If ever a career was built on defining the elusive quality of personal style, it was Cecil Beaton’s. As we celebrate 100 years of Vogue in the UK, Cecil Beaton’s unique and multi-faceted contribution to defining and recording the style of most of the twentieth century has been in the spotlight.
Think of a list of the most stylish males of the twentieth century and Beaton himself would be prominent amongst them. Despite his considerable personal success, his Academy Awards for costume design for Gigi and My Fair Lady, and his 1970 nomination to the International Best Dressed List, a new book by Benjamin Wild (A Life in Fashion: The Wardrobe of Cecil Beaton) suggests that he used his personal image to mask insecurities and anxieties. It’s a trait common to most of us – who hasn’t had the experience of having to dress for an occasion? At any rate, Beaton’s style evolution and his influencers make a fascinating commentary set against his multi-faceted creative career.
In his youth, he experimented with flamboyant looks (surely influenced by his Bloomsbury and surrealist connections at the time) that effectively flagged his ambition as an artist. It worked: he was first featured in Vogue in 1924 and became a regular contributor from 1927 onwards, documenting London’s social season with cartoons, articles and anecdotes in prose that teetered on the edge of wicked wit but always managed to stay just on the side of teasing flattery. It was a style and a lifestyle that was to be perfectly parodied in Evelyn Waugh’s 1930 novel, Vile Bodies. In 1928 he moved to New York and was signed up to US Vogue as a fashion photographer. His work there was marked by his great skill in scene-setting, influenced by the surrealist artists like Dali, whose work featured as a backdrop to a Schiaparelli suit.
In mid-life and as fame brought him more serious commissions, his style evolved accordingly into a look that he made his own: classic, beautifully cut clothes, livened up by matching, pastel-coloured accessories and an array of flattering, often wide-brimmed hats. He held accounts with several Saville Row tailors and, in later life with a local firm in Gillingham, Kent. His shoes came from Lobb and his hats from Locke & Co – all conveniently located in the St James area of London. In 1937 he was sent to interview Wallis Simpson on the eve of her wedding and though he professed not to have found the encounter enjoyable or his subject beautiful, he produced two rather lovely pastel sketches for Vogue. For this encounter, Beaton himself sported a Shepherd and Anderson suit complete with Tattersall waistcoat – a typical combination of the classic with a touch of the English dandy eccentric.
With the outbreak of war he was appointed official war artist by Kenneth Clark, then working at the UK’s Ministry of Information (later to become a celebrated art historian). He produced poignant images of a blitzed London, of young aircrews and soldiers and of the various ‘theatres’ of war, the images published under that very title – somewhat prophetically given where his interest would take him next. Military style seems to have been an enduring influence on his style throughout his life. In his early, more flamboyant years, it tended towards the historic, frock-coated admiralty style. In later life he adopted what became a life-long preference for Austrian Tyrolean-style jackets, cut short to the waist with a simple cut. Together with his signature buttonhole flower, the look was not a million miles away from the classic Chanel look. That he might have been influenced by Chanel is not surprising given his high praise for her, expressed in The Glass of Fashion. For him she embodied what it was to be a great designer, accolades he also bestowed on contemporaries, Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga and characterised as follows: ‘…for a great fashion designer to come into being, talent alone is not enough: the designer must have the absolute and authoritative genius to impose his or her vision on the needs of the times, on the times themselves.’
After the war he turned his attention increasingly towards the theatre, returning to designing sets and costumes as he had done for his earliest photographic shoots. His most famous work for film was in Gigi and My Fair Lady, notably the spectacular hats of the Ascot racecourse scene in the latter. Edwardian elegance, as he lovingly depicted it in My Fair Lady, was one of his favourite styles and reflected the period of his childhood. He writes extensively in The Glass of Fashion of his sartorial love of the era and the especial influence exerted on his by his Aunt Jessie, a particularly inspired dresser of the period: ‘She was one of those women who enjoyed fashion, and managed to give you a sense of her sense of fun’.
He also felt passionately that the artisanship of fashion should be appreciated and was an early critic of moves (even in the 1950s) towards “fast fashion”. He particularly focuses on this in The Glass of Fashion, writing: ‘We are suffering from a fatal disease which shrewd social doctors might well diagnose as the “failure of the personal”. No panacea or penicillin has been invented in recent years to stop the tide of mass production, of cheap and vulgar imitations, of conformism, of sterile starkness, tasteless nudity, gimcrack workmanship and the mass levelling process by which any original idea or its expression is quickly distorted, beclouded, pulverized and made anonymous.’
His own reaction to this was to take an active role in the design of his own clothes. He sent pictures and sketches to his tailors and later, in the 1960s, railed against Saville Row for failing to move with the times and the “Youthquake” of fashion as Diana Vreeland termed it.
Fittingly, given his passion for the artistry of fashion, his final work for Vogue was in 1979 when Paris Vogue commissioned him to photograph the Haute Couture collections for their March issue. In contrast to the start of his career when he co-opted his sisters as subjects, in this final project he had Princess Caroline of Monaco as a model – testament not only to his standing as a legendary Vogue contributor but also to his immense international reputation.
The portrait of Cecil Beaton’s own style journey reveals a side of the artist that we can all appreciate – his attempts to navigate the daily vicissitudes of life, the stresses and anxieties by using personal style and flair to mask his insecurities and to make life that bit more interesting. As a friend of Diana Vreeland, editor of both US Vogue and Bazaar, he must surely have agreed with her perspective that: ‘You gotta have style. It helps you get down the stairs. It helps you get up in the morning.’ Like his beloved Aunt Jessie before him, the power of his personal style was such that it didn’t just help him to get through another day, it has inspired so many more of us down the decades. Whether it’s the monochrome magic of the Ascot racing scene in My Fair Lady or the unbowed elegance of the chic London woman walking through a bomb-ravaged street in Blitz London his beacon of style helps us all get through the day one way or another. But for Beaton this was not enough – if we are true to his ideals of style, then we must use it to express our individuality and, taking a leaf from Aunt Jessie’s book, our sense of fun too.