Friday, 12 August 2011
My good friend Flo has stopped by. We both have hectic schedules – she is working full time, and I am running around completing projects. We have already had a ramshackle picnic, put together from fridge pickings, and eaten in the shade of the hollow tree up the road. We have sunbathed and chatted, stretching out our legs in the light.
When we return home we abandon the basket and head upstairs so that she can raid my wardrobe – trying on a green fringed two-piece and then a raspberry, raw-silk pencil skirt. She settles on the latter and asks me to find something dramatic to wear, so she can take photos. I sort through the coat-hangers, suspended on a groaning rail that buckles like an inverted bridge, until I find a thirties evening gown. I pull it out, slipping its cool form over a dusky pink silk slip. I swing around to pick up a cream turban before snatching a thin silk sash.
All the while, certain words and phrases tumble: “Moonyeen” and “Ballet Russes” and “Thirties eccentricity”.
Moonyeen was the original owner of the dress; partner to the silver beauty featured here. I didn’t discover her story until that first acquisition was posted on my blog, and I had written a thank you letter to the kind woman who had provided the exciting bag of vintage offerings.
Soon after, I received an email that detailed who Moonyeen was. Alongside her incredible name, she was “a kind and lovely person” who “in her youth... looked a lot like Grace Kelly so was very elegant and beautiful”. My interest was more than piqued. I imagined a classic, movie-star-esque woman who had worn and loved those clothes before me. What parties and wardrobes had this dress, with chevrons of blue and pink, graced?
More anecdotes emerged. I was told: “She went to an exclusive dance school in London when she was young but went on to marry my father in law who was in the navy. He became a Rear Admiral and served on the Royal Yacht Britannia which is no more. He remembers Prince Charles as a small boy playing hide and seek on deck with Princess Ann. The nanny was nowhere to be seen and he noticed that Prince Charles was hiding in a dangerous place where he could fall overboard, so he gently went up to him and told him to find somewhere else to hide.”
As I have said many times, I love the fact that stories often accompany the garments I am lucky enough to be given. The idea of Moonyeen, with her exotic name and story, completely inspired my styling choices.
Alongside wanting to do its original owner justice, I was also struck by how much this dress reminded me of the Ballet Russes. The photo-session with my very talented friend Flo (who incidentally will be studying photography at University in September), happened several days after I bought a lavish book called “Ballet Russes: The Art of the Costume”.
It was a bit of an impulse buy, and a greedy one at that. I already own the volume that was published alongside the V&A exhibition, but couldn’t resist the vivid pictures and details of designs by everyone from Leon Bakst to Sonia Delauney in this edition (produced by the National Gallery of Australia). As you may have guessed, books are my second biggest weakness after clothes.
The style and cut of the dress reminded me of the bold slashes of colour and intricate patterns that make the Ballet Russes costumes so recognisable and memorable. The dress doesn’t quite have stylised clouds or grand tassels adorning its edges, but it seems to display the same influences, down to the pattern of gold curlicues covering the fabric like veins.
It also epitomises the use of prints and patterns during the 1930s, as machinery advances led to commercial production of garments that included:
• “Designs printed on silk, rayon and crinkle crepe”
• “Bold lines and patterns of the prevailing Art Deco style”
• “Contrasting colours and bright shades to emphasize print”
• “Influences from Cubism and artists such as Picasso and Man Ray”
(Quotes from ‘Vintage Fashion: collecting and wearing designer classics’ by Carlton books.)
Although the Ballet Russes’ grand reign is thought of as ending in 1929 – the year of Diaghilev’s death – it still had various renaissances during the thirties, when this dress would have been created.
One of the problems that plagued Diaghilev’s grand company was finances. Many of his costumes (alongside “stage sets... designs and musical scores” according to the book) were sold off in 1930 to cover debts. Although they were bought by a composer, with the intention of reviving the Ballet Russes, the effects of the Wall Street Crash put a stop to these fanciful thoughts (and led to a large re-sale in 1934).
I was fortunate to cover the American Economic Crash for my history GCSE (the hardest of all my exams, but also one of the most rewarding), which seems extraordinarily prescient in light of the current recession – which I understand is not going to improve any time soon. The effects of these difficult times were immediately apparent yesterday, when we went to our nearest large town (by nearest, I mean 40 minutes) and were confronted with one empty shop after another. Many windows were almost naked, their dressings having been removed and sold off at 70% discount.
Ironically, we now remember the 1930s as the decade of Hollywood Glamour – a time of bias cut dresses, silk jersey and Vionnet drapery. While thousands camped out in ‘Hoovervilles’, accompanied by the rhythm of the weary footfall of desperate jobseekers, film stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford enjoyed unprecedented popularity. The two extremes are not without links. The chic elegance of the ‘Stars of the Silver Screen’ provided much needed escapism for those caught up in the depression – cinema numbers were at an all-time high.
The same could be said of 2011. As a nation, we still lose ourselves in movies, TV Programmes and magazines that promote aspirational lifestyles. A dwindling number immerse themselves in the worlds and characters described in books and poetry. Many like to turn on a CD or iPod and tune off from the world.
However, although I enjoy life’s pleasures as much as the next person, capitalism and the emphasis on ‘needing stuff’ is not the be all and end all. It has, in part, led to these economic problems, alongside bankers gambling so that they might get an even more gargantuan bonus. Nevertheless, as many people have observed: while those who joined the rioting and were caught will now rightly face the consequences of their actions, the bankers have continued to act with impunity and moral disregard.
Finally, you may have noticed that my blog has had a re-design, courtesy of the very wonderful Olivia from Robin Blogs. If you fancy a new look, then she is definitely the person to contact. She is such a pleasure to work with, and brings ideas to life like a magician! I'm so pleased with the result. Huge thanks Olivia.
The ‘backbone’ brooch in the new header was made by my close family friend and honorary cousin Esme, who I have known since she was born! She is now a very talented silversmith (and cook), and created this extraordinary piece for me to express my response to both scoliosis and strength. You can see more of her designs here, and I will be featuring the brooch in a post of its own.