Sunday, 1 February 2015

Dress Down Sunday: The Glass of Fashion by Cecil Beaton


published 1954

LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES

Glass of fashion

At the end of the last century women thought of themselves in terms of being well covered: they wished to have a wonderful d├ęcolletage and would have been ashamed of hollows in the neck as deep as salt cellars. But nowadays ladies are so intent on being thin that a scraggy d├ęcolletage has become inevitable.

Not only have they made themselves half the weight they were three or four decades ago, but they have also thought themselves into entirely different contours. With whalebone corsets that ruthlessly laced the human figure into an hour-glass shape, Victorian waistlines became as small as 16 inches. But though a small waistline was essential, the flesh above and below had to be full, of a Renoir-like voluptuousness. The mature women were handsome, the younger ones demurely pretty; nowadays women are neither demurely pretty nor handsome. Those fabulous professional beauties for whom people stood on their chairs in the park were Juno-like goddesses with great carved features, chiselled nostrils, and prognathous jaws – a type that today would be considered too monumental for the average man’s taste. Men have come to accept as a premise women who look more like young boys, with thin flat hips, who have even adopted blue denims, blouses and short skirts and haircuts.

 
Glass of Fashion DD Princess

observations: Cecil Beaton did a bit of everything: he was a fashion and portrait photographer, but also a war photographer. He sketched, and designed interiors and stagesets. He kept diaries, frequently photographed the Royal family, had a long connection with Vogue, and seems to have been bisexual.

This book is, roughly speaking, a history of fashion in the first half of the 20th century. He looks at interiors, and at perfume, and at specific designers such as Chanel and Balenciaga, but most of the book is devoted to descriptions of rich and famous women (and one or two men). He tells us what was special about their style, how they looked, how they influenced fashion of the day, how others tried to copy them. There are anecdotes trying (and usually failing) to show their brilliance and wit. The book is probably best read in small doses, stopping before Bolshevism and socialism creep into the reader’s mind. And it is interesting, and some of the people mentioned probably were lovely. Not much of Beaton’s character comes over, he sounds like an opinionated fussy man, but there must have been more than that to him.

In Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (endlessly on the blog, click on label below) there is a character called Mrs Chaddesley Corbett: perhaps everyone else has always known who she was based on but I didn’t, and from this book you would say it must be Mrs Freda Dudley Ward, close friend of the then Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor, before Wallis Spencer grabbed him.

Top picture of a turn-of-the century lady and her corset.


[ADDED LATER: Fashion expert Daniel Milford-Cottam makes some fascinating points in the comments below, so much so that we got him  to do a guest blog on the subject of women's waist sizes.... click here]


Below, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, a Beaton photo of Princess Durri Shehvar, daughter of a Sultan of Turkey.

There is a fabulous Beaton photo – of Dior clothes – in the blog entry on Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris Goes to Paris.










18 comments:

  1. Glad to see you got the obligatory Mitford mention out of the way so early in the month! I think I'd be pushed to find a book I'd be less inclined to read than this....maybe Sax Rohmer.

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    1. I think it would be a toss-up for you. Keep away from both authors....

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  2. Moira - I have to admit, I love this line of yours: There are anecdotes trying (and usually failing) to show their brilliance and wit. . I know precisely what you mean here, too. On the one hand, this sounds like it has all sorts of interesting information, and from the perspective of someone who knows, so to speak. Sounds like it's better as a resource than it is as a story if that makes any sense?

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    1. Yes, that's exactly right Margot. I'm glad I read it, and there were nuggets that I found surprising or interesting....

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  3. Moira, Cecil Beatons says, "...nowadays women are neither demurely pretty nor handsome." This was in 1954. I wonder what he'd think of women's (and men's) fashion today, more than half a century later. Now, have clothes, will wear seems to be the norm.

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    1. Prashant, I would love to have his opinion on modern fashions!

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  4. Moira: You are not going to draw me into what men currently think is the female ideal. I will say that I cringe many days looking at photos, especially in magazines, of models that must have starved themselves.

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    1. I agree with you Bill - it can be a touchy subject, and one we have to be careful about, but some of the images we see are very unhealthy....

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  5. In the days when a voluptuous body was fashionable, thin women wrung their hands and hated themselves. Today, it's the opposite. I don't know that worshiping any one kind of figure is ideal. Every era's cultural tastes have made outsiders of some.

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    1. I know - the whole thing is ridiculous and annoying, and it's so obvious that there is no one standard of beauty... Thanks for visiting.

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  6. Ahhh, that lovely old bit of chestnutty dingly-dangly-male-specific-bits about how every Victorian woman had a 16 inch (or less) waist or wanted one. Or that the ideal waist size was 18." I have nothing against waist fetishists and perverts but sometimes I could quite cheerfully track down the original tight-lacing pervs and beat them about the head repeatedly with an ironclad* for writing their fantasies up in such a way that future perverts and non-perverts took them as gospel truth and reported accordingly.

    As the marvellous Mrs. Eric Pritchard wrote in "The Cult of Chiffon" in 1902 (a time when, if you believe a lot of people, every woman was forcing herself into a S-bend corset of unimaginable waist-minisculeness) , "there never was a time when tight-lacing was less in favour" and advising her readers that such practises were vulgar and viewed with disfavour. I have a good myth-busting go at this in my "Edwardian Fashion" book for Shire. (sorry! Vulgar book plug!)

    In addition to this, Doris Langley-Moore, whose collection formed the basis of the Fashion Museum's in Bath, in the late 1940s, carried out an intensive survey with a tape measure of 19th century dresses from the period, to investigate the 18-inch waist myth. She found that almost none of the bodices surveyed had a waist of less than 22 inches, and that the average corseted waist measurement of actual dresses was around 26-28 inches.

    Back to Mrs Pritchard - her "The Cult of Chiffon" - basically a style manual advising the fashionable lady of 1902 on how to dress - is magnificent. It desperately needs to be produced as a facsimile edition - I have an original, incredibly rare copy of it, and it provided so many wonderful quotes for Edwardian Fashion, such as, on the tendency of "nice" ladies to wear revolting Victorian underwear, such as hideous "drab-coloured merino combinations - thick, rough and high to the neck":

    "Can one wonder that marriage is so often a failure and that the English husband of such a class of woman goes where he can admire the petticoat of aspirations?"

    I adore Mrs. Eric Pritchard. She needs to be better known.

    On well-dressed women wearing ugly undies: "There is something so hopelessly vulgar in beautifying only the outside of the platter."

    On flashy footwear: "As for the boots that are visible a mile away, we certainly do not wish to see the woman who is wearing them."

    * An ironclad being a popular colloquial term of the time for those VERY heavy-duty bulletproof "tea rose" corsets that were still being worn by well-upholstered ladies of a certain age well into the 1960s and 70s....

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    1. I need to move this fascinating piece above the line, Daniel - can I turn it into a guest blog for next Sunday...?

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    2. I'd be very flattered! Thank you. Please let me know if you'd like it written up or expanded.

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    3. Also let me know if you'd like a photo of Mrs Pritchard. I found one in a 1902 copy of The Queen. She's surprisingly youthful and really very attractive. I'd been imagining a dictatorial Vreeland type! I know so little about her but she was one of the first female fashion writers to publish and write journalism under her own name, and her wry humour, cutting observations and surprisingly modern common sense combined with flashes of idiosyncratic personal opinion make Cult of Chiffon such a fantastic read as well as a highly valuable resource.

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  7. All I know about Cecil Beaton is that he has tons of movie credits for costume design. Or maybe not tons, and I just watched My Fair Lady so many times and I kept seeing his name over and over.

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    1. I think My Fair Lady was his big moment. He did a lot of things, not really specializing - you wonder a bit if he should have concentrated more. I like his fashion photos best, they are works of art. Designed to look beautiful rather than show off the clothes. Recently I went to a small exhibition of his photos near here - very much pictures he took of his friends having lovely weekends away, or dressed up for a costume party. He was very well-connected.

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    2. I will have to seek out some of his photography. Glen is very much into any kind of photography so the interest has migrated to me. We have stacks (and this time I mean literally) of photo art books all over our small living room.

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    3. Oh how nice - I love good photography books.

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