Is the icon of today just the hidebound old crank of tomorrow? This thought brought to you by the intersection of various impressions that raised that question to me.
I recently smelled a very familiar scent, Yardley’s English Lavender. Yardley, more a cliché than a byword for English fragrance. It reminded me of Cecil Beaton’s unrelatably conservative and judgmental diatribe about how those gentle scents like lavender had been overtaken by the overpowering, supposedly unnatural, scents of perfumes like Chanel No. 5. Beaton appeared to assume some inflexible, unspoken order as unshakable in its hierarchies as some sort of horrible Tao.
I had just finished Beaton’s The Glass of Fashion, a drawn-out and dusty set of recollections by the onetime royal photographer and catty diarist of his 20th-century fashion inspirations and bugbears, including Mlle Chanel. They were published in the early 1950s, a few years before Beaton designed the costumes for the musical and then the film of My Fair Lady (for which he won an Oscar), and a few years before the events described in a memorable episode of Buck House soap opera The Crown I had also just seen.
That season 2 episode of The Crown contrasts Beaton as a camp old snob, attempting to coax the unruly Princess Margaret to pose more regally for her official photo, the better to inspire the lower classes in their miserable hovels, with Antony Armstrong-Jones, the future Lord Snowdon, as the newer generation of both photographers and society icons: less pompous if not much less posh, dashing, daring. Armstrong-Jones is sexually ambiguous but explicitly sexual, and brings the episode to its climax taking a bare-shouldered shot of Princess Margaret (based on a shot the real Armstrong-Jones took of her). His triumph – and further class transgressions as wealthy commoner who married royalty starkly highlights Beaton’s be-cravated impotence, all decorum and restraint and unspoken subtext.
Just another case of old and unimaginative versus new? Yet both were groundbreaking style icons in their own rights and their own times. Armstrong-Jones as one of the faces of Swinging London, and most dear to me as the man who popularized a bespoke silk turtleneck-collared formal shirt by getting turned away from a New York restaurant for wearing it. But Beaton was not just a multiple award-winning designer of costumes, sets and decors, with audiences apparently interested enough in his grumblings about fashion and (from this distance of time) deathly dull reminiscences about how his aunts dressed to warrant the publication of books like The Glass of Fashion: a wonderful recent monograph, The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton, features Beaton’s unexpectedly imaginative early clothing designs – which were for himself, and made up for him by tailors. These include a bizarre “rabbit coat” designed for a party Beaton threw as a young man. One of four costumes for that evening, the pale corduroy tailcoat was festooned with appliqué muslin roses, green hedgerows and plastic broken eggs. (Beaton topped the ensemble with a rabbit mask that recalls the more nightmarish images of Donnie Darko.) The rabbit coat is famous, inspiring a 1990s homage from Savile Row designer Richard James in the form of a yellow silk Nehru jacket with appliqué silk flowers on embroidered green thorny stems. That coat has featured alongside Beaton’s rabbit coat in multiple museum exhibitions about Beaton’s fashion influence; a friend once sent me one (pictured) which I am forbidden to wear outside the house.
Other writers have noted Beaton’s apparent flair for innovation and combination in clothing and decoration, elements that apparently were ahead of his own time when he was young (including a “Circus Bed” made by (and recalling) a carousel builder), elements that don’t come across in Beaton’s infamous late-life diaries sniping at Elizabeth Taylor’s weight and Prince Yusupov picking his nose. Conventions change with time, and the iconoclast Beaton became the depressing distilled cliché of his avatar in The Crown, his failure to grasp the times thrown into relief by Armstrong-Jones.
The late Armstrong-Jones, as his time too is long over, his style relevance relegated to a few pens like mine. Icons perhaps are not the best-dressed people, but those who put themselves out there, say and be.