Has to be said that the Victoria & Albert Museum is arguably the finest curator of fashion exhibitions in the world right now. Of course there is competition from New York’s Metropolitan Museum but the V&A wins on consistently excellent exhibitions of much greater frequency. We have Italian Fashion and Wedding Dresses currently on display and the Met’s celebrated Alexander McQueen retrospective coming. On the 6th of September, the V&A is mounting an exhibition of the 20th century’s greatest fashion photographer Horst P. Horst.
German-born Horst was the sometime assistant, model and lover of Baltic aristocrat Baron George Hoyningen-Huene in the early 30s. He began a lifelong association with British, French and US Vogue in 1931 photographing the great models of the golden era of couture such as Evelyn Tripp, Dorian Leigh and Lisa Fonssagrives. His black and white shots were a miracle of light and shade making him popular with Hollywood idols Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis as well as fashion icons Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli and Charles James.
In later life US Vogue editor Diana Vreeland encouraged Horst to photograph society swans such as Babe Paley, Doris Duke, Barbara Hutton, Mona Bismarck, Princess Marina and Daisy Fellowes. These were accompanied by essays penned by his boyfriend Valentine Lawford with whom he lived from the 30s to the 1990s and with whom he also adopted and raised a son Richard Horst. Horst’s most famous photograph was the Mainbocher Corset; an image that later inspired Madonna’s Vogue video.
My favourite Horst sans doubt is a portrait of Evelyn Tripp wearing a Charles James cocktail gown posed with an oversize flower. It hints at the Surrealism that fascinated Horst but also shows what I consider to be the high water mark of 20th century fashion and elegance. I also love Horst’s little black dress portrait of Irving Penn’s wife and muse Lisa Fonssagrives. That, my dear, is maximum modelling.
Compare and contrast if you will a contemporary image of Cara ‘Devil Child’ Delevingne for British Vogue with the model of the moment sticking her not inconsiderable tongue out and posing for a selfie. The image is brash, crude and to me rather offensive if only because the fashion is overwhelmed by the personality of the model. Come back Kate Moss all is forgiven. Call me old fashioned, but I find the hyper sexualisation of twentysomething girls such as Delevingne and Miley Cyrus disturbing. There’s nothing empowering about sticking your tongue out and twerking.
It is hardly surprising that the yoof are turning their backs on slutty, aggressive fashion and returning to the age of elegance. It is heartening to see young ladies on the streets of London with jungle red lipstick and pin-curled hair and all those bearded, tweedy chaps with hanks in their top pockets. This tribe is gathering momentum and making the Cara Delevingne generation look rather desperate, sad and lacking in imagination.
I do think we could all benefit from looking back to move forward. Much is made these days in the newspapers about the collective health of Britain. It pleases me that more from dumb luck than judgement I seem to be on the right track. I walk everywhere from Bloomsbury Towers on a daily basis, swim every morning plus a sauna and steam. Rather fortunately, I also have a very delicate constitution so don’t have much interest in food.
Not liking food too much is cardinal sin in a society where cooking programmes, food columnists and best selling cook books seem to dominate the scene. I’ve been doing the 2-5 for most of my life simply because I can’t stomach too much food. I will routinely leave half a plate in a restaurant, never eat puddings and – yes – replace evening meals with a glass or two of Prosecco. The mantra now is to eat food that hasn’t really been messed around with apropos my perfect meal would be half a dozen oysters followed by a grilled Dover sole and greens.
Not that I am without vices. I still smoke but, let’s face it, when you live in London you’re breathing a steady flow of builders’ brick dust, Diesel fumes, plane tree pollen and ten types of other s**** from endless restaurants puthering out smoke. A cigarette is the least of one’s worries. Similarly, I’ve put a lid on the booze considerably since my glory days as a lush but I would rather a glass of white alcohol than a Maccy D milkshake or multiple cans of fizzy drinks.
I always think of Alisa ‘Queen of Diamonds’ Moussaieff when food is under discussion. When asked about dietary requirements on a trip to Venice, she replied imperiously ‘does anybody interesting have dietary requirements?’ Hear hear! There’s nowt as boring as listening to people talk about their diets, their addictions or their health regimes. It matters to nobody but yourself. I’m a great believer that whatever you put into or do to your body you reap what you sow.
But there is something to be said for going back to my grandparents’ generation for pointers on how to live a healthy life. They were the rationing generation. They learned to appreciate food and never waste a scrap. Food had to be seasonal because it was grown in Blighty. Meat was scarce, fish was caught off the coast and vegetables were grown on allotments. There’s far too much choice today in supermarkets and this is perhaps why we are spoilt.
Food prices are skyrocketing and that might be a good thing. But let me put it to you this way. I can buy half a dozen oysters and a glass of fizz at Sheekey’s Oyster Bar for £18. It costs over £30 when I go to Waitrose to attempt to cook something at home. It’s a no brainer. I’ve long been of the opinion that stupid people eat and intelligent people drink. That’ll put the cat amongst the pigeons…