The ducal entourage whose leading ladies were clients of such designers as Elsa Schiaparelli, Madame Gres, Mainbocher, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet, Cristobal Balenciaga, and Jeanne Linvin are remembered fondly in "Blythe Spirit: The Windsor Set," a show that will run through Feb. 9.
The 80 items on display are drawn from the collections of the Costume Institute and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and include a wonderful selection of formal attire and sporting gear in checks and plaids from the duke's wardrobe. A little man who dressed with an eye to appearing larger, the duke's plumage was far more resplendent than that of his wife, a woman of severe fashion tastes except for flashy jewelry.
If the women of wealth in the Windsor Set were a little too giddy to curb their Proustian amusements in the face of the Nazi threat to all of Europe, they were still ladies of exquisite taste and dignity, unlike the mixed bag of showbiz personalities and the new rich who make up society today. The delicacies of etiquette were still observed and fashion reflected modesty in covering the body, not exposing it. No bare midriffs here!
And who were these ladies of fashion, many of whom were American?
Those whose clothes were chosen for display by curator Andrew Bolton for his first Costume Institute show include the American-born Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, who lived in Paris exile with her husband after his abdication as Britain's King Edward VIII in 1936, and Mrs. Harrison "Mona" Williams, a beautiful Kentucky stableman's daughter who climbed the ladder to social success as the wife of a utilities magnate rated the richest man in America.
Also represented are Elsie de Wolfe, a New York socialite and pioneer interior decorator who married a British diplomat, Sir Charles Mendl, and Mrs. Reginald "Daisy" Fellowes, a Singer sewing machine heiress who married into a British peerage family and is credited with launching more fashions, including having one's nose bobbed, than any woman in the world.
"Despite the fact that it was a time of crisis, it was also a time of great creativity in society and couture," Bolton told United Press International at a show preview.
"Some of the best couture of the 20th century was produced between 1935 and 1940. The beau monde of Paris still lived this escapist life, a retreat from the real world's events. Some parallels might be drawn from social life today in the face of political and economic instability."
The centerpiece of the show is Wallis Warfield Simpson's 1937 wedding dress by Mainbocher, an American-born Paris designer. It is a floor length silk crepe dress with a matching long-sleeved, high-necked jacket, and gathered bodice typical of the duchess' penchant for simple, tailored clothes with no superfluous details or decorations. The wedding dress was originally "Wallis blue" (to match her eyes) but has faded to beige, but the feathers of the wedding hat are still a light periwinkle hue.
It was said to be the most copied dress in history, retailing for as little as $8.90 at Klein's cash-and-carry store in New York.
The duchess donated the original dress to the Costume Institute as she did other items from her wardrobe, a custom adapted by other women of her generation who reveled in the reputation of being a fashion plate and wished to be remembered as such. They also liked to pose for the famous society photographers of the time -- Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, and George Hoyningen-Huene, and many of these photos are on display, as much icons of a glamorous era as are portraits of 18th century fashionables by Thomas Gainsborough.
The duchess popularized the dinner suit, a plain floor length skirt matched to a wide- shouldered, trim-waisted ornamented jacket or a short bolero that could be worn to the theater, restaurant or nightclub. There are dozens of them in the show, the best by the Italian-born Schiaparelli and Chanel, whose mannish black sequined suit with lace-trimmed ivory chiffon blouse loaned by the Victoria & Albert is a knockout.
Other women preferred gowns that were more romantic and feminine, some in the sexy simplicity of slim, high-busted First Empire gowns, classically draped by Madame Gres, Jeanne Paquin, and the fashion house of Worth, others in the femme fatale allure of full-skirted lace and beaded gowns in the Second Empire style by Mainbocher, Vionnet, and Charles James. Edward Molyneux copied the bouffant gowns in Franz Xaver Winterhalter's paintings, and Balenciaga even attempted to bring back the bustle.
Some of the gowns on display were worn at "The Circus Ball" held in the summer of 1938 in the gardens of Lady Mendl's Villa Trianon at Versailles, the last great pre-war party given in France. The hostess' silk chiffon gown with a train embroidered with gold butterflies is shown next to a painting by Oliver Messel (who would become uncle by marriage to Princess Margaret) of the event's equestrian entertainment.
Just prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, designers turned to patriotic themes such as Chanel's organdy gown edged with a tri-color floral border and Paquin's chiffon gown with appliquéd poppies, a reference to World War I's Flanders fields. By 1940, social events were being given by café society to raise funds for French war charities and the relief of soldiers at the front.
One of them was a fashion exhibit in New York titled "Paris Openings," organized Lady Mendl and chaired by the Duchess of Windsor. Many of the gowns from that show are in the "Blythe Spirit" exhibition, including Chanel's darkly prophetic 1938 gown for Mendl fashioned of black net shot with sequined fireworks bursts and worn with a black head veil, usually reserved for mourning.
The show is enhanced by the inclusion of a surrealist portrait by Salvador Dali of a barefoot Mrs. Williams (now Countess Bismarck as the result of a fourth marriage), Art Deco-era painted furniture by Serge Roche and stage designer Eugene Berman, and drawings by the multi-talented Jean Cocteau. There also are videos of documentaries including Edward VIII's abdication speech and stirring wartime addresses by Sir Winston Churchill.