In a sartorial version of hating the sin but loving the sinner, it is possible to appreciate the swanky, alluring clothes at the Met Costume Institute’s latest exhibit, “Blithe Spirit—The Windsor Set,” while detesting the people who wore them. “Blithe Spirit” concerns itself with a variety of couture frocks worn by the hard-partying haute bourgeoisie who frolicked in Britain and France in the 1930s—that gay period of devastating economic depression just before the Second World War. Though an impressive roster of titled and monied characters flit through the exhibit, by far the most famous are the duke and duchess of Windsor, two trim, tiny people obsessed with the way they looked.
He was heir to the throne of England; in 1936 he abdicated to marry the future duchess, an entirely unsuitable American divorcée named Wallis Simpson. (Royals, then as now, couldn’t marry divorcées.) At the exhibit, there is a film of the duke giving his famous abdication speech: ” . . . You must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.” This is broadcast over pictures of Edward rowing, skiing, watching horse races, and performing other onerous burdens of state.
The museum has a lot of the duke and duchess’s raiments on display, including her famous slim wedding gown designed by Mainbocher. (According to Diana Vreeland, Mainbocher was responsible for the duchess’s “wonderful simplicity and dash.”) The gown’s original blue has since faded to white, but don’t be fooled—it really was blue; no one in the 1930s would have dreamed of wearing white when marrying for the third time. Though this dress was knocked off by the thousands—a version at Klein’s, the huge discount store on Union Square, cost $8.90—not everyone was so enthusiastic: The duchess’s friend Lady Diana Cooper commented, “I didn’t like the dress, and as for the hat, it was appalling.”
For their part, the duke’s clothes garnered even more attention than his consort’s. Edward VIII was an early convert to the cult of sportswear, but that’s not to say a certain nutty intensity didn’t inform his choices. The left hip pocket of his trousers had no fastening and was slightly wider than the right pocket to accommodate his cigarette case; since he didn’t like wearing a belt or suspenders, his tailor devised a special little elastic girdle which fastened down the center front of his pants with a series of hooks. A gray wool Tyrolean suit, perfect for hanging out with the Nazis the duke was so fond of, was appliquéd with green felt trim.
And in fact, according to Andrew Bolton, who curated the Met show, the Windsors and their set were a lot more worried about Communism than they were about fascism. Well they might have been: Their self-regard depended on the admiration of the toiling masses, who could follow their glamorous goings-on through pictures in the daily papers. For the first time, clothes were being designed with an eye toward how they would photograph: The newly popular dinner suit had a lavishly decorated jacket and a plain skirt, because who sees your skirt when you’re sitting in the front row on opening night? The duke even had his evening suits made in midnight blue instead of black since blue photographed better, allowing lapels, buttons, and other salient details to show up in newspaper pictures.
Though many of these garments do indeed demonstrate the wonderful simplicity and dash Mrs. Vreeland extolled, it might have been fun, not to mention edifying, if the exhibit included some examples of the clothes actually worn by the vast majority of Britons in the ’30s: a parlor maid’s uniform, perhaps, or a shop girl’s cheap dress, or the jackets and caps favored by the taxi driver whose task it was to ferry the beau monde from one boîte to the next.
But while these blithe spirits arranged lavish fetes—the last blowout before the war, in the summer of 1939, featured elaborate fireworks in honor of Lady Mendl’s 75th birthday—the world was close to conflagration. Even fashion designers, rarely exemplars of political acuity, noticed it. The museum has a number of designs by Elsa Schiaparelli that evince the nervousness of the period, including a gown covered with black flies, a dress printed to look as if it were torn, and a dinner suit decorated with toreadors in support of the loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War. (At least Schiap was on the correct side, hardly a given with this crowd.) A 1939 afternoon dress by Jeanne Paquin is decorated with red and gray poppies, a reference, perhaps, to John McCrae’s famous poem about World War I which begins: “In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row.” Even Coco Chanel offered an organdy and lace dress in the colors of the French flag. It was a last gasp of patriotism for Chanel, who spent the war years living at the Ritz with a Nazi officer. When she was arrested by the free French after the war she purportedly offered this explanation: “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 it was Winston Churchill who intervened with the Gaullists, convincing them to let his old friend Chanel escape to Switzerland rather than be paraded through the streets of Paris with her head shaved like other Nazi collaborators. But it is also Churchill who has the last word at the Met exhibit. Over a film of the Germans marching into Paris, he speaks movingly of the upcoming Battle of Britain: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’ ” He was not referring to bracing himself with a little elastic girdle.