Vivien Leigh. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I recall many years ago filming a documentary about Vivien Leigh for Channel 4 in which I commented that her life and her art on screen were in total harmony: from the skittish, delicious, courageous minx Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939) to what screenwriter Gavin Lambert described as the ‘deceitful frayed elegance’ of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Vivien only made nine movies after Gone With the Wind not least because she became the first lady of the stage often co-starring with husband Laurence Olivier. The films she did make are courageous considering the lady’s well-documented and hugely destructive manic depression. Vivien was one of the 20th century’s greatest beauties but accepted roles in later life that underlined the inevitability of ageing.

To me Streetcar is painful to watch as is Vivien’s other Tennessee Williams eponymous fading lady in The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone (1961). The latter film in which Mrs Stone becomes embroiled with a Contessa who provides young Italian gigolos for willing older ladies is merciless and Vivien breaks your heart in it. How must it have felt to watch Marilyn Monroe walk off with the role of Elsie Marina in the 1957 film version of The Sleeping Prince: a role Vivien created on stage opposite Olivier?

Needless to say back in the days of manic depression rather than the more cuddly ‘bi-polar’, sufferers of the condition were misunderstood. People saw a voracious, Martini-happy dame living on the edge of her nerves when really this was a symptom not a cause of Vivien Leigh’s troubles. And yet in public Vivien maintained her dignity and consistently produced superb work on stage and screen that must often have forced her to confront some less than glamorous realities.

Vivien Leigh was blessed with beauty, intellect, visceral talent and by all accounts a brittle sense of humour that allowed her to finesse the curse of manic depression. For all who share the condition, Vivien Leigh is something of an inspiration and for that the applause continues long after her death in 1967. For all the gossip mongers who rake over Vivien’s misfortunes I have this to say. Had she only made Gone With the Wind and never worked again, Vivien Leigh achieved immortality and so much more than the allegedly ‘sane’ people who bore us all by leading long, uneventful lives.

It was with no little fascination that I chanced upon a small exhibition of Vivien Leigh’s estate to be sold by Sotheby’s London on the 26th of September with a larger preview on the 22nd. Treasures on sale include Vivien’s copy of Gone With the Wind signed by Margaret Mitchell and her annoted script. There are personal and professional photographs, a painting given by Sir Winston Churchill, furniture and gowns. But it was the contents of Vivien’s jewellery box that caught my eye.

Unlike the Duchess of Windsor and Elizabeth Taylor whose legendary collections of jewels have broken auction records, Vivien’s pieces are not led by masterpieces by the historic Parisian jewel houses. Like the lady herself, they are much more understated, sophisticated and personal pieces of jewellery that reflect a woman of great taste. In addition to Renaissance revival pieces there’s a darling diamond Art Deco Longines dress watch, several graphic mid-century show-stoppers and sentimental jewels such as charm bracelets and inscribed rings.

The star piece is a garland style tasselled diamond bow brooch with an estimate of £25,000-£35,000 in a style worn by the Empress Eugenie of the French. Vivien would wear it against black gowns giving the piece the attention that it deserved. But apart from the bow brooch, the estimates are incredibly low. How did the experts arrive at a low estimate of £800 for a natural pearl and diamond necklace … and that’s before you add the Vivien Leigh magic?

I have my eye on two brooches – a polo mallet and a riding crop – that could be marvellous additions to the inventory of Jewellery for Gentlemen - but fear the £150-£200 estimates will be left far behind on the day. Still, I will register and hopefully attend the sale. I also have to have the catalogue. Sotheby’s are absolutely terrific at researching both facts and pictures to support the pieces in an estate sale of this stature. One of my favourite books bar none are the boxed set of S0theby’s catalogues of the 1987 Duke and Duchess of Windsor sale.

I do hope the Vivien Leigh sale at Sotheby’s inspires the programmers at the BFI to plan a season of Vivien’s films to introduce her to a new generation of fans. Now that mental health is such a hot topic amongst Millennials I would have thought Vivien’s life reflected through her film work would be as relevant today as it was in the 20th century.

Speaking of Millennials, can we have a mini-rant about vocabulary? When did the habit of finishing every sentence with a dopey smile and ‘if that makes sense’ begin? I feel like saying ‘of course it bleedin makes sense. You’re not speaking Swahili and I’m not a fecking idiot’. Another pet peeve is somebody qualifying a fact in their lives that’s a complete mystery to you with ‘obviously’ as in ‘obviously we’re serving prawn fancies at Shona’s wedding’. Obvious to you and the caterer perhaps but news to me…

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Return to Splendour. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

While recording a short interview for a film about Savile Row the other day I was asked what made me throw so much energy behind British bespoke tailoring? I believe the epiphany came at the Paris menswear shows when what I saw on show was not reflecting a bigger picture: the relentless drive towards individuality in dress, a rejection of global brands and a desire to reconnect with a slower, more considered and responsible approach to dress.

Savile Row met all those requirements. The suits had longevity, individuality and light carbon footprints. The process involved human skill, connection and a commitment of that most precious commodity time. One could ask the same question as to why I chose to write Jewellery for Gentlemen with Thames & Hudson at this precise moment in time.

Over recent decades I had seen man’s innate desire for adornment play itself out in Hip Hop bling and Rock ‘n Roll biker silver. Surely, I thought, taste would evolve and become more sophisticated. The epidemic of tattoos proved to me that men were not shy of inking permanent decoration on their flesh … a much bigger commitment than buying a precious piece of jewellery that can be removed.

Reaching back into history, I was fascinated to see how jewellery migrates around the male body. One only has to walk the halls of the National Portrait Gallery to see how tastes in men’s jewellery evolves. The Whitehall cartoon of King Henry VIII shows one of several parures (sets) of ruby and yellow gold jewels that the king wore on his fingers, in his caps and as buttons and dress studs.

King James I reset many of the jewels he inherited from Queen Elizabeth I to wear as vast hat embellishments including the lost ‘Three Brothers’ ruby, diamond and pearl plaque. King Charles I favoured a substantial single pearl earring as large as Mary Tudor’s Peregrina and jewelled shoe buckles. The three King Georges grew increasingly parsimonious in dress until King George VI profligately spent re-setting Crown and borrowed diamonds.

It isn’t widely known that the diamond diadem with a single yellow diamond accent seen on every stamp and banknote worn by Queen Elizabeth II was made for King George IV. It was a jewel for gentlemen. The British royal males never regained the louche splendour of King George IV as far as jewellery is concerned bar Coronation Day.

But well into the 20th century, India’s Maharajas were still commissioning suites of magnificent jewels from Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron that constituted Indian Art Deco Crown Jewels. A case in point is the magnificent Patiala necklace set by Cartier in the 1920s: a platinum festoon set with diamonds, rubies and a the vast yellow De Beers diamond.

What fascinates me about the Indian Maharajas’ jewels is how masculine these adornments appear despite the fact that no woman in that era wore more bar Britain’s Queen Mary in her pomp. The last Maharaja of Patiala was photographed wearing the necklace in the early 1940s after which it disappeared presumably broken-up. Remembering this was less than a century ago, who can doubt that the desire for lavish jewels is not still latent in Indian culture.

Such is life that the young revere movie stars so much more than royalty today. I began to notice that important antique jewellery was appearing on men’s lapels on red carpets worldwide. Cartier led the field with a 1950s sapphire and diamond brooch worn as a collar pin by Jared Leto at the Met Gala and an 18ct yellow gold Juste un Clou nail pin worn in Alexander Skarsgard’s lapel.

The influencers are ahead of the industry in this respect although we are seeing the international jewel houses beginning to ramp up their collections marketed to men. Even ten years ago who would have thought a large solitaire diamond earring would have migrated to the high street thanks to the influence of Lewis Hamilton, David Beckham and Will Smith? I go to Waitrose now and so many of the boys are wearing single ear studs the size of a dice.

Questions about what constitutes masculine or feminine fashion is the hottest topic at present. I’m not even going to go there about John Lewis selling gender neutral children’s clothes. But what I will say is that this fluidity can only add fuel to the fire for Jewellery for Gentlemen. Men have worn significant precious jewels since the dawn of civilisation. Victorian modesty and austerity for men is merely a blip.

The global brands that have successfully conquered emerging markets worldwide did not, I think, take into account the patina of taste in fashion and jewellery that has evolved over hundreds of years. Who is to say that China will not return to the splendour of the age of its Emperors or that Russia will not yearn for the glories of the 300-year old Romanov dynasty?

I don’t think for a moment that we will see tech billionaires smothered in jewels like an Indian Maharaja. But it is already clear that the super rich in Hong Kong both male and female covet pieces of antique Imperial jade and that Russian oligarchs get a kick out of owning a set of the last Tsar’s jewelled Fabergé cufflinks.

In an era of virtual money (Bitcoin), contactless payments, instant debits and online banking there is something very reassuring about solid assets such as an antique Cartier pin or a coloured diamond set of cufflinks. Portable property was the saviour of the wealth of the Maharajas and the exiled Romanovs. So I will make a prediction. Men will increasingly trust precious metals and stones in this uncertain world. Perhaps in the 21st century diamonds will be a boy’s best friend.

 

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Falling Stars. September 2017.

Dear Rowley,

The sadness of watching Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the late Whitney Houston last night. You might disagree but I think the single greatest gift a person can be born with is a voice. Voices like Whitney’s come once in a generation. You wish, like Streisand, that she had taken care of it so much better.

There was much I didn’t know about Whitney Houston’s career. Like Garland, she was a child prodigy. Like Diana Princess of Wales, she was world famous by the age of nineteen. Whitney was a construct of poor but ambitious parents and a record industry that saw in her a recording artist who could break out of R&B and be a pop superstar.

Looking at early footage of Whitney, she appears to be the sweetest, most wholesome and happy young girl. I remember one of the few genuinely carefree moments in my life prancing to I Wanna Dance With Somebody in a Minorcan nightclub as a teenager. Whitney sang about fun, love and optimism.

What we didn’t know was that the Houston family was as controlling as the Jacksons and that Whitney’s relationship with her right hand woman Robyn Crawford was probably intimate which concerned her church-going family. I didn’t know how much criticism came from the black community that Whitney had somehow sold out and forgotten her roots.

The tragedy was, of course, that she never did. It seems conclusive that Whitney Houston became addicted to notorious rapper Bobby Brown to give her credibility that she’d actually earned long before she fell for a very bad and manipulative man. What transpired after the marriage was a fight for Whitney Houston’s soul between Brown and Robyn Crawford.

The sadness in the documentary was seeing Whitney decline so sharply after her marriage to Brown. They seemed to be living in squalor in hotel bedrooms while on tour or totally manic pre and post show. Brown is invariably swaggering and basking in Whitney’s light while she appears slow, confused and seeing life in soft focus. The physical deterioration of Whitney’s looks and her voice are heartbreaking.

When Whitney made The Bodyguard and sang the best selling soundtrack of all time topped by I Will Always Love You the industry could comfortably have predicted a great career in movies. Instead her world tours with Brown in tow destroyed that precious gift. Her real bodyguard was fired for writing a report demanding that her family break the cycle of self-destruction and get her into rehab.

A lot of the footage for the documentary was taken for a backstage movie of a Whitney world tour in 1999. She’d bobbed her hair and made a comeback record prophetically called It’s Not Right But It’s Okay. There is endless film of Brown and Whitney falling out of nightclubs or she slumped in a dressing room sweating and shaking after giving her all onstage.

It was after this tour that Robyn walked away from Whitney Houston. To her credit, she’s never written a book and the same can’t be said of Whitney’s mother and Bobby Brown. With Robyn’s exit, the drugs sent Whitney into the downward spiral from which she would never recover.

Having been replaced to sing at the Academy Awards, Whitney appeared on a disastrous tribute to Michael Jackson looking skeletal. When asked on live television which drug was the biggest devil in her life,  she replied ‘no, that’ll be me’. Her father died saying Whitney owed him money.

Whitney semi-retired and went into rehab. By now she was looking like Billie Holiday in the last months of her life. Still married to Brown, they had a daughter Bobbi. There was a godawful scene when she brought the child on stage during a stadium tour and the little kid was bewildered to say the least as her mother jumped around her fist pumping to the crowds.

There’s a poignant recording that Judy Garland made towards the end of her life saying bitterly that her fortune had been consumed by supporting everyone around her with n increasingly failing voice. Whitney tore through $250 million before her death in 2012. She’d been divorced from Brown since 2007 and had sought solace in drugs again.

Whitney Houston’s life ended on the night of the Grammy Awards where she was slated to appear. In a truly horrible postscript, her daughter was found dead like her mother in the bath aged twenty-two.

Whitney wasn’t the first and she won’t be the last talent to be extinguished by bad men and bad drugs. But did nobody see it coming in the earliest stages or intervene when it was obvious Whitney’s life was in danger?

Of the current crop of superstar lady singers, Madonna appears to be indestructible, Britney Spears crashed the car but survived and Gaga has her head screwed-on. You’d hope the people surrounding Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Beyonce will protect their assets as long as money is being made. But, then again, you’d have thought the same about Whitney Houston.

 

 

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21st Century Blues. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As the Wicked Witch croaked as she was melting, ‘What a world! What a world!’ I ask you, how did we get from the tattooed lady that Victorians would pay a shilling to gawp at in a circus tent to the inked, exposed wildebeast stampeding down Oxford Street on a daily basis exposing tattoos so hideous they’d make dogs yowl and babies cry?

I swear if you half-shut your eyes on Oxford Circus you’d think you were in a remake of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome so heinous are the tribal tatts and caveman clothing. What to make of obese great biffas in jeans so shredded there’s more flesh than denim? The fashion reminds me of Tudor slashed sleeves but with satin replaced by mottled cellulite.

The sun’s been out this Bank Holiday weekend which is red rag to a bull to ladies and gents who will never make the Slimcea Girl lose sleep to don hot pants and flip flops that your average galley slave in Roman times would think underdressed. It is bad enough when men go topless in London but the other day I saw a woman on Primrose Hill nipples to the wind and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

Rather in the spirit of the circus tattooed lady, it is a mystery to me  how steroid and protein shake culture has gripped London’s men. In the summertime you see veins on biceps as pronounced as a tube map and calves that never see daylight. it seems everyone wants to be a porn star nowadays. Hell, what am I saying? Thanks to social media, everyone is a porn star nowadays…

Negotiating the pavement in London is bad enough but trying to cross the road you have to cross yourself and finger a rosary hoping that those pernicious wasps on wheels don’t mow you down. The hatred for car drivers and contempt for pedestrians emanating from London cyclists is palpable. These freedom fighters in sweat-drenched lycra menace us all.

There’s a lot of criticism about the veil in London but how about the cyclists with their Darth Vader masks and eyes like knives? It does worry me that the streets of London are so much more unpleasant today because other people are so damned selfish. I am of the generation that opens doors and steps aside when a tourist is blundering around my city like a lost lamb. Pearls before swine, dear.

Mind you, it isn’t just the tourists who are turning London into an assault course even though there is a circle in hell for Chinese visitors with no spacial awareness. I swear, one got so close to me in a queue for the British Museum gift shop I had to tap her on the cleavage with my Barclay card.

When my grandmother paid one of her not infrequent visits to London, she would arrive armed with beaded cocktail dresses, fur stoles, astrakhan turbans and all of her best jewellery. Nowadays they lumber into Kings Cross as packs of hen parties with boobs to their knees wearing ‘Team Cheryl’ T-shirts and leggings. And why does any woman of any age think pale pink, blue, green or yellow streaked hair is appropriate for anything other than a Girl’s World?

The license to wear whatever you want wherever you want has made London’s streets a cavalcade of ugliness. I wonder where self-expression ends and self-loathing begins. In the olden days, branding and piercing of flesh was the most extreme punishment. Why put yourself through it? Stretching ear lobes with bloody great hoops, driving spikes through your tongue, inking skulls and flames on your thighs? Welcome to 2017.

One of the reasons that jewellery so interests me at the moment is because it is a time-honoured way of adorning the human body that can be removed at the end of the day. I have never regretted not having a tattoo if only because one’s mind and one’s life changes. How can you decide what you’d want to ink on your flesh for the rest of your life? With jewellery, you can consign a ring to a box when a relationship dies. But ‘Barry’ will forever be tattooed on your left breast.

What else is new on the Rialto? Well, when not sinking to my knees and ululating for the decline in standards of dress I am furiously working on the layouts for Jewellery for Gentlemen and preparing for my first meeting with a business mentor at Virgin Startup to launch my customised antique jewellery business.

Much as I love producing books, I do have that British ‘shopkeeper’ mentality pushing me to be a little more entrepreneurial. London is a hard taskmaster and constant reinvention is necessary to keep head above water and heart and soul together. Everyone is selling something in London. I think the trick is to sell something you genuinely believe in be that a piece of jewellery or yourself.

There is some consolation in the dumbing-down of dress in London. When I walk through Piccadilly, Mayfair and St James’s suited, booted and sporting a ruby stick pin in my lapel people look twice. Compare that to some topless tattooed cyber punk with green hair and a bone through his nose who will pass unnoticed in a crowd. Gypsy Sherwood predicts that conservatism is now the ultimate rebellion.

Having just left my letter to buy a Telegraph, I walked out just now to find Bloomsbury Square surrounded by police tape. It seems there was a party last night in the Bloomsbury Ballroom that ended with a triple stabbing on my doorstep. A day after H and I shared the Square and a bottle of Prosecco in the sun, blood has been spilt. These are dangerous times in London.

 

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Queen of Fashion. August 2017.

Dear Rowley,

If you’re going to be a writer, you have to be a reader. I know something is distinctly off kilter if I’m not able to sit down with a book and absorb it like Litmus paper. The book that has re-engaged me is the ingeniously titled Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber.

Weber maps the Austrian Queen of France’s rise and fall through the prism of what she wore: from French-made court dress imposed on her as a fifteen-year-old bride to the martyr’s white smock and mob cap she saved for the guillotine in 1793. For a woman who rarely had a voice in history, Marie Antoinette defined herself by fashion.

The trajectory of Marie Antoinette’s life was not, as largely believed, from flaunting, extravagant queen of Versailles to convicted prisoner. From the moment she set foot in Versailles, Marie Antoinette was a prisoner of the system of protocol and etiquette imposed by her grandfather-in-law King Louis XV to distract and control the aristocracy.

In the first seven years of her marriage to the future King Louis XVI, the union was unconsummated. She had the enmity of Louis XV’s mistress Madame DuBarry to contend with plus the poison spread by the king’s three ‘ugly sister’ spinster daughters. Without an heir in the cradle, Marie Antoinette was vulnerable.

Interesting that the young dauphine chose to rebel through fashion: refusing to wear the whalebone corset de la Reine and taking to furious horse riding astride wearing men’s breeches, tunics and plumed tricorn hats. As Queen without an heir in 1774, Marie Antoinette defended her position at the side of King Louis XVI with her perception of sartorial splendour.

The Queen’s pannier gowns designed by Rose Bertin expanded into high and wide Rococo swags exploding from a tiny waist. Her towering pouff hairstyles constructed by Monsieur Léonard were topped with Panache sprays of ostrich plumes, pearls, galleons and birds. Marie Antoinette bedecked herself in the diamonds of the crown of France and spent hundreds of thousands of Livres acquiring more.

When Marie Antoinette finally did have a child in 1778 (a daughter), her popularity was low and rumours ran wild that Louis XVI wasn’t the father; rumours that were compounded because a Dauphin wasn’t born until 1781 by which time the Queen’s affection for Count Axel von Fersen was the talk of Versailles.

And all this before the poor girl had even reached thirty. By 1785, Marie Antoinette abandoned the high Rococo style in favour of the simple, romantic muslin Robes a la Polonaise that she and her ladies the Duchess de Polignac and the Princess de Lamballe wore at the Petit Trianon and the hamlet the Queen had constructed with its model farm and sheep perfumed and tied with ribbons.

Of course she couldn’t win. The court and the public professed themselves scandalised that a Queen of France could be painted by Vigée Le Brun in a muslin milkmaid’s gown and a straw bonnet. This was considered ill-becoming of a queen consort. The deshabillé of the robe a la Polonaise seemed to confirm rumours of licentiousness with lovers both male and female.

The trap that Marie Antoinette couldn’t seem to avoid began to close in 1785 when the Queen was embroiled in the scandal of a fabulous diamond necklace ostensibly secretly delivered to her in the gardens of Versailles. It was a scam and the perpetrators were imprisoned but nobody believed the Queen: a woman who played milkmaids while secretly buying diamonds as the French poor starved.

While being portrayed in pamphlets as a licentious harpy, Marie Antoinette was ultimately caught between a weak husband, inept courtiers and an explosive political situation that would have engulfed the French monarchy with or without her. When the mob descended on Versailles in 1989 and escorted the royal family to the Tuileries palace in Paris, the three staterooms filled with her gowns was left behind and ultimately destroyed.

From the Tuileries to the Temple and finally to a Conciergerie prison cell, Marie Antoinette’s fabled wardrobe was torn to pieces. All that’s left of it now is a bodice here, a stocking there that are treated like religious relics. Nothing remains of the queen of fashion but portraits of her former days of glory.

Marie Antoinette’s decapitated body was buried in a pit none too far distant from the guillotine in the Place de la Concorde. It was only exhumed in 1814 and buried in the Basilica Saint Denis beneath a marble statue depicting her in prayer wearing the Napoleonic costume then in fashion.

It is a tribute to the queen of fashion that she had an afterlife in many films and television adaptations of her life. The 1938 MGM film starring Norma Shearer featured costumes by Adrian of an extravagance that only old Hollywood could conceive. It was Versailles meets the Ziegfeld Follies and none the worse for that.

Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) had the distinction of allowing leading lady Kirsten Dunst to film on location at Versailles, the Trianon and the Petit Hameau. The costumes were soufflé light compared to Rose Bertin’s original robes of state for Marie Antoinette. But they reflected the youth of the Dauphine infused with a contemporary Galliano-style fashion sensibility.

The mark of a great book such as Weber’s Queen of Fashion is that it inspires further research. This evening I will return to the Shearer and Dunst Marie Antoinette films with fresh eyes and a keener sense of curiosity. Until next time…

 

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