One of the things I loved about The Borgias is that the women weren’t relegated to a second-class status on the show. They weren’t mindless sex objects, helpless creatures, or characters whose stories relied entirely on the male characters. They were strong, intelligent, and forceful. They used the weapons at their disposal (not just their beauty or their sexuality, either) to forward their own goals, largely managed to retain their agency within the sexual constraints of the time, and won the respect of the men because of it. They were complicated–even the more minor roles had some interesting shades of grey–and they made the show that much richer.
But enough about their awesomeness, let’s take a look at what they wore, starting with two of the principal ladies in Alexander’s life.
I’m grouping Giulia and Vannozza together because they are, to a large extent, two sides of the same coin. Though Giulia’s higher up on the social ladder (in the show’s universe), they both occupy roughly the same place in life and society: the powerful mistresses of the pope. They’re the same woman at different points in her life, and so, they’re costumed accordingly. Both frequently wear red–almost exclusively in season one. Giulia, the younger, ascendant mistress, is typically in scarlet (she is, literally, a scarlet woman) whereas Vannozza tends towards a slightly darker, more mature shade:
And you have a visual representation of maiden, mother, crone, the symbol of three different life stages for women. They’re all tied together through their costumes, coming as they are from the same colour family, but made distinct through shading.
Giulia, to begin with, is a highly sexual creature. The first time we ever see her, she wears a bright red dress to confess sexual indiscretions to the pope himself, and she’s shot, rather fetishistically, through the cross-shaped window:
Believe me, Giulia knows what she’s doing here. She’s an alluring woman who loves to have sex and knows she can use her sensuality to get things done, most of the time. To his credit, Alexander also realises she has a sharp brain and he calls on her frequently for advice. To the show’s credit, female sexuality is never treated as something merely titillating or outrageous (just look at all these crazed, horny women!), but as something completely natural and normal.
Giulia remains in red almost all the time in season one, and it’s a frequent go-to colour for the rest of the series as well. She changes it up early on in scenes with a somber tone, as when she gives Lucrezia advice about guarding her heart, and later tells her that her mother won’t be able to come to her wedding. Then, we see her in the more solemn colour of dark purple:
When she’s dispatched to Ferrara to suss out Lucrezia’s husband’s position in the France vs. the Papacy battle royale, she arrives in her typical power colour of scarlet, paired with Borgia red:
To actually face down Giovanni and his far more formidable kinswoman, Caterina, Giulia changes into purple again.
It’s a gorgeous dress, and she looks beautiful in it, but it’s not one of her sexpot dresses, because this is not a time for seduction. She means business here. Note the Borgia red accents, though. Also, recall that purple is a colour typically associated with royalty. Guilia isn’t, actually, royalty, but she’s definitely a noblewoman born and bred, and she wants these Sforzas to know that, even though she may be the pope’s mistress, she’s not just some common woman.
Wearing this same purple dress, she then goes off and plays her most motherly role to date with Lucrezia, tending to her in an illness and telling her that she’s going to have a baby.
So, it’s time to get out of Ferrara, with an assist from Paolo.
I already noted that Lucrezia almost perfectly matches the French army. Giulia, in her red, almost perfectly matches the papal army, so the two women are an immediate personification of the conflict to come. Not that these two characters are in conflict personally; they’re just foreshadowing the battle. Giulia’s return to red is appropriate in another way: while at the French camp, she falls back on her tried-and-true weapon, her sensuality, to charm and disarm the king. Throughout the dinner she and Lucrezia have with him, she’s constantly flattering him and touching his arm. Lucrezia is ultimately more successful at connecting with him, but Giulia’s efforts couldn’t have hurt.
Meanwhile, back in Rome things are a bit rough for Vannozza. No sooner does her lover become pope than she finds out their affair, which has lasted for many years and resulted in four children, must end. The disappointed former mistress wears black to Alexander’s coronation, telling Cesare she’s mourning for her family and the life she once had:
A family mostly united through colour. Note that Juan, in his red and armor, doesn’t seem to go very well with anyone, though. He’s already on the outside of the family unit that gathers around Vannozza, and connects most strongly with his father.
Things definitely don’t improve once Lucrezia accidentally spills the news that Alexander’s taken up with Giulia. An enraged Vannozza puts on one of her best dresses, in a passionate red colour (it looks purple here, but it’s red), to read the father of her children the riot act.
Speaking of unhappy dresses, let’s talk about this one, which she also wears a couple of times over the course of the series:
I noted in the Lucrezia post that this somewhat unusual (for the show) combination of red and green seemed to represent love in conflict, something I particularly noticed with Vannozza. She first wore it in the above scenes, when she’s mourning her exclusion from Lucrezia’s wedding, and her former husband, Theo, shows up to really sweetly cheer her up. And it’s all going nicely, until Cesare shows up in a mood and makes everyone super uncomfortable, with Vannozza torn between an old friend coming to her at her saddest moment, and her son. The dress pops up in season two, in another tense scene with Vannozza’s sons:
She’s trying to mediate between Alexander and Juan after Juan takes it upon himself to kill Lucrezia’s lover, Paolo. It’s a scene that ends in actual father-on-son violence, so…conflict, definitely. She knows this son’s a problem, but she’s not going to have his father go throttling him in her house.
Despite some negative connotations, she sticks with her favourite red, wearing it to Lucrezia’s wedding:
(note that the detailing and colour on the dress bear more than a passing resemblance to Giulia’s gown)
Two sides of the same coin, a notion that becomes even clearer in the final scenes of the first season, when all the women (and most of the men) are dressed Borgia red to attend the birth of Lucrezia’s son:
The two women are very similarly dressed here, right down to the almost-identical cloaks and similar sleeve detailing. They won’t really and truly become members of the same team until well into season 2, but they’re getting closer here. And the similar colouring makes for one, big, united happy family portrait at the very end of the season:
Aside from red, the colour we most frequently see Vannozza in is a rich, dark blue. I talked about blue quite a bit in the Lucrezia post. It’s a pretty versatile colour. But I think it typically means something quite specific with Vannozza: motherhood. Blue, in art, is a colour frequently associated with the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, who is often depicted wearing a blue mantle.
This may seem a bit odd when you consider that Vannozza’s a former courtesan (a whore, as she once lightly describes her former self) who had four children outside of marriage, but think about it: she’s the mother of the pope’s children. If he’s the holy father, then she is the holy mother. So, she wears blue to Jofre’s wedding:
…where the colour ties her to her children–all of them are wearing a bit of blue in their clothes, but none as prominently as she. It’s the colour she’s in when Lucrezia accepts Alfonso’s marriage proposal, for Lucrezia’s second betrothal party, and for the scene where Juan’s body is brought back to the Vatican. Everyone’s in appropriately somber tones for that.
She also wears it when she’s dealing with her somewhat difficult daughter, who refuses to choose a suitor in season 2:
A few things here. First, note the power difference in the first image. In this scene, Vannozza’s telling her daughter that she (Vannozza, that is) has been tasked with vetting Lucrezia’s new suitors. Lucrezia is not at all happy with the idea of being married again and makes her feelings known. Vannozza appeases her. Costume-wise, the blues of their outfits tie the two of them together, but Lucrezia’s clearly the one feeling a bit more powerful (and, ultimately, she is the one with the most power, as it’s up to her to choose one of these suitors). She’s in a serious dark-blue, a colour that generally reads as businesslike, with large, shoulder-widening sleeves rather like the padded shoulders that appeared on women’s business power suits in the 1980s. Vannozza, on the other hand, is in a much simpler, lighter dress that almost looks girlish by comparison. Even her body language speaks to her being a bit cowed by Lucrezia.
But by later in the episode, Vannozza has had it, and she lets Lucrezia know. They switch colours, with Lucrezia in the lighter shade (though still not as light as Vannozza’s earlier gown), but now that they’re both on the same level, power-wise, they’re wearing very similar silhouettes.
And remember that Giulia, when playing a particularly maternal role with Lucrezia, did so while wearing dresses that mixed her signature red with maternal blue.
Speaking of Giulia, we started seeing a lot more colour choice on her, starting in season 2, beginning with the very first episode:
She shows up in Rome wearing a dress that’s mostly a dull mustard colour, which is highly unusual for her. In fact, it’s rather unusual for most of the cast. The only character who wears it regularly is the sexless little cuckhold, Jofre Borgia. A character also notes late in the series that yellow is the colour of betrayal. So what better tone for her to wear when she returns from a trip out of town and discovers Alexander’s been cheating on her? And she wears this very same dress again to face off against Alexander’s next crush, Vittoria:
I think it’s safe to say that Giulia’s feeling a bit low. Even putting on her signature scarlet fails to really entice Alexander–when she shows off her lovely leg, which is wearing the stocking Bianca left behind in Alexander’s bed, he barely even notices her. They’re still a pair, as is evidenced by their high level of matchiness when they’re out hunting:
There’s Giulia in that dull yellow again (ironically in the guise of Minerva, a virgin goddess), whereas Vannozza, in the role of Juno (much-wronged wife of Jupiter, but also a queen) is doling out sex advice wearing Giulia’s signature colour of scarlet red. It’s good advice, too, and it works for a little while, but Giulia’s smart enough to know her days with Alexander are numbered, and she needs other projects to fill her time. First, she’s tasked with getting the Vatican’s finances under control:
As with her earlier trip to Ferrara, this moment is not about getting by via her sexuality, but by her considerable intelligence and cunning. She wears perhaps the most subdued dress in her wardrobe, a very serious, businesslike dark blue. She knows it’s going to be an uphill battle to get these cardinals to work with her, a woman, who, by the dictates of the time, should have been completely empty-headed and certainly incapable of handling anything as difficult as math. No frippery or ornamentation here.
Her second, and even more important, task is to set about improving the lot of Rome’s poor, and she loops in Lucrezia, who also needs a distraction after the death of Paolo. And Lucrezia, realising they were going to need even more firepower, looped in another formidable woman: her mother:
Vannozza and Giulia have had an uneasy relationship to this point, to say the least, and their clothes in this scene speak to their lack of connection. This is Vannozza’s home, so her dress is perfectly matched to the tablecloth. She also very closely matches her daughter. They belong here, and they’re connected to one another. Giulia, on the other hand, does not belong here. Nevertheless, a partnership is struck, and it takes very little time for the three women to start showing their alliance through their clothes:
And, when they’re actually getting down to serious business, more serious and fairly unadorned shades of blue. Note that Vannozza, who was once a courtesan, matches the shirt of the prostitute standing behind her, a light callback to her former profession, as well as what she could have been, were it not for luck and Rodrigo Borgia, something that’s explicitly discussed in this scene.
Once the ladies achieve their shared goals, their alliance is complete. They’ve been moving closer and closer to mimicking each other’s look, culminating in this moment:
Blue, blue, and blue. Even their hairstyles are the same. And they’re now so comfortable around each other, they’re getting together and literally letting their hair down. After this, Giulia and Vannozza are pretty relaxed and go back to being two sides of the same coin, essentially, though there’s a bit of a switch:
Vannozza, who will son rekindle her relationship with Alexander, is in the lighter colour, whereas Giulia, the mistress on her way out, is more subdued. They both serve to bookend Alexander and Lucrezia, though.
She’s back in blue to attend Lucrezia’s engagement party (again, the colours serve to tie mother and daughter together, and brings the similarly hued Giulia into the family fold) and she puts on a magnificent peacock blue gown to sit and reminisce with Alexander, and then to rekindle their relationship.
I mentioned in the Lucrezia post that blue can sometimes denote lust, so there’s that. But blue is also a very soothing colour. What better shade for her to wear when Alexander admits that he feels safe with her, as if he’s come home?
But the resurrection of their affair means the end of Giulia’s, and once again, Giulia comes to Vannozza for advice. It’s clear that the two ladies are decently good friends and confidantes at this point, though there’s a clear power difference.
Vannozza, though partly undressed, is in an eye-drawing Borgia red dress, raised up on a platform above Giulia, who’s back to her businesslike blues to discuss the business of negotiating a graceful (and lucrative) exit.
But Alexander’s not quite done with Giulia. When he finds out she’s been helping her brother work on the Vatican finances, he angrily sends for her in the middle of the night.
Poor Giulia, summoned out of bed, is completely unarmored and defenseless. She’s wearing a nightgown she used to wear to seduce Alexander, but now it has no effect on him whatsoever. Desperate to regain lost ground, she armors back up in a fairly severe (for her) dark dress to lay out her plan for the Banquet of Chestnuts:
And she attends said banquet, which essentially becomes a sex auction, in a bright red dress with gold accents. How appropriate.
She’ll wear this dress once more, to introduce Alexander to her new fiance:
She did one last big job for Alexander, and now she’s collecting her reward (though how much of a reward that guy was is a matter for debate). But Giulia’s marvellous, so we’re hoping for great things and much happiness for her. And the same for Vannozza, who ends the series on a high note of her own, having been fully reunited with Alexander:
Look at that, a perfectly matched pair! She’s also the closest confidante of her son, her daughter, and even Giulia, it seems. No wonder she suddenly trots out a lovely forest green frock to shoot a few arrows at a garden party:
Green is the colour of hope and new life. Furthermore, her archery skills call to mind the goddess Minerva, the huntress and goddess of wisdom (whom Giulia dressed up as in the first episode of season 2, just when these two ladies started finding a middle ground with each other). Fitting, I’d say.