From culture to couture

Penelope Gilliatt

  • The ‘Vogue’ Bedside Book edited by Josephine Ross
    Hutchinson, 256 pp, £9.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 158520 1
  • The Art of Zandra Rhodes by Anne Knight and Zandra Rhodes
    Cape, 240 pp, £18.00, November 1984, ISBN 0 395 37940 7

There are three Vogues, published in New York, London and Paris. They are known to Condé Nast people as ‘Vogue’, ‘Brogue’ and ‘Frog’. Their characters have nothing in common. In order of hauteur, Frog is housed in an ambassadorial house in the Place du Palais Bourbon, and has long been edited by a handsome woman of diplomatic family, Edmonde Charles-Roux. When I was Brogue’s features editor, Frog still revolved around the couture collections; Frog being frog and grand, Condé Nast’s photographers had first and private access to the collections. Though I had nothing to do with fashion, it was once arranged that, as a 19-year-old of mature authority, I should be the courier for the precious photographs, ferrying them across the Channel and through Customs at almighty speed to get them to the layout department, who would deliver them to the printers in Watford where the formes were being held at vast expense. I was allowed to take a taxi for once, and left the invaluable things in the cab at one in the morning. I realised what I’d done as soon as I had paid, yelled as the taxi sped off, took others to go to police stations, went to the lost-and-found bureau over the river in case it was open while my contemporaries were dancing the Wedding Samba at the Four Hundred, went back to the lost-and-found the moment it opened the next morning, and the huge envelope of D-notice movement in hemlines had been handed in. Better luck than for Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

American Vogue is Manhattan in spades. Secretaries in the days of my visits cried hystericially in the lavatory after the editors’ morning tantrums. I used to get cables from my then opposite number, whose husband had been driven into slumbrous college counselling of a shrink sort by his wife’s pace. She commanded the theatre tickets she wanted for her annual visit to London. Three plays a night, one act of each play (hits only) per night, timings worked out. Her husband had to wait for something to eat until after the travail. By then he could only swig Maalox, an antacid, because he had an ulcer. The cables sent between the Vogues had to be written peremptorily. I made the mistake of saying ‘please’ in one of them and ninepence was deducted from my wages by an angered advertising official. On the whole, though, British Vogue is a very different matter. The two admirably intelligent and gentle London editors-in-chief I worked for were Audrey Withers and Beatrix Miller. Audrey Withers furtively hated fashion. Not that this stopped her working tirelessly over every word of fashion copy written for her, but it explains the tacit alliance she had with successive features editors at planning conferences, and the quality over the years of British Vogue’s features pages, blessed as they are with the additional merit of having no advertising hitched to their subject-matter.

The ‘Vogue’ Bedside Book is put together by Josephine Ross, a Vogue Talent Contest finalist. (This is a nerve-racking affair with 15 finalists meeting 15 Condé Nast hierarchs at a lunch, held in my day at the Hyde Park Hotel. The Condé Nast judges moved up two places at successive untouched courses so that everybody met everybody: the Mad Hatter’s tea party with nary a dormouse for respite.) Miss Ross’s selection does honour to the magazine she lately worked for. Like a magazine, it reads best and most naturally if one starts from the back. The section on Books and Writers is first-rate and reads as though it had been written as a series, though it wasn’t. Vita Sackville-West, for instance, on ‘What do women readers look for?’ (1923), not afraid to be anti-feminist – no one represented in this book is – and very funny about women’s insistence on the human; Elizabeth Taylor on Ivy Compton-Burnett (1951), remarking that her heroine’s bi-nominal titles can make reading a solicitor on ‘Landlords and Tenants’ an exciting prospect. Infected as one is bound to be by the style of a writer that one admires enough to write about, she tells us that critics’ likenings of Miss Compton-Burnett to Jane Austen ‘displease her the least’ and that Miss Compton-Burnett’s ‘range is wider though not a great deal wider, and in any case, “range” – a word used as a compliment to novelists – does not seem on closer examination anything very valuable. It does suggest only an extension of surface, and writers who have it have probably only poked their noses into someone else’s kitchen to look at the parings of vegetables. The parings of vegetables have never interested Miss Compton-Burnett.’ Virginia Woolf at her critical best in ‘Indiscretions’ (1924), on the topic of which sex is allowed to admire which writer, with Keats bridging the gap: ‘But there is a hitch; there is Fanny Brawne. She danced too much at Hampstead, Keats complained. The divine poet was a little sultanic in his behaviour; after the manly fashion of his time apt to treat his adored both as angel and cockatoo.’ Virginia Woolf’s appreciation of other writers was – remains – one of the most urgent and lucid aspects of her writing. It enters the realm of the fictional because she herself entered the temperaments of the mindful lives of the writers she admired. She would have agreed for sure with Desmond McCarthy’s description of a biographer as an artist on oath. Every writer in this collection, with the exceptional exception of Elsa Maxwell, would have shared Miss Compton-Burnett’s grudge against life for providing no real plots.

Elsa Maxwell is something else again, something she would probably have liked to have been said of her. She writes, of course, about Parties (1930). Like the theatre critics who regularly liken a farce to a soufflé and say ‘the soufflé failed to rise,’ she says: ‘the making of a successful party is like the baking of a wonderful soufflé – the ingredients and proportions must be weighed and measured by the hand of an artist – should be taken out of the oven at exactly the right psychological moment – and served hot.’ The artist doing the weighing is, of course, Miss Maxwell, and we are not at exactly the psychological moment for her mixture if we are depressed, out of work, poor, lonely, tired, overworked. Which rules out practically everybody who is not swinging from a chandelier at five in the morning or putting – Ah, a new idea, what fun! – acid rain into a countess’s goldfish pond. A party must have an Idea. Not ideas. That leads to loafing and to the bane of all great parties – thought. Or still worse, to silence, and to guests leaving before midnight after the inexperienced hostess has spent nearly everything Daddy earned in the City. ‘The joy of the hostess in her own party must be the first element encountered by a guest.’

The obligatory opening section, called Modes and Manners, which is far more ironic than the Vogue flick-through reader can ever have guessed, includes a Nancy Mitford piece, ‘Why is a debutante?’ (1930), in the mood of Evelyn Waugh. And the Countess of Oxford and Asquith on ‘Changes I have seen’ (1935): she didn’t really see any, because anything of consequence happened inside her own front door. She had ‘an ardent desire to know everyone of interest and character’ from the earliest age. God help the boring. And her mother, sisters and brothers were of such terrific talent that everything happened at home. At a Palace Ball where she danced with a young Liberal MP, a scintillating footnote to history: ‘My diamond brooch fell off my shoulder ... it had fallen off at Prince George’s feet and with his habitual courtesy and observation he picked it up and returned it to me.’

Themes of anti-braininess and anti-feminism run through this book, and every period it covers. Lady Oxford says firmly that, before the war, ‘you had to be clever to go into law, diplomacy, the Civil Service, or politics, and few of the aristocracy ever became stockbrokers. All this has changed, and big business has attracted many young men of birth and education.’ Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘Femininity: The Trap’ (1947) begins: ‘The French have never been feminists. Of course, they’ve always loved women, but in the manner of Mediterranean peoples, which is the way ogres love little children – for their personal consumption.’ Towards the end of the essay, though, there is a softer sentence: ‘If woman had totally won her independence so that her association with men was perfectly equal, a certain gentleness would be lost to man.’ W.H. Auden takes a giant swing at woman’s awful influence on opera. Opera, he says, convincingly, depends on wilfulness, and women as the leads in opera wreck everything because they keep on fitting in and shutting up. ‘The passivity of Mimi, for example, almost wrecks La Bohème.’ It would be hard to imagine a Donna Giovanna with men slipping on masks of happiness when their myriad hearts are broken.

Ahead of its time, British Vogue was asking why it should be a test of womanliness to have children. In piece after piece, as if people were anticipating the, to me, oversold Sylvia Plath, there is rebellion in the ranks: go ahead if you want to, but resist the union of motherhood, which is often fuelled by a large dose of resentment at the freedom of the childless woman. The nuclear missile and toxic waste problems have made the pressure subside. Always before there had been the assumption that the species must go on. But now, why?

The Art of Zandra Rhodes includes some of the concussed sentences that British Vogue, even on fashion, avoids. Miss Rhodes says that she ‘loves to talk about the things in her head’. End of statement. There is a very beautiful, very tall hostess in Hollywood, of Hungarian extraction, who will fling her arms wide in infectious self-enthusiasm and say: ‘I am a woman of impulse. When I am hungry, I eat. When I am tired, I sleep.’ It is unfair to speak of Zandra Rhodes’s text, but the photographs of her designs are worlds away from working lives. I remember that, when I was 17, I was made nervous by dictating to a typist in a hat. The alarm bred by Miss Rhodes’s clothes goes much further than a hat. The cover shows a girl looking not at all ready for the office, let alone for going on to what British Vogue fashion editors called ‘little evenings’. The Vogue prototype would have had a black dress, a second pair of clean white gloves in soap and drek drawer, a change of fake jewellery. This girl is in a rather beautiful blue-and-white hand-printed something or other, as far as one can see (down to her shoulders). Above, the face. Gold baubles from pierced ears, magenta slash of lipstick, an uncooked-carrot wig, with a fringe marked at the bottom by a continuous line of royal blue dipping down to her nose, a white Shirley Temple bow, a two-inch plucked pheasant tail with burgundy tips at the back of the carrot wig. The designs on papery silk of extravagant expense are laid out like the robes of pharoahs without, thank God, punk faces. The work seems to be gifted, though Balenciaga, the simplest designer of this braggart century, might have thought the West finished if he had seen it.

So one goes back to British Vogue. A witty piece by John Mortimer: a QC of his calibre is a born interviewer, of course, though it took editors years to cotton on to the idea. Among the short stories, I struck old memories of Brendan Behan. Before he was discovered by Joan Littlewood, he used to wander into my office and say he would write me a short story if he could have 25 guineas. I would write him a cheque on my wages, perfectly certain he would come up with the goods, and he would nip off to a pub at the back of our offices, then in Golden Square. He picked up the tab for everyone, spending his fee as he went, and writing in a school exercise-book. The result that is reprinted here is titled ‘Sunbathers cover their faces in Sweden’ (1958). It has no shape, but the substance of the man is there all right. British Vogue then, and I hope now, is unruly. John Davenport succeeded me. He came in late and left after the accounts department had closed. One morning of the fortnight when I was supposed to be ‘training’ him, I came in very early and found the Coke machine lying on its side with its wires all over the place. John Davenport, fractious for a drink and with all the strength of the thwarted alcoholic, had picked up the huge machine the evening before and shaken it until the sixpences came out. A sad, chaotic man, obsessed by his superficial likeness to Cyril Connolly. The enemy of his own not lesser promise, he wrote prodigiously about failure.