The Little Black Dress. November 2012.

Dear Rowley,

You know one of my favourite phrases? There’s nothing new in the zoo. It was that flippant phrase that made me call time on my catwalking carrer. No, darling, I was never a runway model though Raf Simons did ask me to model for his second collection after giving me his first interview ever for my Independent on Sunday column Style Police back before the Ark landed on Mount Ararat. He’s now creative director of Dior.

Well, reclining on the day bed in Bloomsbury Towers with a glass of Prosecco the other day I happened to catch a rerun of the James Cagney/Doris Day film Love Me or Leave Me. I’ve been having rather a love in with Doris Day of late. Next to Garland, she was the only serious tripple threat for over three decades in Hollywood. Love Me or Leave Me is the story of torch singer Ruth Etting. Etting was one of the greatest performers of the 1920s and 30s. She sold two of the 20th century’s greatest torch songs:  Love Me or Leave Me and Ten Cents a Dance.

Ruth Etting’s career was made by a Chicago mobster – Martin ‘Moe the Gimp’ Snyder – who picked her out of the chorus line and – with no little thanks to her perfect pitch pipes – propelled her to Broadway and the Ziegfeld Follies. Snyder was a rough, tough guy who couldn’t accept the fact that she had sufficient talent to make it without his strong arm tactics. Her loveless marriage to Snyder drove Ruth to drink. It ended when Snyder shot the piano player Ruth was in love with. The pianist survived and became the second Mr Etting. But her career never survived the scandal.

Love Me or Leave Me is one of Doris Day’s most challenging roles both vocally and dramatically. She didn’t earn an Oscar nomination though Cagney deservedly did as Moe the Gimp. She wasn’t even up for the role. It was turned down by Lauren Bacall, Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth. But Doris Day nails it. Buy the DVD for twelve bars of bliss baby. The score comes second only to the fashion in the film. To die Rowley. To die!

I gave up runway reporting because I don’t think frockage got better than the 1920s to the 1950s. DD sings Ten Cents a Dance wearing a 50s version of a 20s Charleston shimmy dress: all bustier, curves and jet beaded fringe. That dress is sculpted by the studio’s greatest couturiers and moves like a chandelier in the breeze. It amused me to see that Karl Lagerfeld has produced a book of portraits featuring ‘slebs’ wearing Chanel little black dresses. None can touch DD’s Ten Cents costume.

Am I the only one a little bemused about where precisely Alexa Chung sprung from? She is one of Lagerfeld’s LBD poster girls. Nobody had heard of Alexa two years ago and now she is the darling of the Gods. I saw her in action in January when Anda, Poppy and I organised the Savile Row Open Day for London Collections: Men. She’d been commandeered for a photo shoot on Savile Row with all the dapper young apprentices.

Well, we were all lined up and ready for gorgeous George Garnier to shoot the pictures. In dashes Alexa with her minder. She leaps like a gazelle on top of the red pillar box on the corner of the Row and poses like a manic gypsy on fire: eyes as mad as Mrs Rochester and limbs contorting like a circus performer. In the flesh it looked like a pantomime of Hypo-Mania. On film she looked ferral and beautiful rather like a fox caught in a car’s headlamps.

But back to Golden Age Hollywood. No matter how many catwalk shows I sat through, I never got the thrill that I trilled on first seeing Rita Hayworth sing Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda wearing a spray-on black satin siren dress and slowly peeling off elbow length satin gloves. It doesn’t get any better and there’s no point pretending that fashion can improve on perfection. Let’s face it, fashions of the 20s to the 50s was sculpted to flatter the female form. Where can one go from there?

I admire certain contemporary designers. I adore Kors. I say ‘Jolly Good Show Savile Row’ and was moved to tears – soppy sod – by Galliano and McQueen. But no matter how sublime a couture show today I still don’t think it can hold a candle to the greats: Chanel, Vionnet, Dior, Balenciaga, Balmain, Saint Laurent and Halston. But the reference I always return to is Hollywood. Look at Jean Harlow. I mean look at her. There wasn’t a face and body that was more suited to the 1930s bias cut. Sure the platinum hair was brassy in colour but in black and white looked like a halo of light.

I know everyone foams at the mouth when they see Audrey Hepburn’s Breakfast At Tiffany black cocktail frock cut by Hubert de Givenchy. It’s quite a nice frock but the neckline isn’t great and doesn’t have the ghost of a whisper of sex appeal. Give me Orry Kelly’s costumes for Marilyn in Some Like it Hot any day. I have a suspicion that should a fashion designer simply copy Hollywood’s interpretation of 1920s fashion and throw it down the catwalk that the fashion press would sink to their knees and worship. Then again, they would need models with similar curves rather than emaciated teenagers to show this silhouette off.

Until next time…