Rakish in Feminine Form

By Jo Phillips

One of history’s most underrated (and hilarious) stories is that of Julie d’Aubigny. A famous figure in late 17th century Paris, this lady made her impact through scandal. Not only was she an acclaimed opera singer but she was also a fierce swordsman.  A master duelist, d’Aubigny seems to be a perfect hybrid between charming entertainment and fearsome swordsmanship. Her stage name ‘Mademoiselle Maupin de l’Opera’ turned her into a popular subject for gossip but she was certainly not a women to be trifled with. Rumours suggest that, after learning of a group of women harassed by a man, she physically confronted him in a brawl. Other scandals include the delightful story of her publicly kissing another woman, illegally duelling (and beating) the men upset at this act and then promptly fleeing to Belgium in exile. Below is a depiction of her by fellow rake Aubrey Beardsley.


Whilst generally associated with men, the ‘term’ rakish can be extended to any figure who exudes charm, glamour and a roguish edge to inspire scandal. Consider the rake as a woman; beautiful, mysterious and possibly dangerous. Different from the devilish femme fatale, this spin on the archetype can be subtly sexy with enough humour, charm or coolness to set her apart. Here is a small list of more recent examples whom have followed d’Aubigny’s footsteps.

The 20th Century allowed for broader possibilities when women were concerned. Josephine Baker was an icon of the Art Deco period who dazzled Europe with her erotic dancing and jazz singing. Her charm and beauty made her a key asset to Allied forces in WW2 when she was utilised as a socialite-spy and provided vital information from the parties she attended. During the 1950s, she was a vocal supporter of the Civil Rights Movement despite being based in France. Her glamorous reputation earned her expensive offers from American nightclubs; her refusal to perform for segregated audiences helped pave the way for racial integration.

Katherine Hepburn was another rakish woman to find fame in entertainment. Famous for her anti-conformist nature, Hepburn was unapologetically herself in a time which pushed actresses to sexualise themselves in order to achieve stardom. Her casual style and signature trousers set her apart from the Jayne Mansfields of Hollywood. Fiercely independent and private, the vigour with which she protected her personal life was perhaps just as scandalous as had she been relaxed about the gossip. Her brash charm, outspoken attitude and opposition to celebrity culture thus makes her one of Hollywood’s greats.

Singer-songwriter Françoise Hardy provides a contrasting interpretation of what rakish could mean. Famous for her impact in the 1970s , Hardy remains popular for her melancholic music, quiet beauty and shy personality. Her reserved nature contrasting with her tumultuous relationship with rock’ n roll bad boy Jacques Dutronc makes her a mysterious addition to this list. Aside from her music, Hardy is otherwise known for her sleek, effortless fashion and remains to some as an important 20th Century style icon.

In a previous article, we touched upon the fact that rakes are not criminals. However, we cannot help but feel slightly impressed by a woman called Stephanie Saint-Clair. This early 20th-Century mob boss was an active figure in Harlem’s criminal underground, earning the nickname ‘Queenie’ for her involvement in the numbers game. Her illegal work in policy banking and investment allowed members of the black community to better handle their finances as, during the time, they were turned away by legitimate banks. Until her death in the 1960s, she would be continuously known as an advocate for African-American rights.tmm15005-533x400_webassets_claire

The modern woman of today can therefore draw upon a bounty of influence to inspire rakish attitude. The New Garconne: How to Be a Modern Gentlewoman by Navaz Batliwalla explores style and personality. This visually rich book is a staple piece for any woman interested in fashion to have in her living room. Purchase the book here.


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