SNARK WEEK: All the Historical Costume Bitches

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In some ways, this post is a deviation from our usual Snark Week content! Usually we spend this time ripping apart shitty costumes and craptastic productions, but because “Bitchy Is Our Brand” (especially for Snark Week), I started thinking about all the historical costume movie and TV show bitches — who are usually the best part of any production. Why? Because they’re entertaining, say the things we’re all thinking, and as we all know:

Bitches Get Things Done Saturday Night Live

So, let’s give a shout-out to some of my favorite bitches from historical costume movies and TV shows. Note: these may not be your favorites, it’s my arbitrary list! Arbitrary, because I’m a bitch! All you bitches can bitch about me forgetting your favorite bitches in the comments.

 

Bitchy Moms/Mothers-in-Law

My first category of historical costume bitches are the mothers (and mothers-in-law). There’s nary a film out there where our beloved heroine isn’t battling a bitchy older lady who is trying to foil her attempts to nab her true wuv (whether from true bitchiness or just misguided ideas about maternal affection). The best of them also get to make the zinger comments, but nonetheless, having a bitchy mother or mother-in-law is a standard (and entertaining) trope in historical films.

Although my watching of Reign has been limited to about three episodes (three hours of my life I will never get back), “Queen Catherine” (mother-in-law to “Mary Queen of Scots”) springs to mind as a perfect example of the bitchy, scheming mother-in-law who is the prime villain against which our heroine must struggle:

2013- Reign

Okay so she’s usually wearing WTF, but then so is everyone else. This is Reign, after all.

Part of her bitchiness is political…

And some is just inherent!

Most films about royals have a bitchy mother/-in-law to deal with. So far Victoria‘s Duchess of Kent is more annoying than evil, but The Young Victoria went with a “hell to the no” version of Queen Vickie’s mom:

The Young Victoria (2009)

Miranda Richardson as the Duchess of Kent in The Young Victoria. The better dressed the mom, the bitchier.

In keeping with the idea of “the better dressed the mom, the bitchier she is,” Wives and DaughtersHyacinth is possibly the world’s best dressed/most annoying mother/step-mother. Of course, part of her problem is that she’s just obtuse and self-involved — she actually thinks she’s helping her daughter and step-daughter when she’s a core part of their life problems:

Wives & Daughters (1999)

Hyacinth (upper right): with hair like that, you KNOW she’s a mega-bitch.

Maybe the best example of all is Ruth Dewitt Bukater (Frances Fisher), mother of Rose (Kate Winslet) in Titanic. Nearly all of Rose’s problems come from the fact that she has a cash-poor, snobby, selfish mother who wants to stifle Rose’s free nature and marry her off to the richest asshole possible. Again, you just KNOW she’s bitchy because she’s still young enough to be pretty AND she’s well dressed:

Titanic (1997)

Elegant, cold, and red-headed. EEK.

Titanic (1997)

Always dressed to the nines!

Not a fan of her daughter.

 

Special Side Note: Bitchy Grandmothers

I realized I needed to add a sub-category here just to shout-out to the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) on Downton Abbey. She’s not really in the same role as the difficult mothers above — she actually is quite helpful to the “heroines” (Mary, Edith, Sybil) of the show. But she’s snarky as all get out, and we love her, so I thought she needed a category of her own:

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

She disapproves.

Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey

She’s gorgeously dressed.

Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

But she can put you down in a heartbeat.

Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

Usually for good reason.

Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

She’s the snobbiest of the snobs.

Downton Abbey (2010–2015)

But all she’s doing is telling it like it is!

 

Bitchy Romans

Full credit must be given to Loren of The Costumer’s Closet, who coined the term “Bitchy Roman Loungewear” to describe the fabulous, probably-having-nothing-to-do-with-actual-historical-clothing worn by the catfight-y ladies of shlocky classical period TV shows like Spartacus and Rome. She’s right — these are some serious bitches who spend their time scheming; shtupping generals, slaves, and gladiators; and often killing off their enemies — all while looking Hot as Fuck.

I actually watched 1-2 seasons of Spartacus because it was such ridiculously campy fun and there were a lot of hot guys running around shirtless and oiled up. I don’t really remember most of the bitches specifically, other than that they were bitchy:

Spartacus (2010-11)

I’m pretty sure she was catty.

Spartacus (2010-11)

I have vague memories of snark.

But I definitely remember Lucy Lawless as Lucretia, the best dressed, sluttiest, and just plain bitchiest of them all:

Spartacus (2010-11)

I’m pretty sure this outfit has NOTHING to do with actual Roman history.

Spartacus (2010-11)

But damn if Lawless doesn’t look good!

And she’s SO over your pathetic attempts to out-bitch her.

HBO’s Rome was similarly filled with bitches (as well as hotties like Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy). Some of them just gave bitchface and shagged a lot:

Rome (2005-07)

Like Livia, who got Octavian to have angry sex with her.

I’m not sure if Cleopatra counts as bitchy, but since we’ve entered The Patriarchy with our most recent election, the fact that she was a strong, independent, smart woman probably counts against her:

Rome (2005-07)

Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra, gorgeous and smart as all fuck.

But the main bitchfight was between Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan), somewhat older and colder:

Rome (2005-07)

She looks potentially sweet.

Rome (2005-07)

Don’t buy it for a hot second.

But nobody can beat Atia of the Julii. Played by Polly Walker and with dialogue written by geniuses, Atia is hot, smart, self-interested, political, schemey, and completely non-maternal to her children. Also, she has lots of sex with Marc Antony (James Purefoy), which, yassssss.

Rome (2005-07)

She’s totally judging you.

Rome (2005-07)

Really cares about your feelings.

Rome (2005-07)

She’s very concerned about her children.

Rome (2005-07)

Handles all mother-ing situations with aplomb.

Rome (2005-07)

Understands about The Female Gaze and The Matriarchy.

Rome (2005-07)

Keeps uppity youngsters in their place.

Rome (2005-07)

ALWAYS WINS.

 

Bitchy Anti-Heroines

Most historical movies and TV shows feature a sweet, likable heroine (who is hopefully feisty, but that’s another post). However, some of the more interesting productions have at their center someone who makes you feel a bit more conflicted. Do you like them? Not really, not in a “let’s hang out!” sort of way. But they’re usually smart, and have shitty options open to them, so they have to look out for number one and mow down the fuckers in their way. Let’s give it up for the anti-heroines!

In Queen Margot, Isabelle Adjani plays Marguerite de Valois. She begins as the bitchiest bitch ever to her new husband, plus she lords it over all the courtiers. However, over time we learn that she has very limited options — forced marriage, massacre in her name without her knowledge — and she does what she can to mitigate the horrors of the situation.

Queen Margot

Eventually you understand and sympathize with Queen Margot, but only after you realize how limited her options are.

Queen Margot (1994)

Because at first, she’s all bitchface and snark.

The Wicked Lady embraces the whole idea of the anti-heroine. Other than a faaaaabulous wardrobe, there isn’t much to redeem Faye Dunaway’s character — Lady Barbara — except that she’s so damn entertaining. In the end, she Gets Hers, which is kind of cool but also kind of sucks.

The Wicked Lady (1983)

I can’t IMAGINE wanting to be anywhere near Lady Barbara of the aptly-titled The Wicked Lady.

The Wicked Lady (1983)

But you have to admit watching her plot, scheme, and sneer is pretty darn entertaining… and those dresses! Swoon!

There are a lot of megabitches in classic historical fiction, particularly in 19th-century fiction, like Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations:

Great Expectations (1999)

She was well played by Justine Waddell in the 1999 version

Great Expectations (2013)

But I preferred Holliday Grainger’s 2012 interpretation, probably because of the hair!

And the bitchface. Always the bitchface.

Vanity Fair‘s Becky Sharp is probably the first prototypical anti-heroine. She’s mean, self-involved, shallow, schemey, and pretty unredeemable.

Becky Sharp (1935)

Here she’s played in 1935 by Miriam Hopkins.

Vanity Fair (2004)

But my favorite version is Reese Witherspoon in the 2004 version. Yes, they toned down some of Becky’s self-serving-ness, but I think it simply made the character more real and more understandable. Plus, great hair and James Purefoy.

Katharine Hepburn‘s Eleanor of Aquitaine might have one of the best series of zingers of all the bitches in all of historical film in The Lion in Winter. She would fit into the “mother” category, except she’s the lead character. And you are very firmly Team Eleanor right from the get-go, no need to understand the complexities of her life — she’s surrounded by assholes and idiots (aka family)!

A Lion in Winter

You and me both, Elly.

The Lion in Winter (1968)

Leave the big ideas to mummy.

Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda is infuriating, but she’s another who is stuck between a rock (her poverty) and a hard place (her abusive husband).

Daniel Deronda (2002)

You can’t help rooting for someone who wears such stunning bustle gowns!

Then you’ve got Kate (Helena Bonham Carter) from The Wings of the Dove. Okay so yes, she’s calculating and willing to sacrifice a lot of other people’s happiness for her own, but it’s for security and true love, so isn’t that okay?

Plus, HATS.

And moving into the mid-20th century, let us not forget that Queen of Bitches and Bitchface, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) of Gone With the Wind. She’s selfish. She’s immature. She’s mercenary. But she’s also faaaaabulous!

QUEEN OF BITCHFACE

So good at using her wiles!

Tantrums galore!

Heading back into the 18th century, the Marquise de Merteuil is SUCH a bitch in Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons.

Valmont (1989)

In Valmont, Annette Bening plays her as giggly and fun, which actually makes her less redeeming.

Valmont (1989)

Why so mean to the nice girls, marquise?

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

But Glenn Close‘s colder version actually enables you to understand her better.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Ain’t NO man gonna be in charge of the marquise, bitches.

Everything between the sexes is “war,” and for good reason.

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

And she will cheerfully cut a waif to get what she wants.

Of the fiction written today, however, it’s All Lady Mary (of Downton Abbey), All the Time. Sometimes you (and Edith) hate her, but then she goes and snarks something so snarkable, or has a tender moment with one of her gents, and wears something stunning, and you’re all “Dawwwww Mary, why can’t I quit you?”

Such a sweet bride!

downton abbey season 5 costumes

Strong and independent!

I went to find gifs of Mary doing bitchface, and I literally found GAZILLIONS. It was too hard to cut them all, so please to enjoy:

“Ugh.”

“FFS.”

“Not AGAIN.”

Seriously, Edith!

“Well THAT was special!”

 

Jane Austen’s Bitches

But really, NO ONE tops Jane Austen‘s bitches. I seriously think Jane herself must have been a megabitch, because MAN could she write them. They’re rich, frosty, schemey, and they put you down with a flick of their pinky finger.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Like Miss Grey from Sense and Sensibility (2008), whose only job is to sneer at you.

Persuasion (1995)

Elizabeth Elliot (left), sister to heroine Anne of Persuasion (1995), whose only concern is her family’s money and status.

Mansfield Park (1999)

Mary Crawford from Mansfield Park (1999), who wants to steal your man AND make you feel small and mousy while she does it.

Kate Beckinsale in Love & Friendship (2016)

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) in Love & Friendship (2016), whose only thought is for #1.

Love & Friendship (2016)

Who masks all her bitchiness behind a calm and cool exterior.

Love & Friendship (2016)

And who is TOTALLY judging you.

Sense and Sensibility (2008)

Fanny Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility (2008) feels perfectly serene about talking her husband down from giving you a large financial settlement to an occasional side of beef.

But the two Best Bitches of All Time come from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. First you’ve got Caroline Bingley, who thinks the richest and hottest hunk is her’s while sneering at your “country fashions,” embarrassing relatives, and (comparative) lack of money and position:

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Kelly Reilly did a decent sneer in the 2005 version.

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

She certainly got the snobby bit right!

And she KNOWS she’s superior.

Lost in Austen (2008)

However I much prefer Christina Cole’s performance in Lost in Austen (2008) — “frosty knickers,” as Amanda calls her.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

But NO ONE can or ever should try to top Anna Chancellor (left) as Caroline in the 1995 version. Armed with her trusty sister/sidekick Mrs. Hurst, she sneers…

Pride and Prejudice 1995 Bingley sisters

She sniggers at you…

Pride and Prejudice (1995), Bingley sisters

She revels in snarking you…

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

At literally every costume event Sarah and I attend, we have a moment where we look at each other and say, “Do take a turn about the room with me, it’s SO REFRESHING!!”

And then we have Queen of All Bitches Henceforth and Forevermore, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She’s got a title, see, plus money, plus “breeding,” and a house with a lot of windows, and she’s spent her life having people bow and scrape to her the way she likes it. You come along all pert and cute and young and she’s having none of it.

Becoming Jane (2007)

Maggie Smith took on a Lady Catherine-inspired character in Becoming Jane (2007)…

Pride & Prejudice (2005)

Judi Dench gave her a whirl in the 2005 pig fiesta…

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015)

Lena Headey gave us a young and badass version in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015)…

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015)

Don’t F with Lady Catherine.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015)

SO over you all and your inferior breeding.

Lost in Austen (2008)

But my faves are Lindsay Duncan in Lost in Austen (2008), who was cold AND elegant as fuck…

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

And, of course, the ultimate: Barbara Leigh-Hunt in the 1995 version.

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

She is having NONE OF YOU.

 

Who are your favorite historical costume movie/TV bitches? Let’s give them a bitchy shout-out in the comments!

 

 

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

39 Responses

    • Melponeme_k

      I think Forman wanted to fluff it up because it is an extremely dreary morality tale. But it just comes across as a bunch of flighty people who take a joke too far. When really they were a bunch a holes, who enjoyed being a holes and messing with perfectly reasonable people for no reason at all.

      Reply
  1. Stephani

    THIS IS WHY I LOVE YOU ALL SO HARD!
    And thank you for the special shout out to my girl Jane Austen. By most of my reading, she definitely was a mega-bitch, with a heart of gold!

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      Thank god you paid tribute to Anna Chancellor. She’s my favorite historical-comedy-drama bitch of all time.

      Reply
  2. Trystan L. Bass

    Moll Flanders as played by Alex Kingston! She starts out kinda sweet, but not really, bec. you know she’s a bitch & the *bam* she becomes so very bad, so very bitchy! LOVE that version :)

    Reply
  3. janette

    Livia as played by Sian Phillips in the BBC I Claudius is unbeatable. Lady Marchmain from the original TV series of Brideshead Revisited deserves and honourary mention. I don’t think Emma Thompson was so convincing in the film perhaps just because I like Emma too much to “buy” her being a super bitchy Mum.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola

    I didn’t see Rome so I have no opinion of these b*****, but I’m with you on the others. Especially Downton Abbey’s Lady Violet (love the pithy comments) and Lady Mary, I, Claudius’ Livia, and the Austen ones. Especially Anna Chancellor, Reese, Barbara Leigh-Hunt and Queen Cersei, oops, Lena Headey.
    But I also would include Sian’s Reverend Mother in Dune (1984) and Betty Davis as Margo Channing in ‘All About Eve’.

    Reply
  5. Karen K.

    So many bitches to love — how can I possibly choose? Jane Austen’s are top of my list, naturally.

    Reply
  6. MoHub

    Where is Livia (Sian Phillips) in I, Claudius? A mother and grandmother who does not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in her way. She is for me the empress of them all.

    Reply
  7. Charity

    Best bitchin’ post on the internet.

    I love many of these bitches, but my absolute favorite from this list is Catherine de Medici. She’s the ONLY reason I keep watching (and bitching about) the crap-fest that is REIGN. There are literally entire videos on YouTube just full of her insults, one-liners, zingers, and general bitchiness that I watch on occasion, just to glory in the pure snark.

    Ahh, something to aspire to.

    Reply
    • themodernmantuamaker

      It is for her that I tried to watch Reign. But even with Megan Followes’ sublime bitchiness I just couldn’t. Which makes me sad, I wish I could keep watching it for her!

      Reply
  8. Emily (@hearmesnark)

    As much as I adore the well-costumed bitches (and I DO), one of my favorites will always be Eva Green as Morgan le Fay in Camelot. The show was genuinely terrible (and the costuming somehow was even worse) but I still watched every episode so I could see her plotting in bathtubs and then swanning about in some ridiculous Renfest wear. Like Charity above and Catherine de Medici, she made the experience worth it, and it’s a shame that I didn’t get the chance to see her achieve proper victory.

    Reply
  9. Andrew.

    I would nominate the character of Countess Mahaut d’Artois as portrayed in the twice filmed French mini-series, Les Rois Maudits, (The Accursed Kings). She was played by Helene Duc in the 1972 version, and by Jeanne Moreau in the 2005. Like Livia in I Claudius, not a woman to get on the wrong side of.

    Reply
  10. Mr Elton

    Excellent post! Movie bitches, I mean ladies, can sure be scary yet alluring. (Almost sympathise with the Frank Kennedys and the John Dashwoods…)

    Reply
  11. janette

    Just because I soo want to see the wonderful costume fest, The Pallisers, (BBC 1972) reviewed here I will add Lady Laura Standish played by Anna Massey who was also a wonderfully sinister Mrs Danvers in the Joanna David version of Rebecca.

    Reply
  12. Becca

    I love this post! I took an Austen course in undergrad and my class took to exclaiming “Dang, Jane!” and “Tell us how you really feel, Jane!” at all her bitchiest authorial asides.

    Reply
  13. Adam Lid

    A shout out for Jessica Lange in Cousin Bette! She’s slow to get going but when she goes into high gear, she takes them all down at once. :-)

    Atia in Rome was definitely a lethal bitch- don’t cross that one. :-)

    Reply
  14. Ros

    Love this post and totally agree Anna Chancellor is a snark queen. Have you seen the original Wicked Lady film from 1945 with Margaret Lockwood? She is just irredeemably awful and wears the most ridiculous though rather pretty costumes. Also it has James Mason in it as a highwayman who is just a total hottie!

    Reply
  15. ladylavinia1932

    Your mention of Vivian Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara reminded me of Bette Davis’ Julie Marsden in “JEZEBEL”. Naturally, both actresses won Oscars. I realize that you’re not a fan of the ABC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, but I had to add Terri Garber as South Carolina belle, Ashton Main.

    And there is, of course, Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in “SINGIN IN THE RAIN”.

    Reply
  16. kt

    Have to endorse the vote for Livia from I Claudius – look forward to your review of that. I have a soft spot for Edna May Oliver’s Lady Catherine from the old movie of Pride & Prejudice – although they completely fudged the ending – she was great fun earlier in the movie.

    Reply

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