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Museums and Women!

Blog on Museums and WomenAs book titles go, Museums and Women is about as boring as it gets. But in John Updike’s hands, of course it is emotional and sensuous, intellectual and erotic. It is the title of a short story (and subsequent volume) about a small boy first visiting a museum with his mother which morphs into a tale of adultery with a woman working in a museum. It is beautifully written.  It was left on a table for me to read at the club in New York where I am staying this week. I had plenty of other reading material with me but, waking early from jet lag, this fifty- year old volume spoke to me.

One of my favourite cities for visiting Museums is New York and today was no different. I was aware of the newly opened Memorial to 9/11 Museum on the site of the tragedy which announces that it “will display artifacts associated with the events of 9/11, while presenting stories of loss and recovery.”  There is an associated gift shop selling T Shirts and other memorabilia. Not surprisingly,  it is deeply controversial and it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to go instead to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. There I looked at all the children thronging the Egyptian galleries of the Met and wondered what their memories of childhood visits to admire ancient statuary would be. What could they possibly make of the faces with no noses, the bodies with no arms and magnificent jewellery?

I was there to see the amazing ball gowns designed by legendary 20th century Anglo-American couturier, Charles James. One of his 1950’s creations would cost around $12,000 in today’s money so they were a true “investment piece” as the phrase goes. James was born in England in 1906 to a British army father who never understood his creative son and treated him cruelly and a Chicago socialite mother, almost wealthy enough to be called a dollar princess and whose contacts among American high society were to prove invaluable when her son set out in Paris, first as a milliner.

He returned to England during the war but Post-war established himself in New York.

What’s not to like about a designer who says: “My dresses help women discover figures they didn’t know they had.”

Or this “All my work was inspired by women who were not merely lovely or rich but personalities and who seemed to share some of my own feeling about life in general.”

But it’s not just that I warmed to the man. The inaugural exhibition of the newly renovated Costume Institute Charles James: Beyond Fashion is spectacular technically and visually. http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/charles-james-beyond-fashion/images

By using robotic electronic cameras, most of the ball gowns on display are individually deconstructed on an adjacent screen which explains and explores James’s design process, focusing on his use of sculptural, scientific, and mathematical approaches to construct his revolutionary and magnificent ball gowns.

The exhibition is not just entertainment for women. James himself saw himself as a creative artist on a par with many famous writers and musicians of the day. He is also an inventor. He needed women for his art but, as the Met curators rightly recognise, this story is not just about fashion, it goes way beyond fashion.

Charles James : Beyond fashion is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York until August 8th 2014

Tales from the front line … Finding the right words for Pain and Courage

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

“Je suis fini,” I told the librarian in the subterranean Bibliotheque Nationale, to guffaws of laughter. “Vous avez fini,” he reprimanded me as he brought his laughter under control. Yes, I agreed with him I had finished but in English we might also say ‘I am finished for the day or with these books.’  Clearly, I had said something totally inappropriate, probably best left to my imagination but I am pleased I at least provided him with some amusement for the day. As usual, I’d been up since 5 am in order to catch the 7 am Eurostar and had made my way across Paris to the Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand, (BNF),  a building that feels as if you are working in a prison or nuclear bunker, for a day of research. At first I was refused entry because my (very small) rucksack on wheels was deemed too large, but with my inadequate French I finally persuaded them to allow me in. And once I started work the atmosphere was serene, the chairs fabulously comfortable and the café delicious. I must keep going with the French lessons!

View from my bedroom: Paris rooftops

Plaque outside the Memorial de la Shoah

When not at the BNF I go to Nanterre, repository of many resistance archives, to immerse myself in yet more harrowing accounts of women in concentration camps or in factories working as slave labourers, or to the Holocaust Museum, where the librarian explains why she often does not have what I am looking for “because we deal with death not life, and with the nobodys in life who have no one to come and deposit papers with us.” And as I am finding my way around the city to a number of other resistance museums or repositories of World War Two papers, I can see why so many Parisians complain about passenger safety on the underground.  The short amount of time the metro doors remain open at stations is a source of regular complaint and this week I was one of those ‘snapped.’ The automatic doors close violently and stop for nobody. I was trailing my very small suitcase trying to get through the crowds when bang – they shut on me, poised halfway out, causing instant rib pain. But at least I got out and sat down to recover my breath. I’ve done nothing more than bruise a rib but it’s very painful. Very painful? How do I dare even to write that as I research lives that were truly, achingly, desperately painful, often with little or no food or heat and full of fear, threat and torture. Yet few complained.

Best of all are my interviews with old people who have lived through the experiences. I’m keeping the best details of these for the book itself but one memory that will stay with me is meeting two friends, one almost 90 the other a little older, comparing memories. One says to the other: “But you – you were in the resistance, no?  I never knew. All these years. Why didn’t you talk about it?”

“What was there to talk about?” she replies. “It was just what one did.” Again and again, I ask myself, what I would have done? Courage, like pain, are just two words I need to understand better in French as well as English.

 

 

Paris in the springtime

Worth La Belle Dame sans MerciParis in the springtime may be a romantic cliché but the day I have just spent in the city was everything the song promised. It was one of those blue sky sunny days which offer so much hope for the summer to come. And it was in the middle of Paris fashion week so the city was full of statuesque women wearing platform soles and 6 inch heels, painted nails and powdered faces, bizarre hair styles and outrageously wonderful clothes. There was also a half marathon so hundreds of muscular types were wandering around looking dazed in their blue plastic wraps declaring their achievement. And of course, the inevitable Paris traffic chaos.

Paris is fighting hard to keep its title as the fashion capital of the world. London, bursting with the creative fashion talent of so many young British designers, is intent on chasing it into second place. But as one designer described it to me: ‘Paris is still where you are judged at the highest level. To succeed in Paris is still the greatest challenge.’

He has a point. Somehow Paris has an allure, an allure that perhaps still trades on its glory days of The Belle Époque, the days when rich Americans with shiny new fortunes would bring their daughters to Paris to give them some old world polish, hoping to take the brassy look off their very nouveau fortunes before launching them onto impoverished British aristocrats. They were the dollar princesses and nothing defined their superiority over their English sisters better than their fabulous clothes and their ability to wear them with style, ease and confidence. They knew how to cause a stir when they entered a room. Edith Wharton advised any young American girl preparing for a grand marriage to have approximately eleven Worth gowns in her trousseau; Jennie Jerome had twenty three, a fact which caused her fiancée, Lord Randolph Churchill, no end of difficulties in finding a house big enough for them all.  Wharton also advised young women to keep this year’s model for a year before wearing so as to let the ostentation fade a little.

Charles Frederick Worth, born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1825, an Englishman who reinvented himself in Paris, is the man responsible for establishing the idea of haute couture as we know it today. Blame him for the idea of a brand as he labelled all his creations – a small critical rectangle of fabric usually sewn in the waistband – cultivated an international clientele of aristocrats, royals and actresses and plenty of mystique. He saw himself as an artist and created out of the commercial transaction of buying a gown a theatrical experience. But he also had responsibilities to ensure that his aristocratic clients never encountered his courtesan or actress clients, of whom there were many. Some of these were given a special prix d’artiste, the forerunner of film stars borrowing gowns from famous houses in the hope of bringing them fame.

In 1850, just as Worth was starting out in Paris (he had left England just five years before and was not yet established) there were an estimated 158 couturiers in Paris and 67 maisons de nouveates confectionées. By 1895 that figure had risen dramatically to 1,636 couturiers and 296 maisons de nouveates confectionées, the best of them, as Maison Worth, clustered around Place Vendōme and Rue de la Paix.

This week sees the publication of a fabulous book about Worth* with truly lavish illustrations thanks to the Victoria and Albert’s unique archive of over 7,000 official house records. And it is full of interesting tidbits. On one occasion Grace Elvina, the Marchioness of Kedleston and a loyal Worth client, found herself wearing an identical Worth gown as the Queen of Spain, a woman she had invited to dine at her home. She went quickly upstairs to change and chided the master afterwards. But he was not especially penitent. He did not need to be.

One of the loveliest museums in Paris is the Musée Carnavalet, in the fashionable Marais where it is always a pleasure to be a flanźur, currently has an exhibition entitled **Roman d’une Garde-Robe, or Tales from a Wardrobe, which brings alive in a wider sense the world of haute couture in Paris for its privileged clientele and those who served them.  The show is based on the wardrobe of Alice Alleaume, head saleswoman at Chéruit, rival to Worth and in fact the first couture house to set up in Place Vendōme. Her sister, Hortense, was head saleswoman at Worth. The whole family was immersed in fashion and the exhibition brilliantly captures the spirit of la Belle Époque as well as the freedom of the twenties and the difficult years of the depression. It’s especially good at showing the links between artists and photographers who were clearly fascinated by elegant Parisiennes who shopped not only at Worth but at Paquin, Doucet and Chéruit and one painting illustrates how a whole family would be involved in the dressmaking process – children too. Dressing to the best of one’s financial resources is a tenet deeply engrained in the psyche of a Parisienne. It’s a sacred duty, what they owe themselves. But, oh, where did they find the time for all these fittings and  regular changes of outfit throughout the day.

Parisian haute couture did not end in 1939, with the outbreak of War, nor even in 1940 with the German occupation.  Lucien Lelong, President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture had to negotiate with the occupying German regime. He courageously refused Nazi demands to take the entire couture industry to Germany and made a spirited fight to keep Parisiennes well-dressed in gowns made by French houses as well as hundreds of seamstresses working in small ateliers. But there were also important sales to Nazi wives which helped keep the industry alive during the war years but meant that after liberation some couturiers were tainted with the collaborationist brush. Thus the flame never burned out and after the war Christian Dior with his ‘New Look’, but others too, breathed new life into an industry vibrantly alive today.

 

*The House of Worth Portrait of an Archive V& A Publishing  £35.00

**Roman D’Une Garde-Robe  Musée Carnavalet until March 16

 

 

What I really mean when I say I am going to Paris for a few days…

Why does nobody believe me when I say I am going to Paris to work? No, not shopping, I pronounce confidently, it’s a research trip.

‘Ha, ha! Have a nice holiday,’ they say as they wave me off. If I told people I was going to Berlin or Edinburgh, or even Geneva, they wouldn’t make the same automatic assumption.

Is it because of the latest shenanigans with President Hollande and his motorcycle helmet that people assume Paris is code for doing something else? Or is it historic, this attitude to Paris? Certainly a German soldier posted to Paris in 1941 rejoiced. Of course it was better than the eastern front. It had food, women, perfume and brothels.

A tiny part of me, of course, doesn’t mind the teasing. It’s why I am writing the book I am about women in Paris in the 40’s, both during the war and after it. I knew instinctively when I proposed the idea that what de Gaulle managed to do after the war for the whole of France was writ large in Paris. He ensured that the idea of Paris, the notion of a city, depended upon its reputation as a hub of beauty, gastronomy and fashion – and he succeeded magnificently. Paris is exciting. It is a breathtakingly beautiful city whose buildings, if not its honour, remained virtually intact after the war. The brothels may have been closed down (more or less…at any rate they were made illegal in 1946) but, seventy years after the liberation, Paris is still the city of romance par excellence. Parisian women look stunningly fashionable, just as they tried to do throughout the War.

Well, mostly they do.  The everyday reality is different for anyone who travels beyond the centre to the suburbs. Try telling anyone who spends days in the subterranean enclosure that is the Bibliotheque Nationale or the National Archives, which are located miles outside the centre in a desolate part of the city,  that you are going for a romantic holiday. The train from the airport to the centre – for those who do not use Eurostar – comes past a number of dreary suburbs including the hellish Drancy. How could anyone live in a town whose name is a byword for the evil perpetrated on French soil?  The metro is often crowded full of thousands of jostling, unfashionable, ordinary women going about their daily business as well as beggars and thieves just as in every European city. Tragically people throw themselves under trains here just as they do in London. I have noticed however that French seem not to treat the metro as a convenient place to have a smelly curry in the way do in London.

Fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques

So what about the shopping?  Well, there are some fabulous shops in Paris, boutiques which are not part of any chain selling wildly original objects displayed eye catchingly. There is a sweet smelling artisan chocolatier or patisserie on every street corner and an ‘artisan’ bag or belt maker on several others. Haute cuisine and haute couture are put within the tempting reach of every miserable passer-by. Right next door to my hotel is a fabulous designer hat shop but so far the prices have kept me just a window shopper. I just look longingly at the beautiful designer shops and popup shops and the unusual –objects- which-I-really- don’t-need-shops. I even found myself stopping outside a designer spectacle shop today and feeling deeply covetous. So far, other than the occasional gift, I have kept away.

ColetteBut yesterday my resolve cracked as my research took me to a new part of town – the Comedie Francaise archives are located not only right in the centre of town but in the Palais Royale, nestling among the historic arcades full of designer boutiques. The writer Colette lived here and ever watchful had a good view of several unsavoury comings and goings during the War. My hands were dangerously cold, I decided. I had to have some gloves, some Parisian gloves I convinced myself. And as my cosseted fingers recovered their feeling I recognised that these fabulously expensive gloves are just softer, sleeker, longer more supple than any gloves I have ever bought in London. No I am not acquiring a Parisian shopping habit. They are only gloves after all.

The Pram in the Hall – Enid Bagnold Writer and Mother

gaudier-brzeskaA talk I gave recently at the October Gallery – The annual Persephone Lecture

I have never thought it a particular advantage to know the person you are writing about. You will have known them at a particular time or in a particular role. Above all, for a child to write about a parent seems to me a recipe for disaster – unless you state from the outset this is a very one sided memoir. Children are often the least useful witnesses a biographer can find. Yet, try as we might to be objective, I think biographers too should plead guilty to subjectivity, to seeing their subject through a particular prism. Perhaps they lived in the same village, studied at the same college but in particular I believe that what we really cannot shed is the age we are at time of writing. However much I think I can imagine a particular emotion, or I am sure that I know what a particular experience must have felt like, I want to take this opportunity – openly and unequivocally – to admit my failure. Only now, having hit 60 myself and living through an age-obsessed time when the secret of eternal youth is promised from many quarters, do I really understand what Enid Bagnold – not exactly a vain woman but one who cared about her looks – meant when she wrote that one of the few counterbalancing factors for the pain of growing old was that, thanks to fading eyesight, she couldn’t really see all those wrinkles and grey hairs that worried her so much in anticipation – (although true to her novelist’s calling, exaggerating to make her point – she is not being wholly truthful even here as of course magnifying mirrors were around in the 1980′s.) But I can now at least understand why she wanted to have a face lift (and how radical was that in the 1970′s) and I admire her honesty and truthfulness about discussing this far more today than I could possibly have 30 years ago.

And here she is as Gaudier Brzeska saw her on the eve of WW One

So, I am immensely grateful to Persephone for giving me this second chance to look at Bagnold thirty years on. And of course to Faber Finds for republishing my biography. I’m relieved to say I haven’t found a different person or a different story. But the focus, if I were writing the book today, might be slightly sharper here or hazier there. The emphasis on different aspects of her life might be weightier here and pruned there. Actually I don’t think it would be a better book (I would say that wouldn’t I?) But I now understand in a wholly empathetic way why, in her 60′s and 70′s, she was still burning with ambition to write a successful play. I remember, with shame, a feeling in my 20′s that when I reached 60 I’d be happy to stay at home quietly knitting whereas in fact my desire to travel, to meet people, to achieve and to experience life is not only unabated it is in some ways greater as I am acutely aware of the limited time left and…and I can see why it risks appearing frankly unbecoming in someone of my years just as it did for Enid.

No, I think, or at least hope, that writing the biography of EB in my late 20′s gave me a youthful enthusiasm which suited my subject and gave me a perspective on her young days and early married life I might not have had now. I was rooting for her when the boyfriend didn’t work out (after all it wasn#39;t so far away for me that I could still remember those rejections, sharp longings and early fumblings) but most of all I deeply identified…and I say this fully aware of strictures by that great biographer Richard Holmes that self-identity with one’s subject is the first crime of a biographer…with her passionate desire to have babies and having had them to have more of them and then to be the best mother there had ever been. I understood the passionate and oh so unexpected flood of love when her first golden-haired child arrived – love neither she, nor I, knew we possessed. And then she found it a second time for her equally beautiful son – just as I was to do. My pigeon pair as I learned. The Squire, her truly great novel not just about motherhood but about what she believed it meant to be a woman, springs from that deep well of unconditional love. Enid wanted to go on and on, bringing up such treasures.

The Clifford Sisters for Femail Writer Enid Bagnold picturedSo let’s go back a bit. Who was Enid Bagnold? In her own sparkling and idiosyncratic autobiography (entitled I am tempted to say with no artifice but of course there was artifice aplenty) ‘Enid Bagnold’s autobiography’, published in 1969, she writes that she was driven to explore family history because of her fascination that “sperm had been shot across two centuries to arrive at me”¯. Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her writing (she once described her own prose as ‘beautiful vomit’) but what she is also revealing is an intense fascination with herself. Not unusual for ‘a born writer!’ as she called herself. When I came to research her biography I found all her notebooks and scrapbooks were embellished with directions/ guidance for a putative biographer – me! Pictures of the Franco-Romanian princes, Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco, for example, princes who had been close friends of Proust, were annotated with helpful comments like ‘this is the brother who committed suicide’ or ‘here we are visiting a church together’!

But Antoine Bibesco, the man she always adored, was never going to marry the plump and rather jolly Miss Enid Bagnold, daughter of Colonel Arthur Bagnold, a man who was as much engineer as soldier, and the former Miss Ethel Alger. They were, as her parents regularly reminded her, gentlefolk, and had been for generations. Enid was constantly testing her parents either by her requests to paint nude models when she studied with Sickert (turned down) or her request to visit the old roué journalist Frank Harris, her editor as well as lover, when he was in Brixton prison – agreed to “because people of breeding do not abandon a friend in need,”¯ her father told her. Read More