Thursday, 16 March 2017

Meet Sumurun: the supermodel of the 1920s

I first came across Sumurun in Brigid Keenan’s 1978 The Women we wanted to look like. Here was a model, a household name according to Keenan, but I’d never heard of her before. She also appears in Charles Castle’s Model Girl described in breathless language as: "enchantress of the desert, the word’s most feted mannequin, courted and feted by many men, proposed to by at least a score."

So, as Molyneux’s star mannequin she was fascinating enough, but it was obvious from Keenan’s piece that – never mind wanting to look like – she was the women we wanted to be like. “I haven’t minded growing old,” she told The Sunday Times. “I can’t bear people who look back all the time – it is the most old-making thing there is. To live in the past is ridiculous.”

I thought of Sumurun when the recent stories about the mistreatment of models emerged at Paris Fashion Week. Sadly, “sadistic and cruel” treatment of models seems to be the historic norm, but it was a comment from the model Edie Campbell that really stood out:

“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” she said. “I have – by luck and by good management – made it to the top 1% who manage to have a voice and agency over their own careers. [But] I have witnessed a lot of upsetting things.”

Like Campbell, Sumurun made it to that precious 1%. Also, like Campbell, she was prepared to use her position to speak out.

The birth of Sumurun
As you’ve probably guessed, Sumurun was not her real name. The woman who was to become this “enchantress of the desert” was born in England as Vera Ashby. Well educated, she was pushed into finding a profession after her father’s antiques business failed.

She faced the limited choices available to women in that era. Vera had attempted being a chorus girl but disheartened with the experience, decided to try her luck as a mannequin at the London branch of Lucile. This was a much better fit, and she swiftly won the approval of the designer Edward Molyneux, then at the helm of the branch. Continuing the tradition in modelling that Lucile herself established, he renamed her ‘Sumurun’, a name conjuring up images of sensuous, exotic beauty.

However, Molyneux’s attempts to move the house forward didn’t sit well with the more stuck-in-the-past Lucile, and he was fired. Molyneux simply moved to Paris and opened his own house on the Rue Royale taking his two favourite mannequins – Hebe and Sumurun – with him.

Molyneux 1923, via 

Sumurun in Paris
Molyneux’s new venture was an immediate success, and it’s interesting to see how Sumurun is featured in the publicity. One New Zealand newspaper described Molyneux’s October 1920 display as the “greatest success of the kind ever known in Paris”, also noting that “Sumurun, scored a tremendous success, and after the exhibition, crowds waited outside the Molyneux salons to watch the departure of the famous beauty, much as if she had been a world-renowned prima donna.”

She also featured in a later report, written by the photographer Baron Adolph for Harper’s Bazar, which introduced her to an American audience, along with the latest Parisian creations. “My fancy decks them all in glittering brocades, in diamante, in endless ropes of pearls,” he wrote in the January 1923 issue. “Hebe, Sumurun, Ginette, Gaby – in fact, all of the most famous Paris mannequins. They float before me, a whirl of beauty and a confused vision of magnificence.”

The two mannequins Molyneux had brought with him from Lucile, Hebe and Sumurun, were two different types of women. Hebe was “an English girl with a melting complexion”, the perfect foil to Sumurun’s “oriental excitement’” Molyneux was continuing Lucile’s practice of picking out different types of women to highlight different aspects of clothes. There’s a Jean Rhys short story, 'Mannequin', which echoes this. Listing the girls inside a French fashion house, there’s: “Babette, the gamine, the traditional blond enfant : Mona, tall and darkly beautiful, the femme fatale, the wearer of sumptuous evening gowns. Georgette was the garconne...” I can't help but imagine Sumurun as the Mona type.

Molyneux’s forte was stunningly simple clothes that suited the thrust of the new decade. His designs were elegant, modern and “absolutely right”, perfect for clients that included period-defining woman such as Helena Rubintstein and Wallis Simpson. But amongst the refined blues and blacks that became Molyneux’s preferred colour scheme, there were more extravagant numbers. There were luxurious tea gowns patterned with Japanese blossoms to be worn with turbans and pearls, and tabard-like shift dresses that shone with the embellishments of metallic threads, silver beading and rhinestones. Irises, flamingos and coral fishes enlivened simple chemises, the kind of designs that would only be enhanced by Sumurun’s dark beauty. The finales of his fashion shows were known for being particularly spectacular. For one, Vera was rigged up with electricity. At the precisely right moment, the jewels in her turban and earrings lit up. Cue the rapturous applause.

 “Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins”

Thanks to a surviving British Pathé newsreel we get to see Sumurun in action. “Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins” made an appearance at the Daily Express Women’s Exhibition, held at London’s Olympia in 1923. On offer to visitors were a wide range of entertainments, from dancing to fencing but also fashion shows, featuring displays from big names such as Worth and Molyneux. Sumurun later recalled how a group of women had travelled especially from Bath to see her. Looking at the clip, one of the most noticeable things is the easy, natural rapport that obviously exists between her and Molyneux.

Behind the scenes
However, things weren’t so glamorous. A mannequin’s meagre wage would be further decreased by the necessity of purchasing stockings, shoes and accessories to accompany the ensembles modelled (remember the list given to a new model in Noel Streatfeild’s Clothes Pegs?). Sumurun’s memories of her earlier years in Paris were punctuated by less-than-glamorous meals of “sausages and mashed”. “Imagine wearing thirty guinea gowns and furs all day long and going back to a tiny bed-sitting room and cooking two sausages over a gas ring,” she recalled. “If that’s romance, I have heaps of it! And so have all the other mannequins I’ve ever known!”

How do we know all this detail about Sumurun’s career and life? It’s because in 1930, a five-part serialisation of her life story ran in the People newspaper and she used her position as the 1% (to go back to that Edie Campbell quote) to emphasise the poor conditions facing models (and this is at a time when modelling has an even sketchier reputation than it does today). Sumurun/Vera asks her interviewer what he thinks of mannequins. “I know what you are thinking”, she says, before he has chance to respond, “You think we are an empty-headed crowd of girls turning our good luck to easy, business advantage and probably ‘no better than we ought to be’”. Sometimes Vera is sarcastic, she is always self-aware (“we talked about men mostly”, she remarks about topics of conversations amongst models. “You can’t expect mannequins to discuss the theory of relativity now can you?”). She tells her audience, “A mannequin has to work – and work really hard – to be any good at her job”.

Molyneux, 1926, via

More significantly, she criticise those who perpetuate the poor position of mannequins within society. If “some of them become what people call ‘gold diggers;” she demands, “How can you blame them?” Vera was acutely aware that, despite their glamorous reputation, for the majority of mannequins “all that their gold digging amounts to is just a few jolly lunches and parties and perhaps now and again a handbag or a box of gloves or a bouquet or a big box of chocolates.” Modelling was, in her words “a blind alley profession for girls”, something that ended when the model is no longer deemed young and attractive enough to show the clothes. Even today, it’s still rare to see a high fashion model in her thirties or forties. Vera managed a relatively long career as a model, making appearances into her early thirties.

“Sumurun the Famous International Model”
Such was Sumurun’s fame, that she was able to successfully work freelance in the second half of the 1920s. An advertisement for Baroque of Bond Street boasted of having secured the services of “Sumurun’, one of the most beautiful mannequins”, while Barker’s, the department store, promoted a display featuring “Sumurun the Famous International Model”. Again, it reminds me of Edie Campbell’s quote about being lucky enough to have agency over your own career.

She moved back to London permanently in 1937 and became a vendeuse (“Madame Vera”) in Norman Hartnell’s salon, at a point when his star was on the ascendant. In fact, she boasted, she was given responsibility for dressing the Queen. And there she worked until her retirement in 1968.

Vera as Sumurun was lucky and canny enough to take advantage of the opportunities offered by modelling – going from “sausages and mashed” to the Queen – without it letting the industry take advantage of her: she was, like Edie Campbell, the fortunate 1%. How women’s lives have shifted over the last 90 plus years. It seems utterly crazy that, somehow, the modelling industry doesn’t seem to have done the same.

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Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Imitation Game: Lucie Clayton and the World of Modelling

“A top model is an infinitely valuable commercial asset, more photographed than any film star and more imitated than any woman in history”, wrote Lucie Clayton in her book, The World of Modelling and how to get the London model-girl look. Throughout history, the profession of modelling and the act of imitation have been closely intertwined, exemplified by no one more ably than Lucie Clayton herself. In 1968, when The World of Modelling was published, she was at the height of her fame. Her modelling agency had discovered ‘the face of the 60s’ in Jean Shrimpton and was exporting the desirability of the Swinging London look, and how to imitate it, worldwide.


Forty years earlier, when the school had opened, the very idea of being a model was questionable, let alone aspiring to resemble one. In 1928, fashion modelling was still a very new profession. While the British couturier Charles Frederick Worth was credited with creating the first “living model”, using his wife Marie to display his designs in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century when Lucile popularised the idea of the fashion parade at her London salon. Lucile also began the practice of selecting only beautiful women to model her clothes, taking them from their working class jobs and recasting them with exotic sounding new names. She created a theatrical, ‘catwalk’-like structure for her models to parade down and show-off her latest lavish, romantic designs.

The practice created such a sensation it was quickly imitated. In 1909 Harrods’ Diamond Jubilee celebrations included a display of “living models”, Selfridges’ introduced regular in-house fashion parades and other department stores swiftly followed suit. By 1924, Whiteley’s was ambitiously promising “the biggest and most attractive mannequin parade ever staged”. Mannequins were modern. In Dorothy Whipple’s 1930 novel High Wages, the opening of a determinedly fashionable women’s clothing shop in a small Lancashire town is – naturally – celebrated with a mannequin parade, “something new for Tidsley”.

However, for their high visibility, these early models had a particularly poor reputation, as I’ve written about in previous posts. And they lacked any real power. As mannequins paraded in stores, their role wasonly a few steps removed from the carefully choreographed steps of theatrical chorus girls, who were, similarly, often costumed by couturiers. “Model” was employed as a useful catchall term, employed to cover up an array of less reputable jobs. But, as Lucile set the precedent for her models to appear in public, to wear the most up-to-date fashions and to become the object of desire for wealthy suitors, they became able to transverse Britain’s strict class stratified society in a way not possible for other working class women.


Although reported by the press of the time, there are few names of individual models from the industry’s early history that are still familiar today. One exception is Lucie Clayton, although a name now more closely associated with finishing school than fashion modelling. However, Clayton – responsible for finessing the social niceties of generations of women – was a product of the fluid, sometimes unsavoury profession that was modelling in the early 20th century. What’s more,despite her fame for teaching debutantes to curtsey, Clayton’s background was unmistakably working class, arriving at her Hanover Square offices from Blackpool, via Tooting.

Despite her more conventional-sounding name, Lucie Clayton’s business was rooted in performance as much as the likes of Lucile’s models. Born Lucy Sylvia Dorrell in around 1909, she became Clayton in 1926 by deed poll. Working as a mannequin gave her a means to leave Blackpool, first working in northern cities before moving to London. She hit headlines for insuring her long, blond hair for £1000 (or so the story goes: surviving photographs from the 1920s and 30s show her with bobbed, dark hair). Time working in Paris taught her the advantages of deportment and etiquette for social advancement, and she claimed to have become so successful at modelling that she began passing jobs onto her friends.

Her jobs weren’t the only thing she shared. At the same time she changed her name, her fellow occupants of Elmbourne Road, Tooting, also both became a “Clayton”. Although the reasons for this are unrecorded, it was perhaps part of a greater master plan. Two years after the name change, and while still in her teens, the Lucie Clayton Charm School was established. Somewhere along the way “Lucy” also had become “Lucie”.


Lucie’s business was part mannequin agency, part mannequin-training school. Although it wasn’t the first modelling agency in the world – an honour that goes to John Robert Powers in the United States in 1923 – it was significant that its figurehead was a woman (something unmatched by the States until Eileen Ford established Ford Models with her husband in 1946). The schooling aspect of her business was responding to a real need. In the same year the agency was founded, the “big call on the mannequins” prompted by the popularity of fashion parades meant that, reported The Times, some firms “experienced considerable difficulty in supplying their needs”.

However, the demand for these schools came as much from the public as from businesses needing to fill positions in their mannequin parades. As Lucie demonstrated,modelling was a way a woman could escape the limitations of her background. It offered fame, glamour, and – if the many novels about mannequins were to be believed – the possibility of a glittering marriage. It fitted perfectly with the desire for reinvention to beginning to also be capitalised on by the burgeoning beauty and cosmetic industry (fittingly, Lucie’s husband, Alex Golledge, worked in advertising). In 1933, The Vogue Book of Beauty criticised any woman who regarded her appearance as fixed and unalterable (as, prior to the 1920s, it would have been considered proper to do) because it meant “some vital, shining part of her is extinguished forever”. The 1930s also saw the birth of the makeover feature, a media staple ever since. And, when that pillar of the British clothing establishment Jaeger, re-launched in the decade, their advertising claimed that “thanks to [us] you can no longer tell a shop girl from a Duchess”.


The boundaries between respectable and unrespectable women in public were becoming increasingly blurred – it could no longer be assumed that a woman in public in make-up was a prostitute – and such advertising helped fuel existing postwar anxiety about appearances and identities. The work of the mannequin only further confused these distinctions. Her job was primarily, in Colette’s words, "to excite covetousness", and – for the first time – upper class women were coveting how their social inferiors dressed and looked. As Caroline Evans describes in Mechanical Smile, her book about the early French and American fashion models, it was mannequins who would be the first to wear the newest fashions, and they would be the ones to establish exactly how it was worn. Even before the First World War, The Times commented on how “it was the mannequins who started the forward movement from below the waist, and it was the same young women who taught the society woman how to shuffle along in very tight skirts. One cannot blame the mannequins. It is their business; but why need a society woman take a mannequin for a model of deportment?”

But the mannequins were frequently blamed, and with charges that were more serious than purely sartorial. Marek Kohn is discussing the ‘dope girls’ of the 1920s in the description of the ‘combination of the marginality and modernity made them the ideal raw material for an awful warning to women as a whole’ but it could have equally been written about models. The silent modernity of the mannequin made them easy targets in contemporary fiction, “They’re a bad lot, those mannequins, and as clever as they’re made,” states Rosemary Gray in her 1932 story His Mannequin Wife, reflecting common attitudes of the period. Other novels cast mannequins as duplicitous liars and cheats, husband stealers and drug smugglers, descriptions that could have been lifted straight from contemporary press reports.

Mannequins may have mixed with high society, but they weren’t yet accepted into it. Although by 1936 the Marquis of Donegall could confidently state that “mannequins of the dress and hat firms are absolutely ‘the thing’ with Mayfair young men”, the vulnerability of the mannequin’s position was illustrated in a case brought by Lady Erroll in 1929. She sued the Daily Express for claiming she had become a mannequin. Awarding Lady Erroll £120 in damages (an amount it would have taken the average model roughly two years to earn), the judge concluded that, while he was not suggesting a mannequin was “not a respectable person or was a person of bad character who could in any way be sneered at or despised”, it was nonetheless defamatory of a woman of Lady Erroll’s “social character and reputation”.

By equipping anyone prepared to pay her fees with the tools to learn the affectations of class and style, Lucie Clayton was attacking such social stratification,although she cleverly avoided positioning herself as such.


While other businesses clearly labelled themselves as “mannequin training schools”, by naming her company the more innocent sounding “charm academy”, Lucie bypassed the tawdry associations conjured up by the word ‘mannequin’. Agency owners in the United States echoed her action in the 1930s and ’40s and, only in the 1950s, when the profession was much more admired, did Lucie Clayton’s school start using the word ‘mannequin’ as part of its name.

If, in the words of Caroline Evans, “mannequins had a powerful symbolic presence. They were eloquent icons of modernity, even in their silence”, Lucie Clayton recognised that this silence kept models as symbols only – it allowed them to remain typecast as improper, villainesses or simply not there. She broke their silence by stripping away some of the myths and mystique that had developed around fashion modelling. She spoke to the press and allowed photographers and news camera into her school – there are several British Pathé films dating from the 1930s to the 1950s taken at the Charm Academy that report on girls exercising, being groomed and trained in the act of modelling. Lucie was skilled at winning headlines for her work. In 1937, for example, she trained eight unemployed girls from Wales as mannequins for free, later touring them as ‘Ambassadresses of Britain’ around the United States.


Lucie’s activities reflected a wider desire to increase industry standards and, in 1938, the British Mannequin and Photographic Model Association was founded. Lucie’s husband, Alex Golledge, was its first secretary. The Association’s objectives were straightforward: to “procure satisfactory wages and conditions of employment” for mannequins and "to promote and protect the welfare and the interests’ of its members, as well as improving ‘the general position and status of mannequins". Over 150 mannequins attended the first meeting, with their demands widely reported in the press. Golledge – the only male on the committee – commented on the costs associated with modelling: the money spent on hairdressing, cosmetics, stockings, dresses and suits and gloves and accessories, at that time provided at the models’ expense, rather than by their employers. Gloria, a model who had become famous as the face of Selfridges, voiced her discontent with the profession, telling a reporter “we have been nobody’s children for too long”. Lucie, meanwhile, set about organising the Mannequin’s Ball to raise money for Guy’s Hospital and awareness of the Union, and ensured it made the front page by inventing a new dance for the occasion, the "Mannequin Glide". Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how the women they look like they are having fun.

Over time, such endeavours helped raise the reputation of modelling in Britain. According to Lucie Clayton’s The World of Modelling, it was with such continual “polishing of its image” that modelling could be reinvented for a new age. It was no longer the terrain of immoral girls on the make, but a world suitable for respectable young debutantes. The successful model of the 1940s and ’50s was typified by the likes of the unmistakably upper class Barbara Goalen: cool, in control and most definitely a lady. By the 1960s, fashion modelling was the era’s most desirable profession. Working with David Bailey,Jean Shrimpton – Lucie Clayton’s star graduate – changed look of modelling once again. This time it became young and fresh, matching the fun fashions and spirit of the sixties. By 1968, The World of Modelling proclaimed that, unlike their predecessors of the 1920s and ’30s, top models had successfully “swept aside class distinction and broken through international barriers”.

But modelling’s wide appeal risked pulling the profession back to what Clayton and her contemporaries had fought so hard against. By the 1960s, the description “model” was once again being used as a smokescreen for less reputable activities. Agency owner and former mannequin, Cherry Marshall was not alone in criticising the “call-girls, nightclub hostesses and dollies in pin-up magazines” that chose to describe themselves as “model girls”. In fact, Marshall’s agency, Lucie Clayton and five others joined forces to become The Association of London Model Agents in an attempt to maintain standards. There were still many battles to be fought. During the Profumo Affair, for example, the press continually politely referred to both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies as ‘freelance models’, causing Lucie Clayton to wrote to The Times to once more defend her profession’s reputation. Criticising their use of the description, she suggested that, as Ms. Keeler was currently writing her memoirs for a Sunday paper, it was surely only fair that she should from then on be known as "the well-known journalist".


Except that Lucie was also being deliberately lax with her accuracy. This “Lucie Clayton” wasn’t exactly who she said she was either. In 1950, Lucie had sold her agency, her school and her name to a businessman Leslie Kark, and, from then on, his wife Evelyn would appear, be photographed, and write books, all under the name Lucie Clayton. It was her who had written to The Times, continuing the efforts of her predecessor. Describing her own battles fought within the modelling industry, Kark admitted that Lucie Clayton was “appropriately” a nom de guerre.

Lucie Clayton’s name still belongs to the Kark family, who have kept the business moving along with the times, just as it had responded to the desires of the 1920s. In the 1960s,classes at the Lucie Clayton school included how to prepare for TV appearances; in the 1980s, the syllabus included an introduction to the Stock Exchange. In the 21st century, when the emphasis is on models to be ‘natural’ untrained beauties, the modelling element has gone entirely from Lucie Clayton, but the business still caters to today’s needs. It has become part of a business school, while part of their original premises has been converted into an exclusive property development.

The story of the "real" Lucie Clayton slipped from view entirely, her death date unknown, perhaps appropriately for an industry that places no value on the old. The modelling industry continues, pedalling youth, the new and the latest fantasies of beauty, itself – like Lucie Clayton – a testament to the power of reinvention.

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Saturday, 13 February 2016

Dodie Smith’s The Town in Bloom and all the single ladies

Despite the title, this isn’t a Valentine’s-themed post – but if you happen to be single, it’ll probably make you grateful for some of the advantages of 21st-century life. Last weekend, I went to a study day at City Lit that was inspired by Virginia Nicolson’s Singled Out, a book telling some of the stories of the “surplus women” after the First World War. Although this was a period when opportunities for women were growing enormously, they still had to battle with inadequate wages, or living situations. For every inspiring career woman, or bachelor girl striding forth, twenty more would be agonising over whether they could afford anything more than a bread roll for their lunch.

You don’t need to look far to find such women in literature of the period – think of the almost destitute Miss Pettigrew, who gets to “live” for one day, or Muriel of Winifred Holtby’s The Crowded Street, who eventually rescued by her friend Delia from a life of waiting at home for a husband to show up. Appropriately enough, by chance the next book I picked up – The Town in Bloom by Dodie Bloom (set in the mid-1920s, but published in 1965) – also charted the bid of an interwar heroine to strike out on her own.

Not that the family-less Mouse has much choice, but – despite her name – she’s certainly given more confidence and faith in her own abilities than the other characters above. She arrives in London, from Manchester, with a little cash determined to become an actress and installs herself at the Club – a hostel for other single women – in “a rather handsome building with a lot of heavy stonework”.  She’s swept up by the fashionable Molly and Lilian, who work as “glorified chorus” girls, to join their “village”. We learn, as does Mouse, that means “one of the groups of cubicles into which some of the big rooms are divided.”

Mouse goes on to describe her cubicle:
“It is almost private as the partitions are solid and go up to within a foot or so of the ceiling. And I have a good big cupboard, a washstand, combined with a dressing table which has long drawers, a folding table and a chair. There is a large window (some of the cubicles don’t have windows) and from my bed I can see tall trees in the quite large Club garden.”

From the “almost private” bedroom to washing to eating, their space is not their own: Take washing, for example:
“After breakfast I was initiated into the never-ending Battle of the Bathroom Door. There were plenty of ‘cold bathrooms’ where there was hot and cold water in the wash basin but only a cold tap for the bath. Access to cold bathrooms was free, but one could only get into a “hot bathroom” by putting tuppence into a slot-machine on the door. Molly believed cleanliness should be free, always left bathroom doors open, and took advantage of any she found open.”

Mouse’s account is almost an exact replica of that of Mary Margaret Grieve, a trainee reporter on the Nursing Mirror, and one of the women quoted in Singled Out:
“It was a great gloomy mansion block, but from her minute first-floor cubicle she could just see stars between the chimney-pots. Hostel life was full of shifts and expedients. The mean manageress charged threepence for a bath; for this sum the geyser produced a barely tepid puddle at the bottom of the tub.”

Mouse’s living situation at least seems jolly – although her meals “were apt to be a bit meagre”, they were “pleasantly served on brightly decorated earthenware, and our nice, pink-uniformed waitress was said to get specially good helpings for her tables.” The girls seem to survive on regular feasts of toasted “Veda” bread and gossip.

Despite Mouse’s endearing enthusiasm, it’s hard to escape the slight depressing air that hangs around the Club. The majority of its inhabitants (ranging in age from teenagers to 60 plus) are looking for the love affair that will take them away from it all – and the phone call that never comes:

“The company in the lounge seemed mainly composed of out-of-work actresses waiting for telephone calls from agents and managers, which seldom came. Some of these girls were doubly out of luck as they also awaited called from elusive men friends. (So many members were in the midst of unhappy love affairs, so few in the midst of happy ones – and even the fortunate few put in a good deal of time waiting for telephone calls. Every time the lounge door opened girls raised their heads hoping to hear their names called; then, when disappointed, sank back into apathy.”

Mouse does escape through a love affair – but she never marries. Instead, we later learn, she’s made a life through a “mishmash” of “acting, writing, book shops, dress shops”. (An experience that somewhat echoes the life of another interwar young lady, Jean Lucey Pratt, whose journals were recently published as A Notable Woman.) Mouse does, however, stay true to the enterprising, plucky new woman that, I learned last week, was being promoted by the advertising of the period.

In fact, Mouse refuses to grow old, shocking her village neighbours by her preference for sixties teenage fashions worn with “black woolly tights” and hanging out with the local twenty-something CND member. And, true to many of the stories contained in Singled Out (and Jean Lucey Pratt), she also remains only just one step away from financial peril. But Mouse a marvellous example of a Singled Out woman, a reminder that life could be different from what it had been before – if only you had the slight bit of capital, energy and dogged determination to make it so.

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Saturday, 23 January 2016

Dude ranches and the women in denim

Women pose at a Wyoming ranch, c. 1930. From Fine Art of the West, via

In January, when we're seemingly encouraged to beat ourselves up for various life failings, I try to promote a bit of being nice to yourself. With that in mind, for the 'Looking Back' slot in that month's issue of The Simple Things, I suggested a feature on the history of denim - after all, what's easier than pulling on a pair of jeans?

Bar Nick Kamen in a laundrette and the occasional story of people hunting for priceless denim in abandoned mines, I knew very little about the topic and I headed straight for the copy of Denim: A Visual History in the British Library (always slightly too expensive on eBay). Among the familiar brand names of Levi's, Lee and Wrangler and their links to denim as workwear, I found a reference to the first Lady Levi's in the 1930s with a tantalising mention of them being born out of the freedom of the dude ranches, and their associations with the quickie divorce. And, naturally, that became one of my key preoccupations.

The fantastic thing about writing for a magazine is that you can call on people far more knowledgeable than yourself to fill in some of the gaps. I spoke to Professor Alison Goodrun, who had recently returned from the Autry Center for Western Heritage (you can read her excellent blog here), researching female dude ranchers and resort wear. Dude ranch holidays peaked in the 1920s and 30s and offered a 'back to nature' retreat for wealthy East coasters. In reality, these were elaborate commercial enterprises, offering all kind of creature comforts and pushing vacationers into their outfitters to get fully kitted out in your western gear. It was a form of holiday wear. Just as wearing beach pyjamas was allowable by the seaside, jeans became acceptable wear on the dude ranch. Although they were sold in a select few East coast stores, a pair of jeans brought back from the West was the sought after souvenir.

‘Dude Ranch Vacations’ print advert for Northern Pacific/Yellowstone Park Rail Line, in The Sportsman magazine, March 1933. (BNSF Railway Company). Via Style Stakes project

The idea of freedom is captured wonderfully in this advert, featured on Professor Goodrun's blog. Like the best adverts, it's completely aspirational, promising an escape from everyday life and from social norms. But, as she points out, it's a complete break from traditional 'Old World' riding gear - it's a challenge to the upright regulations of English riding turn-out.

The Women, via

As I mentioned the subject to others, the reference came back time and time again: The Women. In this 1939 film, they decamp on a ranch to Reno waiting for their divorcees to come through. Each woman wears their own take on the Western look, from Mary's suitably wholesome checked shirt to the Countess De Lave's glitzy and ridiculous get-up.

I love this image of a 1942 shop display at Chicago's Marshall Field & Company, showing suitable dude ranch attire for such wealthy women. And Lisette Model's photographs of soon-to-be divorcees at Nevada dude ranches, taken in 1949 for Harper's Bazaar, are also amazing.

Diana Cooper and Iris Tree, from Diana Cooper's Autobiography

All of these wealthy women in western wear took me back to an amazing image I'd seen much earlier, this grainy image of British aristocrat Diana Cooper, photographed with fellow actress Iris Tree, included in Cooper's autobiography. Had they too succumbed to ranch fever? Although not providing fulsome details, Cooper indeed writes of "an orgy of 'dude' buying" on their arrival into Kansas City. Ever the trend setter, Cooper's entry dates to 1926.

About the same time I filed my article, Denim: Fashion's Frontier opened at New York's FIT, exploring denim's history and including a shout-out to the dude ranch. Although I can't get to New York, I was pleased to discover FIT's assistant curator is giving a free lecture in London in March, which I can attend (side note: how great does this display about the Snow/Vreeland heyday of Harper's Bazaar sound?). How delightful also that the sequel to the popular street style book, Denim Dudes, will focus on Denim 'Dudettes' - promising more stylish women in denim.

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Sunday, 3 January 2016

51 books in 2015 – how did I do?

At the start of 2014, I resolved to read 50 books over the course of the year. It was such a successful resolution (more so than never biting my nails again, perhaps unsurprisingly) that I decided to do it all again the following year, with the added challenge of trying to read one more book.

So, how did I do? You can see a list of the books I read during 2015 here. I’m pleased that I beat my target by two whole books. And, although I’m proud of my overall total – 53! – and the mixture of fiction and non-fiction, looking through the list, it’s quickly obvious that it’s quite limited in scope, with the vast majority written by white women. Only seven of the books were penned by men, just two were originally written in a language other than English and none date to pre-twentieth century.

Although I’ve enjoyed this year’s reading, it’s hard to pick out books I’ve really loved. There have been several big disappointments – Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests started out brilliantly, but descended into soapy disappointment; Carol was one of those rare examples of where I thought the film far surpassed the book (and I read the book first). I’ve yet to watch Brooklyn, but perhaps that will also fall into this category, as I loved Nora Webster far more than I did Colm Toibin’s earlier, much-praised book.

The book that took over my life and I was longing to discuss with other people was – as I think it was for many other people this year – A Little Life. I also consumed by Linda Grant’s stylish and intelligent take on aspirations in the second-half of the twentieth century in Upstairs at The Party.

I bemoaned my lack of books from earlier centuries, but the twentieth century got a very strong showing. I discovered some fantastic fiction from around the First World War, thanks to researching for a feature on the homefront for Article magazine, saw the 1920s and 30s through the eyes of Noel Streatfeild, enjoyed jitterbugging, rationing and fashioning in the 1940s, (im)perfect wives, debutantes and lesbians – and concrete buildings from the mid-century. And not forgetting the joy of 1980s movies, thanks to Hadley Freeman. That brings me onto the last book I read this year, which tells the story of women throughout the twentieth century through personal experience (albeit without so many references to Dirty Dancing a la Hadley). It’s A Notable Woman, the previously unpublished journals of Jean Lucey Pratt. She faithfully kept a diary from 1925, aged 15, up to her death in the 1980s. It’s wonderful discovery, and I hope to write something more substantial about it another time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m aiming to read 54 books during 2016. You can follow my progress here. I’d like at least one to be pre-twentieth century, and definitely more by BAME authors. I might try and read a few more things men have written too.  

Any recommendations let me know. I’d also love to hear about your favourite – or most disappointing – books you’ve read this year.

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Sunday, 8 November 2015

1950s bohemian London in Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

“Nell studied Davina’s long and voluminous black skirt, dusty black sweater with a high neck, and the various huge pieces of metal hanging from her wrists, ears and throat, and remembered seeing Gardis similarly festooned. Evidently this was Fashion.”

Stella Gibbons’ Here Be Dragons was published in 1956 and, like all my favourite books, offers a visual snapshot of the time in which it was written. Here we are in 1950s London bohemia. Teenage rebellion is begin to stir, but the movement is fuelled by coffee shops and jazz, rather than the imminent rock n roll explosion.

A change in family circumstance takes Nell from her sleepy village and thrusts her into the heart of Hampstead. Although Gibbons is most famous for Cold Comfort Farm, many more of her books are set in Hampstead, where Gibbons lived for many years. In the 1950s, it seems, it was facing an invasion of the bohemians:

“Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavement echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs there were tights and striped blue and white jeans to be seen loitering around the Underground station.”

Bohemian style idol, Eva Barok. Image source

Nell arrives in a respectable suit, but is swiftly given a sartorial lecture from her layabout cousin John. She needs to buy a beret and “if you can’t afford proper clothes, long full skirts and low heels and metal jewellery, you should copy Eva Bartok. She knows how to make horrible little suits like the one you’re wearing and old raincoats look marvellously romantic.”

John himself dresses in what’s described as “an extraordinary collection of clothes “. One ensemble includes an immaculate striped blazer, blue denim trousers, a gaudy American shirt.” I love this sense of improvisation, which reminds me of the improvisation of Ken Russell’s teddy girls. But, as with any subculture, en masse the bohemian dress and habits turn out to be no less strictly governed that those of their parents they rebel against. They party, dancing with naked feet in pools of cider while candles burn in – of course – Chianti bottles.

Enter one of their café haunts and:

“There they sat: the large calm, dirty girls in flowing skirts and lead jewellery, and the dreamers in drain-pipes and duffel coats, the spinners of fantastic plans for making fortunes brooding silently over newspapers, with unwashed hair falling across (in the case of the girls, who believed in living naturally) unpowdered faces.”

The Troubadour cafe, London, 1950s. Image source

Gibbons is seemingly quite fixated on their cleanliness (or lack of), perhaps the most evident characteristic they were rebelling against the “cleanliness is next to godliness mantra” of previous generations. In another café, Nell encounters the “dirty faces of the Espresso drinkers, set off by brilliant checked shirts, white jackets fastened by wooden links, black ‘jumpers’ (as Nell called them) and, in the case of the women, exaggeratedly severe or flowing manner of arranging the hair. Coiffures and beards played a large part in the exhibiting of their personalities, and did not always look quite clean.”

It’s not only ‘jumpers’ that need an explanation, but the whole notion of separates. When Nell tells her mum she needs some to look modern, her mother responds “need what?” And she’s even more surprised when Nell tells her she’s spotted a top “for less than a pound and a skirt for less than 30 shillings” on Oxford Street, because “No ‘top’ or skirt costing as ridiculously little as the sums Nell had mentioned could be anything but bad style.” Not only are the ways of dressing and shopping on the cards, it’s obvious that there is a shift in generational styles – perhaps something that’s usually more closely associated with the 1960s. Here Be Dragons captures these transitions, and revealed some of these details that normally would get overlooked in a survey of how fashions, and even teens, changed postwar. 

Leon Bell and the Bell Cats and some hand-jivers. Image source.

Over the course of the book, Nell comes ‘chic’ and, in a real sign of the times, moves from tea shop to running her own espresso shop. How her business survives the Swinging Sixties remains unknown.

Here Be Dragons is full of wonderful details that make you feel like you could be living in London in the mid-1950s, and it’s perhaps a better book if you read it for these details, rather than the plot itself. But what vintage fashion nerd could resist a book that includes the following description of Cecil Beaton’s Glass of Fashion (first published in 1954)? It comes straight from the mouth of Nell’s debuntante school friend: “It’s all about pre-1914 tarts, with drawings of them in saucy hats.” Quite.

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Saturday, 17 October 2015

Louis Vuitton Series 3 exhibition

How can fashion brands compete in a global marketplace and capture the interest of potential new, loyal customers? The answer, from Louis Vuitton at least, seems to be to stage a lavish exhibition. London was recently host to the "Series 3" exhibition, following in the footsteps of Shanghai and Los Angeles, an elaborate installation devoted to the Louis Vuitton's Autumn/Winter 15 collection.

Like Les Journées Particulières I went to a couple of years ago (and also hosted by the LVMH group), there's a sense that that Series 3 exhibition gives everyone privileged access to a closed-off, exclusive world. And, while this exhibition was free, it was staged on such a grand scale that made it clear that no expense had been spared. Taking over a huge building on London's The Strand, Series 3 included everything from geo domes to rooms that appeared to be bathed in bright sunlight, even though we were visiting on a dark autumn evening.

Inescapably, the exhibition reinforced the idea of the designer as genius. One room was intended to represent inside Nicolas Ghesquière's mind, giving us lesser geniuses a glimpse into his inspirations and his muses.

More interesting was how those ideas were embodied in the collection. Footage of the collection was shown in a space that replicated the one in which the collection had been held. It captured the energy of the show for those of us who are never going to be FROW-ers. 

Also emphasised throughout was the craftsmanship that went into each Louis Vuitton piece, and their use of some cutting edge (literally) 21st-century technology. Lasers that can scan the leather for imperfections and cut the pieces around it, therefore leading to less waste - very clever indeed. You could watch close up video footage of hands assembling the bags, as well as see the work being done live. As in Les Journées Particulières, they'd brought in some real life workers to answer our questions. It was every bit as interesting and - telling - no, the woman we spoke to couldn't afford to own a Louis Vuitton bag herself. 

The shot above is an attempt to capture the daylight room - so bright that even the models were wearing sunglasses. This room attempted to bridge the gap between the history of Louis Vuitton and the brand today. That meant historic trunks and cases shown alongside accessories from the a/w collection. There was the trunk that inspired the new Petite Malle bag, down to the crosses that decorated it. Or it became apparent how the lining of another case inspired the hatched padded of some of the other bags. 

That lead into a giant "walk-in wardrobe", filled with pieces from the collection and demonstrating that the brand today was about much more than accessories. Of course, it's always fun to be able to get a close-up look and feel of garments that you'll never buy, or even dare to try on, in your everyday life. 

The final room resembled that of a teenagers, in that it was covered with tearsheets of images from the latest Louis Vuitton advertising campaign. For that they've picked ambassadors who bring a slightly edgier, contemporary look to the brand, such as Jennifer Connelly and Alicia Vikander. It was a room clearly intended for selfies (as was the whole exhibition), a simple way of communicating the Louis Vuitton message over social media. 

With my museum head on, it's easy to pull apart these commercially-led exhibitions. It's impossible to miss the messages they are pushing about the brand: heritage, quality, craftsmanship, reinterpreted for today. They want the brand to be seen as something desirable, and cool. If you can't quite afford a bag yet, how about some sunglasses? How about a belt? 

However, it's made me stop and consider a brand that I really only had a passing historic interest in before. Perhaps if I was looking to invest in a designer item, I'd consider them where I wouldn't have previously. It seems like an awfully elaborate way to make some sales but - given that this is the third installment - those big fromages at LVMH must consider it one that works.  

Thanks to my fellow visitor Tia for letting me use her photos. 

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