By Michele Leight
A pendant to the 2004 "Dangerous Liaisons:
Fashion and Furniture in the 18th Century" exhibition at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the "AngloMania: Tradition
and Transgression in British Fashion" exhibition gathers
up all the quintessentially English staples and displays them
as a series of vignettes that reflect the history, purpose and
decoration of the museum's English Period Rooms, Annie Laurie
Aitken Galleries, while simultaneously exploring English culture
through fashion from the past to the present.
Themes include class, hunting, riding, fishing
and sport, pageantry and royalty, eccentricity, and, of course,
English country gardens and the English gentleman (as epitomized
by Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy).
The entrance to the show was "haut imperial,"
with the Union Jack spread across grand curtains, as in a theatre,
pinned at the center with a resplendent coat of arms.
Immediately to the right in a tiny vestibule
was a spectacular frock coat, circa 1966, designed for David Bowie
by Alexander McQueen, and inspired by John Bull.
Although he was a fictitious character imagined
and penned by John Arbuthnot in his pamphlet "Law is a bottomless
pit" (1712), John Bull emerged through the efforts of artists
and writers like Hogarth, Smollett and Goldsmith as a true British
hero, the freeborn Englishman, a patriot proud of his Anglo-Saxon
origins. The idea of "English liberties" became synonymous
with Bull, as did the frock coat, which had taken on national
characteristics - but to emphasize his democratic character it
was plain, economically tailored, and without the superfluous
decoration and ornamentation which Europeans still favored. It
was the beginning of what has come to be an indispensible component
of any Englishman’s, or woman’s, wardrobe - the impeccably
The red, white and blue cotton frock coat,
shown at the top of this article, was patriotically decorated
with the Union Jack, bearing the elegant lines of its ancestors
- famously worn by 19th Century dandies and Regency Bucks - but
it is doubtful if Beau Brummel or any of his hangers on would
have been so daring as to wear this show-stopping outfit, incorporating
black felt hat, knee-high riding boots and a waistcoat. John Bull
and William Hogarth would have loved this flamboyant symbol of
Englishness. Hogarth was an avowed patriot whose famous and influential
prints were liberally peppered with Union Jacks, roast beef, pubs,
jugs of beer and rosy-cheeked ladies with low cut blouses.
The craze for all things English, or Anglomania,
gripped Europe during the mid to late eighteenth century. France
was leading up to the Revolution, and its flamboyant, ostentatious
aristocracy found little favor with the majority of French citizens,
including Montesquieu and Voltaire, who were avowed Anglophiles.
To these two men, England was a land of reason, freedom and tolerance,
a country where the Enlightenment took hold and found true expression.
Ultimately, however, what began as an intellectual movement became
an issue of style, promoted and propelled along by the English
themselves. The English aristocracy viewed their counterparts
across the Channel as less democratic and infinitely more velvety
and frilly - and haughty - than themselves.
Sponsored by Burberry, with additional support
from Condé Nast, the show is on view from May 3 to September
4, 2006. The catalogue was not available at the May 1, 2006 press
preview and was not published by the Yale University Press until
a few months after the exhibition closed, which is rather inexplicable.
The catalogue, nevertheless, is a a tour
de force of inspired photography by Joseph Coscia Jr., of
the museum's photography studio, informed and spontaneous text
by Andrew Bolton, curator of the museum's Costume Institute, and
with a wonderful introductory essay by Ian Buruma.
Where else would Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief
of Vogue, Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols, The Duke of
Devonshire, Phillipe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan
Museum, and Rose Marie Bravo, Chief Executive of Burberry, mingle
with the international press but at a preview of a show entitled
"Anglo-Mania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion,"
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Such juxtapositions are not
unusual for the British, but there were a few startled faces in
the usualy sedate Landsdowne Dining Room, designed by Robert Adam,
in the museum's English Period Rooms, Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries,
overrun with Punks at this show.
It was a beautiful spring morning and the billowing
white tent was up on Fifth Avenue, truckloads of white spring
blossoms perfumed the stately entrance hall of the museum, busy
hands arranging them into gorgeous floral displays for the gala
celebration later that evening. The Duke of Devonshire and Rose
Marie Bravo, Chief Executive of Burberry, which was a sponsor
of the exhibition and celebrating its 150th anniversary, were
Honorary Chairs of the gala, with co-chairs Christopher Bailey,
Creative Director of Burberry, actress Sienna Miller, and Anna
Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue.
The eye and the lens had to adjust from the
sun-drenched Petrie Court where coffee and comments presided to
the darkened, theatrical atmosphere of the exhibition, entered
through stage-like curtains. No British show would be complete
without elegantly proportioned rooms by Robert Adam, fine porcelain,
butlers, liveried footmen, Chinoiserie, Chippendale furniture,
paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborogh, gardens,
horses, bespoke jackets, dogs and horses everywhere, hunt balls
- and a large dollop of wackiness, or eccentricity.
This show did not disappoint, and provided
an abundance of genuine English props, as the perfect foil for
costumes from the 18th and 19th century, as well as contemporary
British designers - including Hussein Chalayan, Christopher Bailey,
John Galliano, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen, Paul Smith
and Vivienne Westwood. The British are famous for hats, and milliners
Stephen Jones and Phillip Treacy continued the tradition with
great panache; Manolo Blahnik stepped in with elegant footwear,
and Simon Costin and Shaun Leane the unique jewelry.
British Saville Row tailors were well represented,
legendary names that span two centuries, or more of tailoring,
and newer, ready-to-wear suit makers for busy, younger clientele:
Anderson & Sheppard Ltd., Richard Anderson, Ozwald Boateng,
Timothy Everest, H. Huntsman & Sons, Richard James, Kilgour,
and Henry Poole & Co. In many ways these consummate professionals
have had the widest impact on fashion historically, because their
classical, bespoke creations have been transported to countries
across the globe, worn with reverence that is lacking in Britain,
where gentlemanly "fashion" is supposed to assume an
effortless flinging together of the usual components of "dress.
Humble wool, for example, was elevated by the British to the pinnacle
of good taste in the form of pin stripe suits and the universally
beloved tweed jacket.
Ian Buruma expands on this in his introductory
essay in the catalog:
"Tocqueville was one of many foreign observers
in Britain who noted the porous quality of the British upper class.
In Germany or Austria, or under the French Ancien Regime, the
nobility was more a caste than a class, inaccessible to upstarts
and outsiders. The British nobility was of a more liberal disposition,
which allowed men and women with talent or wealth, or even superior
style and wit, such as Beau Brummel, to share in its privileges.
It allowed for assimilation, as it were, which was one reason,
perhaps, why the British upper class managed to avoid a violent
revolution, and why it attracted so much admiration among those
who lived in more oppressive societies."
Dressing up and theatricality go together..
Some of England's most famous sons, like Shakespeare, were wedded
to the theatre, and it is a tradition that continues indoors and
out, even today. Walking down Kings Road is evidence that being
original, or "cutting a dash" as Buruma calls it, still
matters. When Regency Bucks went for a stroll in Hyde Park in
the mid-19th century, their subversively "understated"
clothes - a jab at the pretentious clothes of "aristocrats
- turned heads, even though they would have had the observer believe
that this was not their intention.
With so much fashion and "costuming"
to draw on, eclecticism was evident in the show, as it still is
in the streets of England. However, when it moves further afield,
the ingredient of irreverence is often missing.
Mr. Buruma explains:
"This eclecticism is not always properly
understood by Britain's admirers. Many foreign followers of 'gentlemanisimo'
are disappointed when they visit the actual place of origin. The
English gentleman may now be a more common sight in Milan, Philadelphia,
or Calcutta than in London. But no matter, Anglophiles never were
the same as Englishmen. Imitating the English has provided a great
deal of pleasure to many people, who felt that dressing up in
English clothes gave them a sense of dash and distinction. But
Anglomanes have, over the ages, given at least as much pleasure
to the English themselves, who could bask in the sincerest form
of flattery, while being reassured of their natural superiority
when even the most assiduous foreign mimic managed to get the
smallest detail wrong."
Anglomania is as sumptuous as "Dangerous
Liasons," but far more densely populated, with elements of
tradition offset by "transgression," new "takes"
by contemporary designers on conventional dress. The viewer was
reeled in gently, but the show became more deliciously outrageous
with each "vignette."
The first vignette was staged in The Kirklinton
Park Dining Room, strewn with rose petals, a fantastical array
of pompadoured mannequins in 18th and 19th century gowns of gorgeous
Spitalfields silks with floral motifs, some echoing the wonderfully
imaginative orchid themed hats by Phillip Treachy. The softly
lit room, with reflecting candelabra and lovely old mirrors was
designed by John Sanderson, and originally from Kirklington Park
in Oxfordshire, where it looked out over an idealized landscape
created by Lancelot "Capability" Brown.
Tweeting birds accentuated "The English
Garden" theme, and Hussein Chalyan's cropped pink rosette
dress was set, center stage, like contemporary topiary. Rounding
off the bucolic theme were two paintings by Francois Boucher and
"Shepherd's Idyll" by John Wooton, heavily influenced
by Claude Lorraine, reflecting the cross-cultural admiration and
interchange between the English and French nobility. Sir James
Dashwood commissioned the house, and the sublime dining room has
been described by "Country Life Magazine" (an arbiter
of all things distinguished in Britain) as the most beautiful
18th century room in America. All the "props" in this
room, and most of the others at the show are permanently on view
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"Upstairs Downstairs" is a constant
theme in British literary novels, like Dickens, the Brontes and
Austen. Before World War I, no respectable English country house,
with its country gardens and rolling landscapes could function
without "help." The enormous houses required large staff,
retinues of gardeners, maids, footmen, coachmen, butlers, cooks
and grooms. A way of life evolved in these individual feifdoms
that became synonomous with the idea of "Englishness."
Even now, many years after the great houses have been sold off,
willed to the National Trust, or turned into hotels, the myth
of the English country house persists, mainly because people want
it to. Even more than the houses, the English country garden has
come to represent a universal ideal, with its perfumed herbaceous
borders, exquisite and informally planted seasonal flowers - and
old roses cascading over weathered stone walls.
In the second vignette, a lady in a Charles
Frederick Worth ball gown, (circa 1888), passes a liveried footman
on the grand Cassiobury Park staircase (1677-80), originally from
Hertfordshire, while maids dressed in "tattered" clothes
by Hussein Chalyan, dutifully dust and clean, illustrating the
uneasy but interdependent relationship of servant and master:
the aristocracy and the "downstairs," that had a rigid
hierarchy of its own. The ballgown with its sweeping, 11-foot-long
train was worn to the court of Queen Victoria. Embroidered with
unusually realistic flowers, it reflects a greater "naturalism"
than Victorian patterns, influenced by the burgeoning Arts and
Crafts Movement in Britain. However, the rags and tatters on Chalyan's
trendy Cinderellas (before the ball), who represent the "bunters,"
or lowliest maids, are finely sewn, expertly hemmed, exquisitely
pin-tucked - and definitely "haute couture." Two beautiful
portraits by Sir Peter Lely, "Mary Capel, Dutchess of Beaufort
and Her Sister Elisabeth," (1660) and "Sir Henry Capel,"
"(1660), add authenticity to this domestic scene.
Country houses were "nobel piles,"
as Evelyn Waugh called them, symbols of class and status. No item
of furniture was more imbued with the wealth and social standing
of its owner than the State Bed. Beds also lent themselves to
momentous events like births, or more often deaths, where the
owner was laid out with great formality and pageantry - in an
elevated version of the more humble wake. The British are famous
for pageantry, with marching bands, Horseguards, and royals in
horse-drawn carriages drawing crowds of tourists to England annually.
Funeral processions are also far more ceremonial in Britain. Thomas
Coningsby, the owner of Hampton Court in Herefordshire, rewarded
himself for being made a baron by King William III in 1690 (for
his loyalty during the Battle of the Boyne) by redecorating the
house, and commissioning a bed that would be noticed.
"The Deathbed," featuring the Hampton
Court State Bed, hung with blue velvet, was the centerpiece for
a sombre vignette with Queen Victoria in her famous "widow's
weeds," which she wore almost permanently after her beloved
Prince Albert's death from typhoid fever in 1861. On the bed,
large enough to be a New York studio apartment, was a reclining
contemporary male figure dressed in startling tartan pants - in
the context of the nearby Queen - while a female mannequin in
a stunning black nylon mesh and silk taffeta dress with a spine
corset (by Alexander McQueen and Shaun Leane) reclined on the
floor. Her black silk-and-lace hat set with jet crystal embroidery
was by Phillip Treacy, and black "Bhutan" platform shoes
by Manolo Blahnik. The artistry and workmanship in the dress was
exquisite - McQueen is no stranger to haute couture and has created
some of the most memorable contemporary outfits and gowns. Mourning
clothes were especially exclusive, because only the wealthy aristocracy
could afford them. The silk crepe gown was actually worn by Queen
Victoria, loaned for the exhibition by The Museum of London. The
memento mori-themed necklaces and brooches by Simon Costin, (1986),
and the silver jawbone is by Shaun Leane (1998), were finely wrought
and appropriately macabre.
Vivienne Westwood lightened the mood with an
eye popping "take" on empire and monarchy in a vignette
of Good Queen Bess - Elizabeth I - of Hardwicke Hall, staged in
the Metropolitan Museum's magnificent oak panelled Elizabethan
Room, originally from Great Yarmouth, England, (circa 1595-1600).
Westwood's concoction stands next to "Portrait of a Noblewoman,"
(British, Late 16th Century, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan), that
shows a woman emulating The Virgin Queen's famous pasty white
make up, "over the top" jewels, and opulent gowns. It
is easy to see why this famously irreverent designer would be
drawn to such an individualistic female icon. Westwood's contemporary
version is crowned by a glorious red wig, and a dress (1997-98)
thickly printed with birds, flowers and aquatic motifs to accentuate
the monarch's maritime preoccupations and conquests. This was
the age that established Britain as a super-power, all set to
colonize the world on a massive scale. In olden times the motifs
on the dress would have been painted or embroidered by hand, but
this contemporary printed handiwork had a convincing three-dimensional
Continuing the theme of deference and tradition,
Westwood offers a "tongue in cheek" ensemble for a contemporary
monarch, with a mini-crini (a combo mini-skirt and crinoline),
a fake "ermine" mini-cloak, and a teeny crown. (Courtesy
of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Costume Council Fund).
One of the most stunning dresses in the show
was featured all alone in the beautiful Croome Court Tapestry
Room (circa 1771) "vignette." A myserious lady in a
"raven" headdress by Stephen Jones, arm outstretched,
raven on her hand, wears a romantic and very dramatic black ballgown
by John Galliano, who designs for the legendary French fashion
House of Dior. Galliano is an avowed Francophile, a contemporary
"haute couture" interpreter of the historic give-and-take
between the two cultures. While the raven is a romantic symbol
of death, (there are several in the tapestry surrounds), the room
itself was so mouthwateringly romantic it was impossible to hold
on to a negative thought. The owner of Croome Court was a Francophile,
and Andrew Bolton provides insight in the catalogue:
"This proclivity was a source of irritation
among patriots lower down the social scale, who regarded the Gallic
tastes of the upper classes as distinctly unpatriotic. At least
until the French Revolution (1789-99), the English nobility remained
thoroughly Francophile. Typical of men of his class, George William,
sixth Earl of Coventry, spent much of his wealth decorating the
interiors of Croome Court, his seat in Worcestershire, with French
paintings, porcelain, and furniture. After the Treaty of Paris
(1763), which ended the Seven Years' War (1756-63), the earl indulged
his passion for French luxuries by ordering a set of tapestries
from the Royal Gobelins Manufactory in Paris for one of three
rooms at Croome Court designed by the architect Robert Adam. The
acme of the earl's Francophilia, the tapestries, like wallpaper,
cover the four walls from cornice to chair rail. Designed with
borders resembling gilded wood frames, they are composed of medallions
featuring allegories of Four Elements by François Boucher."
At that time the Gobelins factories were facing
a shortfall of orders from their own dwindling clientele in France.
The manager charged with drumming up new business was Madame de
Pompadour's brother. The rest, as they say, is history. She and
many other French aristocrats lost their heads in the French Revolution,
but none of these events were reflected in the sublimely romantic
French room that once stood in a thoroughly English house. Beautiful
Meissen porcelain birds added a touch of whimsy, while continuing
the feathery theme.
The transformation of the classical Landsdowne
Dining Room (1766-69) designed by Robert Adam, into a "Gentleman's
Club" was the most striking "transgression" at
the show, drawing smiles, and amazement from viewers. This gorgeous
dining room once stood in a house set back from the road in a
garden at the southwest corner of Berkeley Square in London. Its
owner, William Perry Fitzmaurice, second earl of Shelburne, was
created first Marquis of Landsdowne in 1782, and entertained Benjamin
Franklin, David Garrick, Samuel Johnson, and Honoré de
Mirbeau there. (For those who would like to learn more about the
rooms at this show and their furniture, fixtures and fittings,
"English Period Rooms at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Annie Laurie Aitken Galleries," is a treasure trove of information
about how the rooms and the artifacts found their way to America,
and who occupied them when they were originally built. It was
published in 1996 by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed
by Yale University Press.)
Appearance is of great importance to a gentleman
of any era, and "Gentleman's Club" did its utmost to
provide every possible variation on the theme, from the past (dandies,
a duke, the contemporary Noel Coward set) to the present (punks
and business-minded gentlemen). Contemporary British designers
and legendary Saville Row tailors dressed "gentlemen"
and punk rockers in appropriate outfits: a tartan blazer, (designed
by Johnny Rotten, made by Vivienne Westwood, 1976-77), tartan
pants, T-shirts, (Malcolm McLaren) and punk headdresses, "mohawks"
fashioned from barbed wire, cigarettes and Barbie Doll legs by
Stephen Jones, (2006), yards of chains, leather straps, big boots,
and jewelry by Shaune Leane (2006) rounded out the punk contingent.
For the contemporary Noel Coward, or gentleman, pin-stripe suits
(by all the Saville Row tailors mentioned at the top of the story,
circa 2006), smoking jacket (Christopher Bailey for Burberry,
2006-07), evening suits and dinner tackets (Saville Row tailors,
Burberry, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen 2006),
The only evening suit - or dinner jacket with
a white tie - from the past in this "vignette," was
worn by The Duke of Windsor, of strikingly original navy wool
twill with black silk faille, by H. Harris, circa 1938, the year
before World War II. Classical male statues with strategically
placed fig leaves looked down impassively from the nine niches
aloft - at pure bedlam. The only female outfit in the midst of
this male bacchanale was a contemporary "goddess" from
antiquity, stashed safely in a niche along with the Classical,
naked males - wearing a beautiful, Fortuny-esque, flowing white
muslin outfit by John Galliano, circa 1986.
Impossible to miss in the throng of cameras
and press at the press preview was Johnny Rotten, a Punk rock
legend to anyone who remembers the impact of the Punks in the
70s in London. As a teenage resident of Chelsea at the time, this
reviewer remembers when the billboards for "The Rocky Horror
Show" went up outside the theatre on the Kings Road, prompting
protests from mothers pushing strollers, bus drivers, bobbies
and silver-haired ladies. It was impossible to walk by the images
of male and female Punks sporting nose rings and mohawks, partially
bared breasts and buttocks, and black stockinged legs with sexy
garters. The young loved the shock value of the billboard on sight,
millions have seen the show, which has become a rock musical legend.
Britain entered a new, subversive chapter in cultural history
as clumps of Punks became a permanent fixture along the Kings
Road, one hairdo more amazing than the other. Soon, Punk fashion,
music and "attitude" hit the runways, the airwaves,
the TV screens - and the world. Today the silver-haired ladies
would not even break their stride, because "Punk" has
become absorbed into the cultural landscape of Britain.
It is hard to think of Beau Brummel as a renegade,
but in the context of his own times he was just as subversive
as the Punks for his "understatement." Andrew Bolton,
associate curator of The Costume Institute, writes in the catalogue
of "The Gentleman's Club" in the Landsdowne Dining Room:
"Reflecting the tribal identities that
exemplify British fashion and culture, this Hogarthian propensity
is presided over by a group of dandies, including figures dressed
in evening suits by Alexander McQueen and Anderson & Sheppard.
McQueen trained at Anderson & Sheppard, the eponymous founders
of which served their apprenticeship with the formidable Frederick
Scholte, principal tailor to the Duke of Windsor from 1919 to
1959....Like the Duke of Windsor, late-twentieth-century Punks
and early twenty-first century gentlemen are, in very different
ways, inheritors of the tradition of Brummelian dandyism, the
former through their political posturings and the latter through
their sartorial sublimity. For, in spite of, or rather because
of its exquisite propriety, Brummel's self-presentation was, fundamentally,
oppositional, an anti-fashion statement that mocked the sartorial
superiority of the aristocracy and the sartorial mediocrity of
the bourgeoisie. In essence, Brummel was a Punk disguised as a
The novels of Jane Austen, the Brontes and
George Elliot are rife with chance or clandestine meetings on
horseback on the moors or meadows, or at The Hunt Ball, or while
"riding to hounds," best known as "fox hunting,"
which was described by one of Britain's wittiest sons as "the
pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable." While fox hunting
was technically egalitarian and open to all from the mid 18th
century - although strict dress codes applied - dinners and Hunt
Balls were more private affairs, accessible only to the aristocracy.
A magnificent lady on horseback, attired in
a "Trench Coat Dress" of lilac silk faille lined by
Christopher Bailey for Burberry, dominated "The Hunt"
vignette, followed in the next room by "The Hunt Ball,"
where ladies in vast pompadours and billowing ball gowns danced
under the gaze of paintings by Sir Joshua Reynolds and James Seymour.
Sport has always been a passion with the British, and "class"
determined which sport was played by whom until recently, with
riding and fox hunting for aristocrats, cricket for the bourgeoisie
and soccer for the masses. Fox hunting was banned by an Act of
Parliament in 2005, as a result of animal rights activism that
exposed the grisly side of this "blood" sport. Galliano,
Westwood and Stephen Jones parody the brutality of fox hunting
with blood spattered fox fur muffs and hoods.
That said, the scarlet hunting jacket, or "pink,"
has become something of an English mascot, worn by furry toys
and dolls, and appropriated by anyone who wants to own one - several
subversive versions were offered by John Galliano and Vivienne
Westwood, while Christopher Bailey stuck to the more traditional
interpretations of the classic Trench coat for Burberry, of gabardine
with fox fur trim.
Mr. Bolton offers these insights on the trenchcoat:
"In 'The Hunt' this tradition of sartorial
transference from fashionable menswear to equestrian womenswear
can be seen in the trench-coat dress by Christopher Bailey for
Burberry. Developed in 1914 by Burberry for British officers serving
in World War I, the trench coat, like fox hunting itself, has
become one of the most potent badges of Englishness. In this trench-coat
dress, Christopher Bailey substituted the traditional gabardine
with an opulent silk faille, the lining of which echoes the scarlet
riding coat of Bernard Weatherill, the company that has supplied
riding clothes to the Royal family since 1912."
The scarlet riding coat with neat black velvet
collar and wool britches of the ensemble by Bernard Weatherill,
founded in 1912, stood out from the crowd for its simplicity and
grace, accentuated by boots polished and shined to perfection.
This riding habit, circa 1980, is from the Haydon Hunt, Northumberland,
(founded in 1845), proof that riding in the grand manner with
a pack of hounds is still flourishing, but without the foxes.
The military overtones of this riding habit was striking, and
it is hard to think of a famous British portrait whose subject
did does not wear apparel following this simple silhouette. The
most recognizable names in British paintings adorned the walls
of "The Hunt" vignette, among them Sir Joshua Reynolds,
Sir Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Godfrey Kneller and Joseph Wright
Hunt Balls usually took place at the end of
the Season, and the "The Hunt Ball" features gowns by
Galliano, Westwood and Alexander McQueen, created more for publicity
purposes than for sale, giving free reign to British theatricality.
In the midst of these swirling damsels with impossibly high pompadours
are the elegant hunt dress suits of some of the oldest names in
British tailoring and fashion.
Andrew Bolton supplies historical information:
"The Vignette entitled 'The Hunt Ball,'
based on William Hogarth’s 'The Country Dance,' (circa 1745),
follows the sartorial etiquette of hunt balls with the male figures
dressed in hunt dress suits by Henry Poole & Co., and H. Huntsman
& Sons, two of the oldest firms on Saville Row. Their histories
and successes are closely linked with the sporting fraternity,
especially those of Henry Poole, who in the mid- to late eighteen
hundreds boasted a list of clients that included the most raffish
bloods in the country."
The "icing on the cake" of this exuberant
show was a dress by the French designer Charles Frederick Worth,
(1868-1956), which recalled a dress worn by Eliza Doolittle in
"My Fair Lady" in a scene at the race course when she
exhorts a horse to move its posterior in "comman" language,
undoing the best efforts of her elocution coach, Henry Higgins,
to disguise her lowly origins. Perhaps Sir Cecil Beaton saw this
gown and adapted it for the Hollywood extravaganza as only he
- a true transgressor and eccentric - could. The House of Worth
gown (1989-1900) has a skirt and bodice of white silk satin and
silk voided velvet, its lines reminiscent of swirling French wrought
iron and the paintings of Erte.
Coming full circle from the early beginnings
of British satire and caricature, represented in the cartoons
of William Hogarth and Rowlandson, are contemporary fashion references
in the newsprint-patterned outfits of Galliano and Westwood to
the British Gutter Press, which, like it forebears, does not stop
at anything to make a point. In the old days the satirists exaggerated
the bellies, bustles, bosoms and wigs of the aristocracy, while
today the outrageous British tabloids leave no stone unturned
when exposing celebrity or royal transgressions - a jab at the
hypocrisy of those who think they are above satire or better than
anyone else, which is as true a democratic sentiment as any expressed
throughout British history. It remains, above all, a free press,
even if it is often extreme and totally exaggerated.
A Frenchman shall have the final word on the
show, as transcribed by Andrew Bolton:
"In his 'Letters On the English and French
Nations,' (1747), L'Abbaye Jean le Blanc wrote that the 'the English
do not seem capable of being moderate in anything.'"
Well said, and yet they are at heart, so endearingly
traditional. A perfect example of this was Johnny Rotten, who,
when waylaid by an ardent fan for an autograph, pleaded wearily:
"Give us a minute: I really must get a
cup a tea," and off he went, hiding behind his sunglasses,
followed by hangers on.
Now there's a British sentence: what is an
Englishman - or woman - without their cup of tea? It was much
too early in the day for autographs; creative souls like Johnny
do not belong in the bright light of morning surrounded by manic
press racing deadlines and asking lots of impertinent questions;
they are creatures of the night, habitues of dimly lit, subterranean
clubs where the young, the trendy - and those who want to be -
pass the time 'til the wee small hours. One had the sense that
Johnny had only just gone to bed. Once Johnny had disappeared
to get his tea, the throng paid full attention to the comments.
Anna Wintour was wide awake and elegant as
always, and Phillipe de Montelbello thanked her warmly in his
remarks for her invaluable contribution to the Costume Institute's
annual event that has become, like spring itself, a much anticipated
rite of passage in a city crammed with social events. The Petrie
Court in which we all took our tea and coffee would soon be transformed
into a dining and dancing arena for New York’s most spectacular
"ball" of the season.
The Duke of Devonshire did not speak, but sat
quietly, listening. For those who have not yet visited Chatsworth,
the "noble pile" of The Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire,
add this historic home to your itinerary. The Duchess of Devonshire's
chickens roam the car park and driveway to the house, and provided
endless entertainment for the reviewer's Anglo-American son, an
animal lover, who was fascinated by this down-to-earth addition
to one of England's most beloved - and sumptuous - country houses,
with a world famous art collection. Although the Duchess has a
fine chef to prepare exquisite meals, she insists that they be
laid out on the sideboard and she serves herself. She does not
like to be served.
Things have changed immensely in Britain, epitomized
by the new look of Burberry, as translated in the collections
designed to appeal to the young set by the very young, nattily
suited, Christopher Bailey, who spoke confidently of his happy
involvement with the company at the press preview. Even those
who are not so young appreciate the "tweak" and edge
he has given to Burberry's traditional plaids, gabardines and
accessories, and it is proving to be extremely successful. Burberry
"ads" are now eccentric and fun, without ever losing
As I left the press preview, I passed a pale
Vivienne Westwood making her way elegantly up the grand museum
steps, with the air of someone who did not normally submit to
public appearances - in full fashion "dress" - at such
an uncivilized hour. It was before noon, and press from all over
the world had been clicking their cameras, rolling the tape and
taking notes for two hours. This was going to be a long day for
the fashion diva, with the Costume Institute's Benefit Gala, or
"party of the year," scheduled that night. This queen
of contemporary transgression could handle it; anyone who negotiated
the Met's steps in five-inch stilettos without even a wobble was
more than up to the challenge.
As twilight faded to night, shiny black limousines
lined up, double-parked, discharging bejeweled attendees decked
out in satin cocktail dresses, beaded ball gowns and sleek black
tuxedos, who entered the white tent with great anticipation. Spring
in New York had officially arrived.