There is a reason Jessica Lange is one of the most popular characters on “American Horror Story” every season. She plays the femme fatale in a sea of forgettable female TV personas, the unapologetic villainess who makes being bad look damn good.

Of course, Lange’s brand of fashion has always had a tenuous history with female politics. In the June 9, 1909 edition of the New York Times, a headline blared “NEW WOMAN A FREAK, SAYS BISHOP DOANE.” In the byline, it continued “One Who Strives for Man’s Work a Horrible, Misshapen Monster.” The titillating headline referred to a Bishop’s ill-advised graduation speech at an all girls school in New York, where he railed against the growing suffragette movement.

The New Woman of his speech was an entirely new cut of female; in an 1895 edition of Home Chat, a women’s magazine, a satirical poem wrote: “Who rides a cycle round the town, in costume making all men frown, and otherwise acts like a clown? New Woman.”

The Bishop didn’t subscribe to Home Chat (he probably inherited his institutional sexism from his employer), but what both narratives have in common is their alignment of the New Woman as a “freak,” or “a clown.” In their complete forms, both yoke the New Woman’s fashion to their indictment; after all, she cut her hair short, wore bloomers to bike ride and abandoned the fussy volume of Victorian silhouettes.

Fashion continues to carry this gendered baggage. Damned if you have an interest in it and damned if you don’t — just look at how critics treat Hillary Clinton’s unfussy style. The label of deformity applied to genderless fashion signals that to be a strong female is to be estranged from society.

Which is exactly why the mutable femme fatale embraces this label. After all, it is harder to police the outsider than the member of society who has swallowed the status quo. The femme fatale wears strangeness on her sleeve: she is sexual then asexual, wearing prickly tweed or silk that glistens like liquid on her skin.

If Lange’s past characters paid whispered tributes to the femme fatale, Elsa uproots the lady of noir from her restrained Hays Code heyday and thoroughly modernizes her. Elsa is a former dominatrix, sexual assault victim turned abuser, aspiring singer, circus ringleader — Elsa accepts with relish the “complicated” label TV critics love.

And all of it is reflected in her style, which uses strange fabrics and colors, and doubles back on earlier eras. Take the powder blue suit Elsa wears when she performs David Bowie’s “Life on Mars.” As costume designer Lou Eyrich noted, “We fashioned it after a ’40s suit, but a take off of the blue suit that David Bowie wore. So, it’s a ’40s version of a ’70s suit.” But the suit isn’t just anachronistic, it’s distinctly androgynous with its large lapels and boxy shape.

In fact, much of Elsa’s costuming tugs back and forth between two opposites, which comes to characterize Elsa who is both cruel and compassionate. In her first appearance, Elsa strides in the hospital with a voluminous black and white fur coat. The fur makes a statement, but so does the coat’s ultra-accentuated shoulder pads. Elsa takes up physical space in these shots. The black toque cap she wears has spiky feathers, sensuous yet intrusive. Even in a pink suit she wears later that’s coded more feminine, Elsa wears that spiny hat.

Elsa’s penchant for fur and feathers is crucial. Both are consumerist status symbols, denoting access to money. Which is interesting, because despite the freak show’s physical remoteness, it hints that Elsa and her clan aren’t totally estranged from the marketplace economy. Of course, it also denotes power. After all, to wear a dead thing signals a fearlessness of death. There is domination over the dead thing: the accessorizing of death. Indeed, Elsa is unfazed by death; in the third episode, she’d rather sing Lana Del Rey even though she knows it will invoke the wrath of the dead Edward Mordrake.

In a promo picture for “American Horror Story,” Lange wears a tent-like gown with wide carnival-esque stripes. It would swallow most people, but Lange owns it. She was involuntarily made a “freak,” so she finds her autonomy by wearing the strange and attention-catching. Like the New Woman and the femme fatale’s style, Elsa’s fashion isn’t mere conceit, it’s her armor.

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