Style Icons: The Women of the Wild Bunch
21/12/2011 § Leave a comment
Image via Tomboy Style.
Because I had a number of flights over the last couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite films. One of them yielded a bit of style inspiration in a roundabout manner and it has been on my mind for days now. The film? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Robert Redford as Sundance, Paul Newman as Butch. If you haven’t yet seen the film, I highly recommend you make the time — it’s even on iTunes, in fact. Loosely based on true events, the film follows real-life turn of the century bank and train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, members of the Wild Bunch and the Hole in the Wall Gang, through a series of heists and concurrent efforts to outrun the law. Katharine Ross plays Etta Place, a woman who was companion to the Sundance Kid and traveled with both men across the country and to South America. There are only two known pictures of the real Etta Place — in fact, it’s actually not even clear that Etta Place was her real name — and she vanished without a trace around 1909. Quite the mystery.
At its heart, the film is about the relationship between Butch and Sundance and the chemistry between Newman and Redford is spot on. But I couldn’t help but be drawn to Etta Place, the school teacher who somehow became enmeshed with two of the most prolific thieves in history. My favorite scenes are when Etta dresses a bit boyishly, but truth be told, she spends most of the film in very proper and very ladylike attire, usually complete with hats and gloves. (Sidenote: The costumes in this film are a.MAY.zing.)
Image via The Selvedge Yard
A bit of further research led to an unexpected discovery. While the film version of the Wild Bunch was men-only (with the tangential exception of Etta), there were in fact, a few female members of the gang. Most notorious among these women, was Laura Bullion, “The Rose of the Wild Bunch.”
Far be it from me to glorify any real-life criminals, but I was taken aback by Laura’s mugshot and the scatty details of her life. Born in 1876 to an outlaw father, she is linked romantically to Ben Kilpatrick, also a member of the Wild Bunch. Her crimes tended toward robbery, prostitution, and forgery, for which she ended up spending almost 4 years in jail around the turn of the century. After serving her time, she eventually moved to Memphis, where she posed as a war widow under assumed names and oddly domesticated herself, becoming a seamstress, drapery maker and interior decorator. She died in 1961, the last living member of the Wild Bunch and last person to have actually known Etta Place.
The 1901 mugshot is arresting. It’s almost like she dares you to look away. Her gaze is all hardness and resolve. For a woman at that time to choose such an unconventional lifestyle, one can only guess what her life must have been like, growing up surrounded by criminals. Also, can we please note the bow tie?!
Interestingly, as I researched more female outlaws, I came to notice how frequently their sexual activities and partners were mentioned — distinctly different from the characterizations of their male outlaw counterparts — and how the accounts that were made at the time have a distinct impact on the accounts that are written today. It is interesting to note that these women were frequently made out to be sexual deviants, loose women, and/or prostitutes — defined by that all too-familiar double-standard. Not only did they break the laws of the land, but since they shirked sexual mores with abandon, society made it clear they were outsiders. Perhaps even more so than male outlaws.
From Laura and Etta, I’m taking a sense of rebellion and adventure.
But I will leave it to them to break the laws.