Fashion at Chatsworth. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

While staying in Derbyshire for the Bank Holiday weekend I took the opportunity to visit House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House curated by heiress apparent Lady Burlington and US Vogue editor Hamish Bowles for whom I did work experience at Harpers & Queen before the old King died.

The Ducal house of Devonshire has many fashion moments on which to call: the celebrated beauty Georgiana Duchess who rivalled her friend Marie Antoinette as a style leader, Louise Duchess’s Devonshire House fancy dress ball of 1897, the devastatingly chic dancer American Adele Astaire marrying into the Cavendish family in 1932, 11th Duchess Deborah and her couture-clad Mitford sisters Mrs Rodd (Nancy) and Lady Mosley (Diana) and Deborah Devonshire’s model granddaughter Stella Tennant.

First things first, I thoroughly enjoyed the groupings of surviving garments that compared and contrasted the centuries of style. Nowhere was this more successful than in the chapel where we saw two ’Circle of Life’ tableaux of Cavendish wedding dresses and mourning clothes as well as cabinets of Mitford and Cavendish christening gowns.

Lighting was always going to be an issue in a house of Chatsworth’s eminence but more problematic for me was an almost complete absence of captioning for free-standing garments. Instead numbers were attached to mannequin arms that most resembled a beauty contest or cattle auction. These women were some of the most celebrated and photographed of their age. Perhaps a well-placed portrait would have sufficed.

It might have been a curatorial decision to choose gloss mannequins with those Meccano ball-and-pin arms but boy do they let a garment down when exposed. I am thinking of the two sets of Coronation robes in the Painted Hall: Mary Duchess’s worn at the 1953 coronation where she was Mistress of the Robes to HM Queen Elizabeth II and the older off-the-shoulder robes that Deborah Duchess found in a tin trunk and had to have permission from HM to wear at the 53.

Ermine trimmed coronation robes for peeresses display like a dream and I was thrilled to see the two Devonshire tiaras replicated for the exhibition. Both Duchesses wore over-the-elbow white gloves to the coronation so why the bare Meccano arms? There was also a surfeit of bald mannequins for an exhibition that cried out for more tiaras and millinery.

I did adore a timeline of display cases that went beyond the creation of the 1st Duke and took us to the present in small objects. This I loved because each tableau was captioned in swirly burnt umber inked handwriting that told the stories. There was Evelyn Duchess’s evening bag with her cipher described in crystals, Deborah Duchess’s Turnbull & Asser shirts, miniatures of the 6th ‘Bachelor’ Duke’s beloved niece Lady Blanche and scads of scrapbooks and photographs.

House Style does take over huge swathes of the public rooms at Chatsworth so you are not short changed for treasures to see. In fact, perhaps there could have been less. I thoroughly enjoyed the Devonshire House Ball room in which life-size photographs of the extravagantly costumed royals and aristocrats rendered in Perspex were placed near to cabinets with their clearly identified miniatures. I felt the ghostliness of the ball and adored the projection of the staircase of London’s Devonshire House destroyed in the 1920s.

My favourite room bar none was the one containing original costumes from the Devonshire House Ball including Louise Duchess’s ‘Zenobia’ costume with its beautifully recreated ostrich plume headdress. This masterpiece of embroidery by Worth caught my gaze for a good fifteen minutes as did that of the Duchess of Portland (Marguerite de Valois?). Once again, what one wanted more than life itself was a picture of Deborah Duchess wearing Zenobia for her 80th birthday ball.

Inventive touches gave pause for thought throughout the Georgian staterooms: the 11th Duke’s embroidered Lobb slippers, Deborah Duchess’s insect brooches displayed on antique china plates and a remarkable room linking a portrait of Bess of Hardwick with a sequinned get-up Stella Tennant modelled at the 2012 Olympics. It was a privilege, having worked recently with antique jewellers Hancocks, to see their Devonshire Parure set in 1856 for Emperor Alexander II’s coronation together for the first time in a long time.

The hits for me in the rest of the exhibition was a John Galliano crinoline worn by Stella Tennant that was posed next to a portrait of Georgiana Duchess but for the Meccano mannequin. I loved seeing Georgiana’s many bills for diamonds, dressmaking and gambling stacked into a tableau of beautiful ruin. Evelyn Duchess’s shepherdess fancy dress was remarkable for the waist that must have rivalled Queen Alexandra’s.

Lord only knows why underwhelming modern garments were posed in front of the Chatsworth library – surely one of the prettiest rooms in the house – but the curators did go all-out on the couture exhibit in the State Dining Room that featured many of Deborah Duchess and Amanda Duchess’s finest that put some of the more modern pieces to shame.

The men had a bit of a bum’s rush in the State Dining Room. A white tie ensemble’s waistcoat was so far below the tailcoat it practically hit the mannequin’s knees: a cardinal sin on Savile Row. I am sure there was finer men’s tailoring belonging to the Dukes in the collection. But for those who are devoted to fashion and to the remarkable Cavendish women, House Style is a feast for the eyes and the mind.

 

 

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Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

As RuPaul would say, ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is … Balenciaga!’ For fashion queens, Spanish couturier Cristobal Balenciaga is the Rosetta Stone of late 20th and 21st century fashion. Rather cleverly, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion has gathered over 100 original Balenciaga couture pieces – concentrating on his glory years in the 1950s and 1960s – and matched them with a gallery of later works by modern masters that clearly pay tribute to the   great man’s work.

Now, let’s begin with what our American cousins call a ‘rider’. If you haven’t worked on a large scale mannequin show in a museum then you don’t know the years of preparation and weeks of perspiration to bring that vision to the public. The V&A’s costume department consistently work at such a high level that we tend to judge their work hyper-critically. The costume gallery is like Regent’s Park with an outer circle for the permanent collection and an inner circle with mezzanine for specials. The decision to show the Balenciaga originals behind glass in the low-ceiling inner circle undercroft has been criticised.

I tend to agree that the circular mezzanine space is the main stage and  one might well wish to see Balenciaga’s work on top as t’were. But I’d hazard a guess that the masterpieces needed the protection of glass and climate-control cases. So that said, did Balenciaga dazzle?

On balance I would express a preference for Christian Dior’s hourglass New Look silhouette of the late 40s and early 50s and gravitated towards the pieces that sculpted into the waist. But fashion, like art, needs provocateurs such as Balenciaga and the cutting techniques away from the body truly shaped the future of fashion.

Way before Saint Laurent, Balenciaga was introducing a new line every season: the baby doll, the tulip, the sack, the shift, the bubble. I was absolutely transported by the pink tulip dress that wrapped from front to back revealing bows and folds and layers as delicate as the flower. Interesting, isn’t it, that Balenciaga’s followers were the fashion Amazons: Diana Vreeland, Mona Bismarck, Gloria Guinness and Ava Gardner.

The exhibition opened my eyes to Balenciaga’s fabulous use of embroideries such as a barbed wire motif on a cream satin evening dress and supersized sequins that opened the door for his apprentice André Courrège’s 60s Futurist shift dresses. Emanuel Ungaro was also a disciple of Balenciaga. Balenciaga reminded me of his fellow Spaniard Pablo Picasso working in periods of creativity that radically changed season-on-season.

What impressed most about the Balenciaga exhibit in the lower circle was the use of film, fabric swatches, patterns, toiles and extraordinary X-rays of the garments that revealed weighting, double-facing and in one case a gown made with a single piece of cloth.

Moving to the upper circle, I must say I missed the occasional opportunity to put past and present together with, say, a Balenciaga floral embroidery and an homage by Oscar de la Renta or the pink ruffled Belle Epoque Balenciaga silhouette next to Roksanda Illincic’s echo. I was desperate to juxtapose Issey Miyake and Yuki’s Pleats Please pieces – some of the most radical 20th century fashion – with a Balenciaga that showed the reference point.

Balenciaga remains a fashion favourite rather than a globally recognised phenomenon because he was averse to publicity; giving only one interview in his life. He had matinee idol looks but shunned press and personal appearances. I cannot wait to read the catalogue to learn more about the man as well as his work.

Speaking out of turn – what else is new? – I do wonder why the V&A doesn’t go up against New York’s Metropolitan Museum fashion Gala and host an annual dinner to celebrate these marvellous exhibitions. Maybe they do and I’m not invited. But considering the amount of press the Met Gala sucks up every January, I’d love the British to show them how to do it better and with more class.

The V&A has had so many hits with fashion retrospectives such as Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty and Hollywood Glamour. They bring a vast amount of tourism to London because the V&A always delivers. If you love fashion and don’t travel to see Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion then you’re missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity.

I will also say that the V&A’s exhibitions have a huge influence on London’s fashion colleges. Not only can Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion students study the exhibits and learn from the masters, they can also examine the garments close-up in the V&A archive. Expect to see tulips, sacks, shifts and bubbles at the next graduate collections.

I must admit to being as big a fan of film and theatre costume as fashion hence absolutely adoring the V&A’s Ballets Russes exhibit a couple of years ago. Film costume may be brash and made for camera but it displays incredibly well and lifts antique costume which doesn’t always look as spectacular as one would hope.

It has long been a dream of mine to bring Eva Peron’s wardrobe on another Rainbow Tour of Europe and unite it with the costumes made for the Madonna film that I thought were excellent interpretations. You’ll recall that as a child working on the Sunday Express I found many of Evita’s evening gowns in a suburban bank vault in Buenos Aires. I believe they are now in a dedicated museum.

Anyway, enough fantasy curation for now. I have some real curation to get on with for 2018. Until next time…

 

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Cartier in Motion. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

To the private view and lunch for the Design Museum’s Cartier in Motion exhibition yesterday. The exhibit was curated by Norman Foster who was at the press conference with Cartier’s Director of Image, Style & Heritage Pierre Rainero and Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic.

Foster has the kind of presence that I’ve only felt twice before when interviewing extraordinary gentlemen Yohji Yamamoto and Paolo Roversi. When Vogue’s jewellery editor Carol Woolton asked if Foster’s research with Cartier might inspire him to design a watch or a jewel, he said that Cartier in Motion  had made him all the more inquisitive. To have such a thirst for knowledge is probably why Norman Foster is still such a powerful creative force in his ninth decade.

One does find oneself speaking in absolutes – ‘I loathe the Kardashians’, ‘I adore Donizetti’ – but Foster certainly taught me more than one lesson about keeping an open mind with Cartier in Motion. The exhibit engaged and attracted me to a subject that in the past singularly failed to inspire: watches.

The storytelling in Cartier in Motion is worthy of Jules Verne. Foster immerses us into a brave new world in Paris at the turn of the 20th century when Louis Cartier made one of the world’s first wristwatches for his eccentric friend the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont. A recreation of the Demoiselle, a Heath Robinson-style contraption in which Santos-Dumont would circle the top of the Eiffel Tower in record time, dominates the gallery.

An eight-foot recreation of the Eiffel Tower features at the start of the exhibit and we see madly inventive blueprints for limousines and yachts commissioned by Louis Cartier, maps of metropolitan Paris and a recreation of the the aerial dining table that Santos-Dumont designed in 1900 with umpire’s chairs. The point of dining with your top hat brushing the ceiling is beyond me but Santos-Dumont was, after all, an early Surrealist.

There are posters for the Automobile Club de France, illustrations of airships that Santos-Dumont piloted above the rooftops of Paris and gold Cartier cigarette cases inscribed with maps of famous flight paths. You are so transported by Foster’s magnificent men in their flying machines that by the time you get to one of the early Cartier Santos watches (first made in 1904 for the aviator) you see it as a thing of great fascination: a horological Holy Grail.

My slight foideur about watches – however luxurious – is that they are largely mass produced so the stories become diluted. By wirinig Cartier in Motion into the story of Santos-Dumont and Paris, Foster brings these precious and rare survivors to life. To see the beginning of a design process that has inspired countless interpretations is like looking at Leonardo cartoons.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the gallery of greats who have since worn the Cartier Santos and the Tank such as Rudolph Valentino, the Baron de Gunzburg, Boni de Castellane, Noël Coward and Truman Capote.  Cartier’s Mystery Clocks - crystal faces with hands seemingly floating in mid-air with no visible mechanism – are a pleasure to admire having had the privilege to see how the illusion is achieved at the Cartier workshops above the Rue de la Paix flagship.

Granted, I gravitated towards a case containing diamond jewellery not least a Scroll tiara  made for the Countess of Essex in 1902. I also admit to being drawn towards diamond set ladies’ dress watches. A platinum watch set with onyx and rose cut diamonds made in 1914 was the birth of the Cartier Panthère. It is such an important milestone in Cartier’s story. My favourite watch design bar none in the exhibition is the Crash wristwatch with its distorted case and elongated numerals that I had previously thought was an homage to Dali.

My seduction into the watch world began when Tracey Llewellyn, editor-in-chief of Revolution, asked me to pen a column called Past Times telling the stories of people of fascination through their watches. So far we’ve studied Garbo, John Wayne, Richard Burton, Che Guevara, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Marlon Brando and Gina Lollobrigida to name a very few.

The lunch after the Design Museum private view was at Launceston Place and I was thrilled to be seated next to Lady Woolton and Pierre Rainero who carries his incredible knowledge with immense charm. Pierre really is the guardian of the Cartier house style and we have a Jewellery for Gentlemen mission to find out whether Cartier ever made a cufflink in the Deco Indian influenced Tutti Frutti style.

The jewellery business is such a pleasure to work with. Whereas fashion became flooded with bloggers – a pitch invasion in all but name – jewellery has remained trusted and true to the experts like Carol, Vivienne Becker and Joey Hardy. I’ve had the time of my life researching Jewellery for Gentlemen and all my future projects in 2017 are inspired by that world.

I can pay Cartier in Motion no higher compliment than to say it is utterly worthwhile and totally amusing. I went to the private view for the Victoria & Albert’s Balenciaga exhibition today of which more anon. There were garments designed by contemporary designers as homages to Balenciaga as well as a wealth of original couture pieces from the second half of the 20th century. Was it a success? Hmmmmm.

Balenciaga is the couturier’s couturier though I must admit the work of Pierre Balmain, Christian Dior and Jacques Fath while being less inventive is more to my taste. I will report back. From the V&A I have a mad dash to Derbyshire to see parents and the Cavendish Style exhibition at Chatsworth. As Lucia would say, ‘We shall see what we shall see’.

 

 

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Morning Tales. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

I first came across Giles Deacon when he was showing a couture collection in the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, alongside Vivienne Westwood, Valentino and a treasure chest of jewellers including Graff and Van Cleef & Arpels. He was then one of the East London designers on the Club Kid/Boombox scene supported by Love editor Katy Grand. Fast forward to 2017 and Giles is the British couturier chosen by Pippa Middleton to design her wedding dress. Didn’t he do well?

The shaping Giles achieved for the bride – a lovely high neck, cap sleeves, fitted bodice and gently draped, fluted skirt – was enhanced by the invisibly stitched structured lace overlay. I thought Stephen Jones’s pearl-stitched halo veil was terribly pretty as was the smattering of diamonds in Pippa Middleton’s hair.

I am sure it wasn’t coincidental that Carole Middleton and the Duchess of Cambridge were both thinking pink or that Princess Eugenie dialled it down and looked terribly nice. Nice touch of Prince Harry’s beau Meghan Markle to absent herself from the wedding pictures and only attend the reception. Nothing detracted from the bride just as it should be.

No comment on the lady who wore a cowboy hat, the one in the pink top hat and the woman who proved why Royal Ascot were entirely wrong to allow jumpsuits into the Enclosure this year. I was much more intrigued by how the boys handled morning tails. On the plus side, all of the male guests seem to have met the dress code valiantly. But if ever there was an argument for Savile Row’s tailors to step it up it was the wedding of Pippa Middleton and James Matthews.

There was something wrong in the trouser department from the Princes William and Harry onward. Granted, there weren’t any waistline malfunctions whereby shirt showed between waistcoat and trouser. But in this day and age wouldn’t it be nice to see trousers more contoured to the shape of the leg rather than flared and puddling? You know I am a total convert to puppy tooth check trousers with a single pleat and turn-ups that actually narrow into the calf. It’s a Beau Brummell trick to contour the trouser (or the riding breeches in the Beau’s age) thus balancing the tailcoat.

Best in show bar none was best man and brother of the groom Spencer Matthews. An alumnus of  Made in Chelsea, Spencer is groomed for television which is a great start. But then he ticked every box for me: a neatly tailored morning coat, a delicious blue single-breasted waistcoat, a mismatching but complimentary burnt orange tie and a white-collared shirt with a pale blue body. The buttonhole and pocket square were in proportion and the tie was set at a rakish angle with a gold stud.

The groom wore a spotty claret tie with a duck egg blue shirt almost identical to my first Royal Ascot combination. I love a blue double-breasted waistcoat – Ede & Ravenscroft I presume – and hurrah to see another perfectly set tie stud. I wish the groom had kept his morning coat buttoned for the photographs, thus  pulling the tails into shape, but there we are. James Matthews did compliment his bride.

I always enjoy James Middleton’s tailoring. He actually looks like a second son of Prince Michael of Kent; particularly with the beard. Mr Middleton’s blue shirt with a lemon waistcoat was such a pleasing combination with another dark tie and gold stud. I have always had a bias for black morning tails and all of the principals at the wedding chose to wear them rather than a grey three-piece which is rather dull.

British weddings, Royal Ascot and Royal garden parties are really the last opportunity to wear formal day dress and looking at Mr and Mrs Matthews’ wedding pictures gives me hope that we still know how to put on a show. I’d even venture to say the guests at Pippa’s wedding were better dressed than in Westminster Abbey in 2011 when her sister married the Duke of Cambridge. It was all the damned politicians in 2011 who pretended they had hired their morning tails from Moss Bros which was pure hypocrisy from Mr Cameron’s Notting Hill Set.

We are still an occasionally chippy nation and there had been calls for the Mddletons to scale down the wedding in this age of Brexit, uncertainty and austerity. Try telling that to my grandmother Hilda Sherwood’s generation. They still wore their furs, gowns and best jewellery while Hitler was bombing Sheffield. There is something to be said for getting dressed in your best … particularly when times are tough.

On another note, I do hope that the General Election doesn’t drag on. Mrs May seems to be sweeping all before her though it is not necessarily her compliment considering Messes Corbyn and Farron – and lest we forget Nicola Sturgeon – are such woeful opponents. Diane Abbott has been absolute comedy gold combining complete incompetence with entitlement and condescension on various platforms. My favourite Abbott manifesto moment was promising to recruit 10,000 policemen with the sum she’d budgeted meaning each would be paid £30 per year.

If Diane Abbott didn’t try to bluff even after she’d had a ‘dog ate homework’ moment perhaps people would like her more. I think Mrs May is scoring because she is honest, dry, slightly dull and an irony free zone. But give me strong and stable over spin and self-interest. Until next time…

 

 

 

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Keeping Up With the Middletons. May 2017.

Dear Rowley,

Didn’t you stare beadily at Emma Watson when she accepted the first ‘gender-neutral’ acting gong at the MTV Awards for her turn in Beauty and the Beast? Apparently the thinking is that male, female or transgender performers – forgive me if I’ve missed anyone – are all ‘Actors’ and should not be discriminated against by being categorised.

Right-ho, so that means we’ll only have Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor statuettes at the Academy Awards next year? Tell that to Meryl Streep. She’d have your bollocks for earrings. Miss Watson was smashing as Hermi0ne but if I were she I wouldn’t be narrowing the window of opportunity for winning future awards. Let’s leave that right there.

I happen to think a lot of actors and actresses were robbed of Oscars because the Academy voted on political correctness rather than performance. And yet I notice all those actresses who are tub-thumping for gender equality will still take a decorative role in an action superhero franchise wearing costumes that set back women’s rights by decades. I think the best Oscars acceptance speech in recent years was Cate Blanchett’s for Blue Jasmine. The great Cate banged the drum for films led by ladies because people do want to watch them and because they make money. That is the language Hollywood understands. Taking away awards for women only seems a retrogressive step, no?

LaLa Land does seem to say an awful lot about LGBT equality considering you could count No 1 Box Office actors in screen history who are openly homosexual on one hand. I should think Hollywood’s record for out gay actors is on a par with Manchester United. Perhaps there are scores of directors, writers, producers and costume designers who are out and proud but can you name one gay actor in recent history who has played a straight leading role?

In other burning issues of the day, do you think the Duchess of Cambridge will wear a dress as tight as cellophane to Pippa’s wedding tomorrow to get her own back for 2011? I would imagine courtiers connected to Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace might be viewing the nuptials of Pippa Middleton to her multi-millionaire hedge fund fiancee as something of a code red.

In addition to the sisters Pippa and Kate, the Bucklebury wedding will also be the first official outing for Prince Harry’s actress girlfriend Meghan Markel. Three dazzling, pampered brunettes with Hollywood smiles, unlimited wardrobes and daily blow dries. Does that remind you of anyone? It’s England’s answer to the Kardashians with Carole Middleton as Momager Kris Jenner and Prince George a caucasian North West.

The Royal Family cannot afford to return to the soap opera years in the 1990s when Prince Charles and Diana Princess of Wales pitched battle in rival newspapers and the Duchess of York sucked Texan toes. It is the compliment of The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh that the Firm stabilised and won near-universal respect and admiration for service to the country.

The Windsors have been relatively scandal free in the 21st century. Prince Harry’s striptease in a Vegas hotel with a load of showgirls actually gave the ginger scamp kudos. Besides, there’s so much goodwill towards Prince Harry for his military service, Invictus Games and charitable activities. The trouble with Harry is that we like him as a bachelor prince serving as wingman to the Duchess of Cambridge and his brother. How will Britain respond to Princess Meghan?

In this day and age courtiers are much more concerned with Miss Markle being an actress than she being a divorcee. One can’t imagine the Duchess of Cambridge enjoying the competition from another leggy, chestnut-maned beauty who is utterly at home in the limelight. Mind you, Freddie Windsor married an actress. But they moved to LA.

The Kardashian comparison to the Middleton sisters first came into my mind when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge married. The bias cut hourglass dress that Pippa Middleton wore as maid of honour was a wolf whistle rendered in crepe de chine. It asked for fame. Then followed the execrable ‘Pippa Tips’ book about entertaining and the columns for Waitrose Food magazine and Vanity Fair that inspired bogus Twitter accounts and much mirth.

Granted, Pippa has nixed her media career but there seems to be an element of grandstanding surrounding her wedding. She’s no Chloe Green (bring me my tumbril) but there were stories in the press of official car sponsors for the Bucklebury bash to go with the £100,000 Crystal Palace marquee and the £40,000 Giles Deacon wedding dress. I wouldn’t be flabbergasted if Hello! already has the picture rights.

Perhaps like Princess Margaret and The Queen, Pippa can’t really win when compared to the Duchess of Cambridge. She doesn’t have the Kensington Palace machine to protect and promote her image and never will unless Prince Harry is the one to stand up when the vicar asks if anyone knows of any lawful impediment. That’s your soap opera, right there. Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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