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Posts Tagged ‘French haute couture’

The Duchess of Windsor filled her empty life by buying expensive clothes and getting the Duke to buy her costly jewels. She was always immaculately dressed and never casual. In 1935, she made the Paris Couture best-dressed list and remained there for 40 years.

Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), is remembered for her stylishness. She filled her empty life by buying expensive clothes from the big Paris fashion houses like Chanel and getting the Duke to buy her costly jewels from Cartier. The Duchess of Windsor was always immaculately dressed and never casual. In 1935, she made the Paris Couture best-dressed list and remained there for 40 years.

In my previous post, “Coco Chanel, Nazi Lovers, and the Windsor Set,” I described the wave of attention the Duke and Duchess of Windsor received when they settled in Paris in the late thirties. A glamorous social set of fashion designers, Nazi sympathizers, American heiresses, British ex-pats, and assorted other idle rich people welcomed the Windsors and became a sort of parallel court for the displaced royals. This French upper-crust group was dubbed “the Windsor Set.” The press buzzed about them like bees around a hive. All  their comings and goings, designer clothes, fancy homes, and elegant soirees were endlessly photographed and reported in the society columns of the day.

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor at hone

The Duchess and Duke of Windsor at home

At the center of this new social whirl was the Duchess of Windsor. She had never gotten over being snubbed by the British Royal Family and being barred from getting the attention she felt she and the Duke deserved.

Wallis had always been obsessed with her appearance. She knew she wasn’t a great beauty, having once said,

” Nobody ever called me beautiful, or even pretty.”

What she lacked in looks, she made up for in other ways. She selected simple, well-tailored clothes that accented her slim, almost boyish figure. Against this plain backdrop, she dripped with sometimes enormous jewels, sometimes mixing real gems with costume pieces, the real things being given to her by the Duke. Her taste ran to big colorful stones and yellow gold. She amassed a huge collection of jewelry which was sold at auction in 1987 for a record-shattering $50 million. “An 18-karat-gold cigarette case from Cartier—engraved with a map of Europe and set with 37 gems to mark the couple’s premarital holidays—sold for more than $290,000; Elizabeth Taylor phoned in a bid of $623,000 and snagged a diamond brooch.”

In 1949, the Duchess of Windsor acquired this diamond and sapphire panther pin from Cartier. The panther is crouched in a life like pose on a large perfect round cabochon star sapphire weighing 152.35 carats. This panther pin was one of the Duchess' favorite pieces which she frequently wore. It created an envy among other jewelry collectors and a demand for Cartier to produce more panther pieces. Today, the panther is a Cartier icon. The Duchess of Windsor's animal pieces became her signature.

In 1949, the Duchess of Windsor acquired this diamond and sapphire panther pin from Cartier. The panther is crouched in a life like pose on a large perfect round cabochon star sapphire weighing 152.35 carats. This panther pin was one of the Duchess' favorite pieces which she frequently wore. It created an envy among other jewelry collectors and a demand for Cartier to produce more panther pieces. Today, the panther is a Cartier icon. The Duchess of Windsor's animal pieces became her signature.

Wallis and Edward with best man Edward "Fruity" Metcalf at their royal wedding, June 3, 1937, at the Chateau de Cande, Mont, France

Wallis and Edward with best man Edward "Fruity" Metcalfe at their royal wedding, June 3, 1937, at the Chateau de Candé, Mont, France

Necklaces, bracelets, lapel pins – she had them all. The only gap in her jewelry collection was rings. The Duchess hated her hands. She thought they were big and ugly. (Notice the black gloves in the first photo above). Acclaimed British photographer Cecil Beaton photographed the Windsors many times. He took their wedding photos at the Chateau de Candé. Beaton remembered of that session that Wallis

“twisted and twirled her rugged hands. She laughed a square laugh, protruded her lower lip. Her eyes were excessively bright, slightly froglike, also wistful.”

 

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Wallis Warfield marries the former King Edward VIII of Britain on June 3, 1937, in France. The day before the wedding, the Prince's brother, the new British king, George VI, sent him a letter granting him and Wallis new titles: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The titles were hollow; there was no dominion of Windsor to rule. Even worse: the King's letter contained a bomb - the Prince, despite his abdication of the throne, could continue to "hold and enjoy...the title, style or attribute of Royal Highness," but his bride, the Duchess, could not, nor could any of their offspring. She, though a duchess, was denied what her sister-in-laws would enjoy - that her name would be preceded by the magic initials 'H.R.H.' "What a damnable wedding present!" Windsor shouted. (J.Bryan III and Charles J.V. Murphy,

Wallis Warfield (Simpson) marries the former King Edward VIII of Britain on June 3, 1937, in France, after he gave up the British throne to be with her. Wallis Warfield Simpson was an American divorcee. For the King to have married her and tried to install her as his Queen would have precipitated a constitutional crisis in Great Britain....The wedding day dawned bright and sunny. It was Wallis' third wedding; her dress was not white but blue. Blue was also the mood. The day before the wedding, the former king's brother, the new British king, George VI, sent Edward a letter granting him and Wallis new titles: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The titles were hollow; there was no dominion of Windsor to rule. Even worse: the King's letter contained a bomb - the former king, now titled the Duke, despite his abdication of the throne, could continue to "hold and enjoy...the title, style or attribute of Royal Highness," but his bride, the Duchess, could not, nor could any of their offspring. She, though a duchess, was denied what her sister-in-laws would enjoy - that her name would be preceded by the magic initials 'H.R.H.' At her entrance, no women had to curtsey, no men to bow. She would not be referred to as "Her Highness" but with the lower form of "Her Grace." "What a damnable wedding present!" Windsor shouted upon reading the King's letter. (Bryan III, J. and Murphy, Charles J.V., The Windsor Story. New York: Dell, 1979.)

In 1937, after King Edward VIII had given up the British throne to marry his American divorcee, Wallis Warfield Simpson, the two tiny, trim party animals were exiled to France, where they were doomed to live a life of idle nothingness. They were given the new but hollow titles of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Accustomed to a lifetime of adulation and privilege yet denied a kingdom, the Duke (and the Duchess), set about creating an imaginary realm of their own that would given them the validation they craved as royals. This new kingdom:

“…was a region whose borders were outlined in society pages, peopled mostly by glamorous nobodies lucky enough to have been born into wealth. It was an ornamental place, whose citizens, according to Andrew Bolton, the curator of ”Blithe Spirit” [a past costume exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum], were unsurpassed ”in the beauty, elegance and craftsmanship” of their dress. For self-indulgence, they were also hard to beat.”

The people who congregated around the Duke and Duchess were dubbed the “Windsor set.” They were all-consumed with the photographic image.

“They arranged those lives to suit the lens. Voluntarily estranged from the real aristocracy, the Duke of Windsor, with the aid of his wife, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, set up a parallel court composed of people like Elsie de Wolfe, the interior decorator and social arbiter; Mona Bismarck, a gorgeous adventuress who was the daughter of a stableman on a Kentucky horse farm; and Daisy Fellowes, whose fortune derived from sewing machines and who had the distinction of being one of the first people on record to alter her nose surgically.”

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at home with their precious pug dogs. The Duchess, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, often appeared in her stylish best in public with a pug tucked under one arm. It became a fashion trend - to carry a dog around with you when away from home.

the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at home with their precious pug dogs. The Duchess, the former Wallis Warfield Simpson, often appeared in her stylish best in public with a pug tucked under one arm. It became a fashion trend - to carry a dog around with you when away from home.

Granted, the Windsors were despicable people, dining with Adolf Hitler in 1937 and hobnobbing with fellow Nazi sympathizers and British ex-pats Oswald Mosley and wife Diana Mitford. Nevertheless, the Duke and Duchess – and their fancy friends – obsessed with clothing,  had tremendous style.

Adolf Hitler kisses the hand of the Duchess of Windsor as her husband the Duke looks on, admiringly. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Germany in 1937 before WWII broke out across Europe. They were outspoken supporters of Nazi fascism and suspected of spying for Germany. At the beginning of the war, the Windsors were whisked out of France to safe haven in the Bahamas, where the Duke served out the war years as governor. There he could do Britain little harm - and he was less likely of being kidnapped by the Germans who were reportedly interested in installing him as a puppet king in a conquered Great Britain under German rule.

Adolf Hitler kisses the hand of the Duchess of Windsor as her husband the Duke looks on, admiringly. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visited Germany in 1937 before WWII broke out across Europe. They were outspoken supporters of Nazi fascism and suspected of spying for Germany. At the beginning of the war, the Windsors were whisked out of France to safe haven in the Bahamas, where the Duke served out the war years as governor. There he could do Britain little harm - and he was less likely of being kidnapped by the Germans who were reportedly interested in installing him as a puppet king in a conquered Great Britain under German rule.

Fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (French, 1883-1971) at Lido Beach in 1936

Fashion designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (French, 1883-1971) at Lido Beach in 1936

"Evening Dress," 1938. Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel. Black Silk Net with Polychrome Sequins. The Metropolitan Museum of ARt, New York. Special Exhibit: "Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set" The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by the Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl's seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. It was the end of an era when, on Sept. 1, 1939, Parisians heard an early-morning radio announcemen from Herr Hitler in German, at once translated into French, that "as of this moment, we are at war with Poland." The thirties were over; the Second World War had begun.

"Evening Dress," 1938. Gabrielle ("Coco") Chanel. Black Silk Net with Polychrome Sequins. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Special Exhibit: "Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set" The decoration of sequined fireworks on this evening dress, which was worn by the Countess Madeleine de Montgomery to Lady Mendl's seventy-fifth birthday party in 1939, is a fitting climax to le beau monde of the 1930s. It was the end of an era when, on Sept. 1, 1939, Parisians heard an early-morning radio announcement from Herr Hitler in German, at once translated into French, that "as of this moment, we are at war with Poland." The thirties were over; the Second World War had begun.

The Windsors were famous for their elegant Paris dinner parties, creating a demand for expensive clothes and jewels for them and their guests. Thus, the prewar years in France from 1935-1940 were rich in the decorative arts, putting trendy fashion designers front and center. It was a time when Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was “rethinking the suit” to allow for the way women really move and Elsa Schiaparelli* was designing lobster dresses with surrealist Salvador Dali.*

Then Hitler invaded Poland and World War II shattered the fantasy world of endless cocktail parties and silk and organza gowns made to order. The Germans invaded and occupied France.

Shockingly, Coco Chanel spent the war years living at the Ritz in Paris with a Nazi officer. After the war was over, Chanel was arrested by the free French for suspicion of collaborating with the Nazis. She purportedly offered this explanation for sleeping with the enemy:

 “Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover.”

It is generally believed that Winston Churchill  intervened with the French government, convincing them to let his old friend Coco Chanel escape to Switzerland rather than be paraded through the streets of Paris with her head shaved like other female Nazi collaborators.

Women accused of being Nazi collaborators are humiliated after the liberation of France, 1944. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Women accused of being Nazi collaborators are humiliated after the liberation of France, 1944. © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Jackie Kennedy in her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, riding through Dallas in a motorcade just minutes before a sniper kills her husband, President John F. Kennedy

Fast forward 19 years. It's November 22, 1963. Jackie Kennedy,* in her pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat, is riding through Dallas in a motorcade just minutes before a sniper kills her husband, President John F. Kennedy

*For more on the Kennedys on this blog, please see right sidebar – Categories – People  – the Kennedys.
See “Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor,” which follows this blog post.

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eugenie
As mentioned in yesterday’s post, Mary Todd Lincoln slavishly followed the fashion lead of the Empress Eugénie, Empress Consort of France (1853-1871), the wife of Napoléon III, Emperor of the French. The empress’ style was reported in detail by the Vogue magazine of the day, Godey’s Lady’s Book. In 1860, age 32, the Empress Eugénie was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. At a ball, she outshone all other women. It was said that every man was in love with her. Her friend, the Princess de Metternich recalled that, on one occasion, the empress was

“attired in a white gown spangled with silver and dressed with her most beautiful diamonds. She had carelessly thrown over her shoulders a sort of burnous of white embroidered with gold, and the murmurs of admiration followed her like a trail of lighted gunpowder.”

In 1862, the Empress Eugénie set the fashion world on fire. She appeared at the races, one of the biggest social events of the year, without a shawl, a bold move for a society woman, especially for an empress. She was wearing an elegant, off-the-shoulder gown by the very up-and-coming couturier Charles Frederick Worth, an Englishman who had recently opened the haute couture shop, “The House of Worth,” in Paris. The empress did not want the lovely gown hidden from view. The world of fashion took note. “The streets of Paris were soon buzzing with ladies without shawls.”

From her childhood days, Mary Todd Lincoln adored being the center of male attention. Once she became the First Lady, she longed to become a fashion trend setter. Ignoring the dowdy style of the English Queen Victoria, she modeled herself after Empress Eugénie, sticking flowers in her hair and bodice, piling on the jewels, and opting for expensive gowns that dipped in the bust and shoulder. Husband Abraham Lincoln called Mary’s dresses her “cat-tails.” Mary tried hard to be fashionably dressed but she was generally displeased with the result; the hooped dresses and yards of fabric swamped her short frame and the excess jewelry and ornamentation was overwhelming.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which Washington modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary Todd Lincoln in a photograph by Mathew Brady, November 1861, in a heavy white silk dress onto which modiste Elizabeth Keckley had sewn 60 velvet bows and countless black dots.

Mary’s departure from the high-necked muslins worn by Western women brought swift condemnation from Oregon Senator James Nesmith, a guest at an 1862 East Room reception, who wrote to his wife of the 43-year-old “weak-minded Mrs. Lincoln and her sorry show of skin and bones. She had her bosom on exhibition, a flower pot on her head – There was a train of silk dragging on the floor behind her of several yards in length.” Mary Lincoln, continued the senator, who used to “cook Old Abe’s dinner and milk the cows,” now seemed eager “to exhibit her milking apparatus to public gaze.”

Mary’s plunging necklines caught Abe’s eye, too. “Whew,” he is quoted as saying, “our cat has a long tail tonight – if some of that tail was nearer the head, it would be in better style.”

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1987)

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