Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. February 2016.

Dear Rowley,

I always wondered when the fashion industry would, like a snake swallowing its own tail, eat itself. The prediction came true with the announcement that Burberry – closely followed by Tom Ford – would cease to show Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter collections six months ahead of sale. Now generation Internet will be able to watch the shows live streamed and click & collect almost immediately. This is fundamentally fashion for folk with an Ocado appetite.

Film’s relationship with fashion has already sold its soul to instant gratification and overexposure. Are you suffering from film awards fatigue yet? Much as I admire the acting profession, I don’t think it is entirely edifying watching the profession award itself accolades on an almost weekly basis while wearing a wardrobe of gowns that would make Marie Antoinette feel short-changed.

Actors are paid millions to perform and one can hardly imagine they suffer from a lack of attention or applause off screen. So the necessity for these endless prize givings seems spurious at best. I’ve already seen Jennifer Lawrence in about 200 Dior dresses and we’re not even half way through February. By the time we get to the Oscars, I don’t think we’ll care if she turns-up in a burkha. I defy any actress to set a fashion that lasts when the industry is moving faster than one of Gypsy Rose Lee’s tit tassels.

I happened to be watching Billy Wilder’s magum opus about the dark side of Hollywood Sunset Boulevard (1950) the other night. The tale of forgotten, ageing silent screen idol Norma Desmond is told by the corpse of writer/gigolo Joe Gillis who becomes entangled in Norma’s spider’s web of self-delusion. Norma was played by glorious Gloria Swanson, the greatest silent screen star of them all, who accepted a role that her peers Mary Pickford, Mae West and Pola Negri were too vain to play.

Swanson played Norma like a manipulative black widow: mercilessly mining her great career to give veracity to the beauty crumbling like her hacienda on Sunset with its weed-filled swimming pool and parquet floor installed because Rudy Valentino had once told her ‘it takes tiles to tango’. Joe’s first night as Norma’s guest sees her employing undertakers to bury her pet monkey in the grounds while she weeps as if the primate were a dead husband.

Swanson allowed Wilder to use footage from one of her greatest follies de grandeur Queen Kelly - to show Joe Norma in her silent prime uttering the immortal line ‘we didn’t need words, we had faces’. Her former director Erich von Stroheim played Norma’s butler/ex-husband Max. In one scene Norma imitates Charlie Chaplin with whom she made slapstick pictures for Mack Sennett. Buster Keaton played one of Norma’s waxwork bridge partners.

The most poignant scene in Sunset Boulevard is Norma’s return to Paramount (Swanson’s studio) when she tells the doorman who didn’t recognise her ‘without me, there wouldn’t be a Paramount Studio’. Norma visits Swanson’s favourite director Cecil B. DeMille who plays himself. He calls Norma ‘Young Fellow’ as he did Swanson. Norma’s visit to a sound stage is heartbreaking because the talkies killed Swanson’s career.

That last line of the film  ’and now, Mr DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up’, is one of Hollywood’s greatest. Norma has lost her mind and believes the newsreel journalists are Paramount cameramen filming her comeback Salome. In another Hollywood in-joke, vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper plays herself reporting on the final fall of the star.

The Academy was cruel in 1950. If Miss Swanson had lost the Academy Award to Bette Davis in All About Eve, one might have forgiven the voters but the Best Actress Award went to Judy Holiday for light comedy Born Yesterday. Perhaps the point was that Hollywood, vain as it is, cannot bear a mirror being held up to it when the reflection shatters illusions.

Swanson is best remembered for Sunset but for scholars of fashion, she is the style goddess that a Jennifer Lawrence or Helen Mirren never could be. In the Teens and Twenties, Gloria Swanson was the rage. Millions would Marcel their hair, paint-on a beauty spot or tweezer their eyebrows having seen a Swanson film.

Because Gloria Swanson’s career was pre-Hays Code (censorship), her costumes were daring and devastatingly chic. For the 1919 film Male and Female, Cecil B. DeMille invited Chanel’s lover Paul Iribe to design costumes including a white chiffon gown encrusted with pearls and a white peacock feather headdress (referenced in Sunset) for the scene where Swnson enters a lion’s den. Being a pro, she played the scene for real falling at the paws of a lion that ate another actor weeks after Male and Female. 

Tonight or Never (1931) was one of Swanson’s few successful talkies and is distinguished because the actress employed Coco Chanel to design her costumes but fired her because Chanel’s designs were too subtle to translate on the big screen. Swanson knew what the public wanted Swanson to wear. There was no pandering to fashion designers or experimenting when she’d already honed perfection.

Swanson died aged eighty-four looking as wickedly gorgeous as she did in Sunset thanks to a lifelong macrobiotic diet. Her 1980 autobiography Swanson on Swanson is as sharp an autopsy on Hollywood as Louise Brooks’s Lulu in HollywoodSic Transit Gloria Mundi: thus passes the glory of the world.