don't try this at home

I Dressed Like Catherine the Great for a Week

Catherine the Great on her Brooklyn rooftop. Photo: Andrew Nguyen

I’ve always felt that I was destined for greatness — a sentiment that I share with Russia’s longest-reigning female leader. “Ever since I was a child, I’ve felt like greatness was in store for me,” says Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great in Hulu’s new series The Great. “Like God himself had spat me forth to land on this earth and in some way transform it. That I was here for a reason, a purpose.”

In the late 18th century, Catherine’s purpose was overthrowing her goonish husband, Peter III of Russia, in order to rise to power. The chance to seize my own greatness in her footsteps arrived mid-May, and I, too, found my purpose: become Catherine the Great so that I may overthrow the mundaneness of lockdown.

Before embarking on this important journey, I had to make sure the look was right. Donning elaborate wigs and outfits is nothing new for me since I also happen to be a drag performer, but I still wanted the expertise of The Great’s costume designer Emma Fryer. “If you have a robe or a gown, then you could easily put that on with panniers,” she told me. “Then cinch in your waist.” Finding a gown and panniers (those undergarments that give you absurdly large hips)? No problem, thanks to the internet. Cinching my waist all day? Yikes. But since the show is “occasionally true,” I figured my approach could be, too. That weekend, 18th-century gowns and panniers arrived at my door, and the next week, I would finally achieve greatness.

What is it like to dress like 18th-century royalty in the middle of 21st-century Brooklyn? I found out.

Day 1: Shedding Andrew the Average

On Monday morning, I looked in the mirror and said good-bye to Andrew, a 25-year-old Vietnamese proletarian, and hello to my piles of makeup that greeted me with the promise of becoming a white lady.

Good-bye, old life. (Shout-out to West Dakota for the hair!)
Good-bye, old life. (Shout-out to West Dakota for the hair!)

I caked my face with foundation much lighter than my usual shade and set it all in place with the snowiest of powders. For a brief moment, as I applied a liberal amount of rosy blush all over my cheeks, I thought, Oh, no … I’m going to break out so much this week. But I quickly dismissed the thought. After all, Catherine would’ve never thought about frivolous things like acne when her coup was on the line.

To top it all off, I outfitted my buzzed head with a wig before getting dressed. Unlike Catherine, I didn’t have handmaidens to just do it for me, and my roommates didn’t respond well to me shouting at them, “Come and dress me!” So I put it all on myself. The rest of the day was spent taking up tons of room on the couch with my abnormally wide hips in a blue gown, repeating to myself, “You are so great,” to prepare myself for the days ahead.

Day 2: Easing Into Things

The next day, I tried to go about my normal quarantine routine as a new woman. With lots of fussing around with my gown, I learned that it is, in fact, possible to use the bathroom in panniers. I could proceed with my day with a load off.

This should be interesting
This should be interesting

Next on the list was a light jog on the treadmill in the upstairs gym (in a time slot that I signed up for to effectively social distance, of course). With sparkly Fluevogs on my feet and dress skirt in hand, I clomped along for all of three minutes before rewarding myself with a relaxing tanning session on the roof.

Swatting hair tendrils out of my mouth.

As I lounged in a chaise, I discovered that you can’t actually tan when your entire body is covered in a gown. Plus, it was way too hot, even with my fancy feather fan. I gave up and went back to my air-conditioned apartment.

Day 3: A Working Woman

On Wednesday, I became Catherine the Grumpy. I could’t help but think, Maybe this isn’t your call to greatness, and, No wonder people in royal courts were always scheming — they were overheated and miserable. But I persevered because there was work to be done and Zoom meetings to attend. Compliments from my co-workers ended up giving me the strength that I needed to go on. I just needed a reminder that I was great.

How does this thing work?
How does this thing work?

After being a productive member of the working class (Catherine could never), I treated myself with something from the coffee shop across the street. “Are you Cinderella?” my barista asked me. “Hey! Nice outfit!” someone shouted from their fourth-floor balcony as passersby made absolutely no attempt at subtlety when recording me with their phones. With matcha in hand, I sprinted back to my apartment, anxiously giggling and panniers bouncing, feeling a strange rush of both empowerment and deep embarrassment.

Day 4: A Free Woman!

After my first experience in public, I was feeling particularly brave the next day, so I took a stroll around the block while waving to my loyal subjects. Being Catherine clearly got to my head at this point. But having done the gracious deeds of a Russian monarch, I treated myself to my first bacon, egg, and cheese in months.

Later that day, feeling full and content, I reached a sort of enlightenment: My purpose wasn’t to be someone else who was great. My purpose was to be a great version of myself. With this in mind, I said enough is enough and did one last dance in my royal 18th-century garb to Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman,” which happened to also express my relief of not having to wear cumbersome clothing, makeup, and a wig anymore.

A free woman, twerking.

What did I learn from this experiment? At first, I thought it mostly taught me that panniers are no fun. But getting into some sort of drag satisfied a slumbering thirst inside of me. I’d been craving creativity and community, and I hadn’t even realized it. A few weeks later, I found myself tapping into this deep well of pent-up energy and emotion on behalf of the protests sweeping the nation. And it wasn’t just me — across the queer community in Brooklyn, I could see people redirecting the artistic spirit into protesting, creating resources, and raising funds to help our Black queer and trans siblings. We’d been indoors for so long. It was time to step out and show up.

I Dressed Like Catherine the Great for a Week