LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
At the end of the last century women thought of themselves in terms of being well covered: they wished to have a wonderful décolletage and would have been ashamed of hollows in the neck as deep as salt cellars. But nowadays ladies are so intent on being thin that a scraggy décolletage has become inevitable.
Not only have they made themselves half the weight they were three or four decades ago, but they have also thought themselves into entirely different contours. With whalebone corsets that ruthlessly laced the human figure into an hour-glass shape, Victorian waistlines became as small as 16 inches. But though a small waistline was essential, the flesh above and below had to be full, of a Renoir-like voluptuousness. The mature women were handsome, the younger ones demurely pretty; nowadays women are neither demurely pretty nor handsome. Those fabulous professional beauties for whom people stood on their chairs in the park were Juno-like goddesses with great carved features, chiselled nostrils, and prognathous jaws – a type that today would be considered too monumental for the average man’s taste. Men have come to accept as a premise women who look more like young boys, with thin flat hips, who have even adopted blue denims, blouses and short skirts and haircuts.
observations: Cecil Beaton did a bit of everything: he was a fashion and portrait photographer, but also a war photographer. He sketched, and designed interiors and stagesets. He kept diaries, frequently photographed the Royal family, had a long connection with Vogue, and seems to have been bisexual.
This book is, roughly speaking, a history of fashion in the first half of the 20th century. He looks at interiors, and at perfume, and at specific designers such as Chanel and Balenciaga, but most of the book is devoted to descriptions of rich and famous women (and one or two men). He tells us what was special about their style, how they looked, how they influenced fashion of the day, how others tried to copy them. There are anecdotes trying (and usually failing) to show their brilliance and wit. The book is probably best read in small doses, stopping before Bolshevism and socialism creep into the reader’s mind. And it is interesting, and some of the people mentioned probably were lovely. Not much of Beaton’s character comes over, he sounds like an opinionated fussy man, but there must have been more than that to him.
In Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate (endlessly on the blog, click on label below) there is a character called Mrs Chaddesley Corbett: perhaps everyone else has always known who she was based on but I didn’t, and from this book you would say it must be Mrs Freda Dudley Ward, close friend of the then Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor, before Wallis Spencer grabbed him.
Top picture of a turn-of-the century lady and her corset.
[ADDED LATER: Fashion expert Daniel Milford-Cottam makes some fascinating points in the comments below, so much so that we got him to do a guest blog on the subject of women's waist sizes.... click here]
Below, from the collection of the Imperial War Museum, a Beaton photo of Princess Durri Shehvar, daughter of a Sultan of Turkey.
There is a fabulous Beaton photo – of Dior clothes – in the blog entry on Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris Goes to Paris.