Priscilla Presley and the Coquette Conundrum

Image Credit: Renee_Olmsted_Photography via Pixabay

Niamh Reade considers the internet’s obsession with all things coquette, particularly following the release of Sofia Coppolla’s ‘Priscilla’, centred around the fashion icon Priscilla Presley.

Sitting here writing this article, pink bow intact, winged eyeliner applied, clad in a pair of Zara ballet pumps, I think it's a pretty fair assumption to make that I, too, am partial to the coquette culture sweeping your feed.

Coquette, the French phrase coined for a flirtatious young woman, first gained momentum on 2012 Tumblr as Lana Del Rey’s album Born To Die became the epitome of girlhood. Coquette is an umbrella term for numerous different sugar-coated trends (Babydoll, Coquette Academia, Winter Fairy Coquette, Farm Coquette, etc), all focusing on hyper-femininity and teenage girlhood - at times accompanied by a darker subtext of Ethel Cain and significant age gaps. Qualifications for the trend include an appreciation for “White Mustang” (extra points if you own the vinyl version), have read or plan to read Lolita and an appreciation for ribbons in various shades of pastel. The internet is resurrecting the French phase following the release of the dark backstory that inspired the soundtrack of the 2002 classic Lilo and Stitch: Sofia Coppola's Priscilla.

To begin, no, Lana Del Rey did not invent the winged liner-beehive combo. That honour, which is long overdue, can be credited to the iconic Priscilla Presley and her fashion mentor/ singer husband. Usually, I would implore a person to refrain from taking fashion advice from a man who owns numerous pairs of polyester jumpsuits accompanied by matching capes, but alas, as Sofia Coppola portrays, a fourteen-year-old Priscilla locked in the fortress of Graceland didn't have much of a say. Hence, her iconic black bouffant, winged liner accompanied by classic 60s mod dresses and a vacant expression was born. While the look became her signature, it was a style never truly her own, cultivated to appeal purely to the male gaze. One of the most poignant scenes in the film shows a twenty-two-year-old Priscilla, while in labour, applying copious amounts of makeup as her then-husband insists on the importance of keeping up appearances and his disapproval of her makeup-free appearance. 

The Presley's disintegrating relationship and Priscilla’s newfound voice are reflected in her style evolution while her husband grows more bedazzled; Priscilla's style becomes more subdued and stripped back, reflecting her newfound independence. While she loses her "signature look" from public perception, she feels the most comfortable in her own skin. Fashion is used in this film to represent the voice that Priscilla cannot articulate. Not unlike the coquette trend itself, the cinematography is bathed in almost a rose tinted glow while, at its core, it shows something more sinister. Priscilla's Chanel dresses embellished with bows symbolised oppression in her relationship because she was never granted ownership over her own identity, not because they were pink and feminine but because they were never something she chose.

Not unlike the coquette trend itself, the cinematography is bathed in almost a rose tinted glow while, at its core, it shows something more sinister. 

Priscilla poses the audience with many ethical questions surrounding hyper-femininity and the role of women. Am I a bad feminist because Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races” was in my Spotify Wrapped? Does my fondness for oversized bows mean that I am complicit in Patriarchy? Does liking Elvis-era Jacob Elordi revoke my womanhood citizenship? Looking at the style outside the femme aesthetic, leaning into lace and all things pink and frilly in our later years, is a normal response to being shamed and denied those simple pleasures from our youth. The argument is multifaceted; coquette culture, in general, like most female fashion trends, tends to come with many negative connotations, such as glamorising unhealthiness, adhering to the male gaze, and appeasing men. These stereotypes go deeper than a ribbon and a winged liner; instead of blaming the trend, which ultimately will be given another cute name and reappear - as all trends seem to do. 

Am I a bad feminist because Lana Del Rey’s “Off to the Races” was in my Spotify Wrapped? Does my fondness for oversized bows mean that I am complicit in Patriarchy? Does liking Elvis-era Jacob Elordi revoke my womanhood citizenship?

I think it is important to interrogate the fetishisation of girlhood and who it is coming from. Personally, when I proudly lock my H&M Velvet Bow into my sleek updo and pop on my ribboned Adidas sambas, I'm not doing it to adhere to the fantasies of my male counterparts. I am also just a girl who likes Sabrina Carpenter and wearing lots of pink blush because Hailey Beiber said it was okay and because some things deemed feminine make me feel both cute and validated in my womanhood. So, while the relationship between Pricilla and Elvis is not to be glamorised, we can appreciate the beauty of the clothes, like the lyrics to a Lana Del Rey song, knowing that it's unhealthy. There is power in that agency. So, I will continue to wear my ballet pump flats even though my roommates say they look stupid, sip my diet coke from a knock-off Stanley cup I found in Tk Maxx and wear my pink ribbon as a badge of honour - that is, until the next sugar dusted trend rolls back around.