The inspiration for my appreciation of fashion was two-fold. Hollywood movies costumed by the greats such as Travis Banton, Edith Head, Irene, Orry Kelly and Travilla taught the power of glamour. But it was portrait artists such as John Singer Sargent, Giovanni Boldini, Paul César Helleu and Toulouse-Lautrec who schooled me in the seductive grandeur of aristocratic style.
So there’s little wonder that by the time I arrived at Central Saint Martins to read an MA in Fashion Journalism, my eye was not drawn to the grunge and heroin chic that was the rage at the time. People often ask if I’d have liked to study fashion as a BA. I did have hopes in the 1980s when Christian Lacroix became the first new named couturier for the best part of a decade.
Lacroix’s sublime work – the puffball evening gowns, the chapeaux exploding with cherries, the swing coats made like Mille Feuille from fifty layers of tulle – referenced Versailles, 50s Dior and Spanish dancers. One thought that haute couture had found a new champion. Sadly, Lacroix was a loss-leader for LVMH and went out of business. I wrote a love letter to Lacroix in The Independent on Sunday and received a charming letter of thanks from the great man.
Had I pursued fashion design, my only avenue would have been the couture ateliers in Paris. In retrospect, perhaps I could have pursued costume design rather than fashion. I was, and still am, a huge admirer of Anthony Powell who brought Cruella de Vil to life on the fur-clad physique of Glenn Close in 101 Dalmatians. His period costumes in the Agatha Christie adaptations Death on the Nile and Evil Under The Sun were my idea of perfection. They would be for a chap who yearns for the 1920s and 30s but is forced to exist in a world of trainers, tattoos and Rihanna.
As they say, nostalgia ‘aint what it used to be. When I look at a Boldini portrait, I want to squeeze under the frame and into the world of his sitters. My favourite Boldini is a study of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough and her son Lord Ivor Churchill. Consuela was born a Vanderbilt and was one of the many American heiresses sold into the British aristocracy in exchange for a tiara and a title. She eventually found love with a dashing aviator called Jacques Balsan.
I do not know who the sitter for The Black Sash was but that slipper satin white gown suggests she was a woman of fashion. Boldini’s work is characterised by swift brushstrokes and a soft-focus that flattered his ladies and gentlemen. He was christened the ‘Master of Swish’ because he brought movement to the canvas and suggested that his society beaux and belles were leading a dazzling, gay life of luxury, frivolity and beauty.
Boldini’s sitters probably had no idea of the debt owed to him. Take Gladys Deacon, second Duchess of Marlborough after Consuelo. Boldini depicts her as a bird in flight; pink flapper dress slipping from her shoulders and a feathered fan fluttering in her manicured hands. Her hair is Marcel waved and her pose that of a jazz baby compared to Consuelo’s lady of consequence.
Gladys became Sunny Marlborough’s mistress and moved in to Blenheim Palace years before Consuelo left. She married her man in 1921 but the ending was not happy. The marriage was childless, possibly as a result of Gladys sleeping with a revolver under her pillow to repel Sunny. She was an early casualty of plastic surgery having paraffin wax injected into her nose that slipped leaving her beauty much diminished.
Sunny Marlborough eventually quit the field leaving Gladys at Blenheim where he starved her of funds before forcibly evicting her. Poor Gladys succumbed to mental illness and was eventually sectioned to St Andrews Hospital where she died, a recluse, aged ninety-six. Apparently the revered royal and society biographer Hugo Vickers befriended her in later years. His biography of Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough was published in 1979.
So you see, Giovanni Boldini captured the spirit of Gladys Deacon at her most alluring and that is how she will be remembered. That’s the brilliance of portraiture. No matter how unhappy the life might become, there is always that moment when a lady or gentleman was in their prime to remember them by. You’d never guess from looking that Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough was trapped in a terribly unhappy marriage. What we see is a beauteous matriarch with one of the two sons she bore Sunny looking for all the world like an Edwardian empress of high society.
If the camera never lies, then the canvas certainly does and I find that a kindness. Boldini captured the femme fatale Marchesa Luisa Casati in her Edwardian pomp holding a fashionably svelte hound on a lead while wearing a floor-length day dress and picture hat the size of a cartwheel. The Marchesa’s end was no less tragic than Gladys Deacon’s. She died relatively penniless in London after a life as a living work of art and artists’ muse in Paris and Venice. In her final days, the Marchesa was seen rummaging in dustbins to find feathers to dress her hair.
So here’s a toast to Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent and Paul César Helleu for weaving dreams around the glamorous if not so good society figures who remain – for me – the high water mark of fashion, glamour and glory.