The Five Year Rule of the She-Serpent

The Five Year Rule of the She-Serpent, Carolyn Everitt, Erte

My mistress is very sensitive to the clothes she wears. She’s a phenomenon. If she has a lively dress she’s lively, like today. If she has a shy dress she’s shy, like yesterday. And everything changes, everything: she talks in a different way, she’s somebody else.

She’s dressed in sparkling and very close-fitting green scales: the dress ends in a thin sharp tail. From the neckline a kind of snake emerges and continues in spirals twice around her neck, it’s head ending up in Dea’s hair as a headdress.

Massimo Bontempelli, Nostra Dea

Every era has it’s own iconic “kick ass” girl – think Princess Leia or Ripley in Alien. But in the mid twenties to the early thirties this lady had scales and a tail.

As early as 1925, Massimo Bontempelli, the italian fascist modernist poet and writer, describes his protagonist, Dea in a “she serpent dress…who immediately takes on a “thunderbolt glance” and a “voice full of hisses”.

Nostra Dea, She Serpent, Massimo Bontempelli

Set designs for Nostra Dea (Gabriele Mucchi 1925).

Future she-serpent stars, Sandra Ratti and Tatiana Pavlova. (Source: Fashion at the Time of Fascism)


Sandra Ratti, Excelsior III, She Serpent

Tatiana Pavlova, Massimo Bontempelli

She-Serpent designs were starting to set the fashion world on fire…

She serpent dress, Sandro Radice, Loris Riccio, 1926

(Illustration Loris Riccio 1926, Source: Fashion at the time of Fascism)

…with Erte becoming the “King” of the curved, sensuous and darkly hypnotic form, which featured strongly in his costume design and illustrations.

Erte, The Mystic, taken from Dressed Deborah Nadoolman Landis

Erte, The Mystic, Dressed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis


Top illustrations taken from Dressed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis, last illustration from Erte’s Fashion Designs 1918-1932.

The Serpent form found its way into the cinema, into the theatre, and into photography – as demonstrated rather seductively by Josephine Baker, in pearls, coils of gold and a rather cleverly silhouetted fishtail.

Josephine Baker, George Hoyningen- Huene, pearls and hoop earrings

George Hoyningen Huene

The five year rule culminated in 1930, with Kay Johnson as Madam Satan, with her amazing Zeppelin Ball gown, designed by Adrian.

Madam Satan, Adrian, Fashion Illustration, 1930, Dressed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis

The costume of Kay Johnson, as Madame Satan, formfitting in the extreme, leaves Milady bare almost to the waist in front, with elaborate silver sequin scrolling; the back isn’t; and the skirt has two long scrolls over each hip and one over the stomach, while a long skirt with a voluminous train is edged in a series of points embellished in silver sequins, giving the impression of a forked tail with scales. It is beautiful beyond description”. Rosaline Shaffer (writer) 

Madam Satan, Kay Johnson, Zepplin Ball Gown, Adrian, 1930

Madam Satan, Kay Johnson, Adrian, Zepplin Ball Gown, 1930

Source: Dressed by Deborah Nadoolman Landis

And just like that the she-serpent curiously disappeared and her five year rule came to an end. Has there been one since – I can’t think of one? Where did she go?

So, a note to all budding screen writers – vampires have had their day, it’s time for a modern day “kiss ass” she-serpent and there’s five year’s worth of inspiration to wet your appetite.

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