Any film which sees icons Brigitte Bardot and Claudia Cardinale facing off in hand-to-hand combat, bosoms heaving and petticoats muddied, deserves some serious stylistic attention. Les Pétroleuses (or The Legend of Frenchie King, as it’s known in English) is a witty 1971 spaghetti western that’s captivating from the get-go. The setting is a bizarre francophone Texas town in 1888, dominated by Marie Sarrazin (Cardinale) and her band of brothers. When the daughters of the notorious outlaw Frenchie King arrive in town, led by his eldest child Louise (Bardot), the two families clash with comedic results. Like many films from this era it comes drenched in outdated Western stereotypes, from a Native American wiseman to a Chinese acupuncturist, but nonetheless it continues to radiate the same heat it did on release, with stylish pointers in abundance.
1. Reclaim the corset
The corset is, by its nature, a wholly contradictory item – and as empowering as it is restrictive, it aptly dominates the fashions of Les Pétroleuses. Bardot’s white-boned version adds purity and propriety to her ladylike disguise, while a lace-trimmed red number given to Cardinale’s character Marie as a Christmas gift provides a seductive surprise as she strips down. The undergarment’s presence is so prolific that designer David Koma referenced the film’s “dialectic of corsetry and flounce” in his Mugler Spring 2018 show: “They are so strong and rebellious,” he said of the two leads, “but feminine and sensual at the same time.” Follow suit and harness your own contradictions; feminine doesn’t have to mean restrained. (Corset optional.)
2. Embrace team spirit
Much emphasis is placed on the virtues of being stylistically unique, but there’s a certain joy to matching up with your mates, too. Like Queen Bees in the schoolyard (but with pistols at the ready) both Cardinale and Bardot depend on their band of loyal followers, and whether digging for oil or heading to a bar, a shared uniform elevates their comfortable camaraderie. For Louise and her sisters, frilled feminine ruffs and cuffs are favoured, while for Marie and her brothers it’s open shirts and muddied breeches. In short, dressing alike can help you keep your kin close.
3. Reassess your shirts
Of all western film tropes, it’s the humble shirt that steals almost every scene in Les Pétroleuses. Buttoned up in black, it’s the chic uniform for Frenchie King’s robberies, while Cardinale’s peach satin number is instantly alluring, tied tightly over her chest. There are billowing white blouses (buttons undone) for riding in, and cuffs turned in all manner of styles, securing its position as a wardrobe staple both on and off-screen. Classics are classics for a reason – why not reassess them?
4. Catch the sun
In true spaghetti western style this production was actually filmed in Spain, with the hot weather to prove it. Drenched in sun, Cardinale’s bronzed complexion and wide-brimmed cowboy hats heat the screen from the start, and by the finale even Bardot’s porcelain complexion gains a few freckles. Take note: step into the great outdoors and absorb some vitamin D.
5. Personalise your power dressing
There’s a misconception that the only way to defy gender conventions is by embracing androgyny. That to be a boss, a woman must ‘wear the trousers’, something both main characters take literally in Les Pétroleuses. Living in a house full of brothers, Cardinale wears breeches, and Bardot attempts to fill her father’s oversized shoes. In truth though, their moments of real strength come from moving freely in clothes of their own choosing, thereby rewriting sartorial conventions of power. Wear the trousers if they suit you, but don’t forget that real authority comes from whatever feels right, and that might just be a petticoat.