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"AngloMania: Tradition and Trangsression in British Fashion"

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 3 to September 4, 2006

Trendy Cinderellas and Widow's Weeds

Frock coat designed by Alexander McQueen for David Bowie

Frock coat designed by Alexander McQueen for David Bowie, 1966

All photographs by Michele Leight

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 tailored suit.

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."

Orchid-themed hats by Phillip Treachy atop mannequins in the Kirklinton Park Dining Room

Pompadoured mannequins in the Kirklinton Park Dining Room at the museum wearing orchid-themed hats by Phillip Treachy

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.

Rosette dress by Hussain Chalyan

Cropped pink rossette dress by Hussein Chalyan

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.

Cassiobury Park staircase 1888 Worth ballgown

A lady in a Charles Frederick Worth ballgown circa 1888 on the Cassiobury Park Staircase from Hertfordshire (1677-1680)

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 dress

Vivienne Westwood dress next to late 16th Century portrait of a noblewoman

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 appearance.

Vivienne Westwood attire for contemporary monarch

Mini-crini for a contemporary monarch by Vivienne Westwood

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 gentleman."

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.

"The Hunt"

"The Hunt" gallery with hunting jackets by John Galliano, Vivienne Westwood and Christopher Bailey

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.

Trench coat dress by Christopher Bailey

Trench coat dress by Christopher Bailey

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 of Derby.

"The Hunt Ball"

"The Hunt Ball"

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."

Charles Frederick Worth dress

Dress by Charles Frederick Worth

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.

Andrew Bolton

Andrew Bolton

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.

Johnny Rotten

Johnny Rotten in blue sunglasses

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.


Phillipe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, at press preview

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.

Montebello, Duke of Devonshire, Anna Wintour at press preview

Phillipe de Montebello, The Duke of Devonshire, and Anna Wintour at the press preview on May 1, 2006 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Christopher Bailey

Christopher Bailey

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 their classiness.

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.


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