus haïssables.”) The stepmother purposely puts Cinderella in the life of servitude to hide her beauty and good qualities with the purpose of elevating her own daughters.  The war begins between these women, and how is it fought? With Clothes!

Clothes: A girl’s gotta have ‘em!

 

Cinderella uses fashion and her personality to show everyone at the ball who is the true princess. Cinderella’s good nature can’t help but come through as she enters the ball.  We all know that person who can show up wearing anything and it suddenly becomes fashion. Celebrities will wear something to an event and the next day everyone wants accessories and clothes just like them. The story of Cinderella could have launched that trend. Perrault gives a description of what each of the sisters wear to the ball. Each of the sisters tells Cinderella what she will wear to the ball:

I, says the eldest, will wear red velvet with English ruffles. (Moi, dit l’ainée, me mettrai mon habit de velours rouge et ma garniture d’Angleterre).

And me, says the youngest, I don’t have anything but my regular skirt, but to make it better I will wear my jacket adorned with golden flowers, and my circlet of diamonds. (Moi, dit la cadette je n’aurai que ma jupe ordinaire; mais en récompense, je mettrai mon manteaux à fleurs d’or, et ma barrière de diamants. (157)

The two happily go off to the ball in their outfits, but find themselves suddenly out of style when Cinderella arrives at the ball.  Her clothes magically come into being: rags “changed into a dress of gold and silver garnished with precious stones” (159). (“changez en des habits d’or et d’argent tout chamarrez de pierreries. Elle lui donna ensuite une parie de pantoufles de verre, les plus jolies du monde.”)

When Cinderella arrives at the ball, her beautiful nature and clothing crown her princess. Instantly everyone else is behind the fashion—the women at the ball all wonder where they can have the dress made. It is through her fashion and personality that Cinderella is able to prove to the world that she is the true princess. And her appearance helps us read the earlier descriptions of the sisters differently, as well. The younger sister was not as fashionable as her eldest sister in the beginning, but her clothes end up more similar to Cinderella’s dress than her sister’s. Both the nicer daughter and Cinderella are both wearing gold and precious stones. Thus Cinderella’s fashion standard elevates the younger sister above her elder sister in fashion sense. Cinderella who has the best personality of the three is most in fashion, while the middle sister finds herself in the middling fashion. The eldest sister who is the meanest and has the worst personality finds herself the most out of style of the three.

Cinderella endures the oppression of her own sex, not the opposite sex, in direct proportion to the inferiority complex of her stepmother. Accordingly, Cinderella’s defining moment, being crowned as the mysterious princess, is all done in front of her own family, and not the prince. Although we often think of her as a pathetic character waiting for the day her prince will come, Perrault’s version of Cinderella is principally the story of women fighting for domination—and the clever girl wins!

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