Magazine article The Spectator

Living Dangerously

Magazine article The Spectator

Living Dangerously

Article excerpt

The fashion folk are upon us again. The other day I was reading a list of so-called must-have fashion items in one of the newspapers. These included a Matthew Williamson evening dress, costing over L1,000 and resembling a tea towel. Other indispensables were a Chloe bag at L720, which looked as if someone had peed down the sides, and a Hermes necklace that I wouldn't put on my dog Mimi.

Aha, my detractors will cry, what about Wyatt and all her designer kit? It was once alleged that when I was 21 I wore Chapel suits to work. This is naturally incorrect. They were mostly Armani. I should like to point out, actually, that my attitude to fashion is not quite as blind as all that. As an historian of sorts, I view clothes and hats as pieces of living history. I live my clothes. When I bought a designer dress last summer I did so because its Forties style made me think of women like Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Parker or heroines out of Raymond Chandler, who spent their lives in semi-misery. As soon as I put on this dress I felt sad and wronged for two days. Lo and behold, I ended up wearing it in a film about Dylan Thomas, playing a torch singer who is, yes, sad and wronged. It was an outfit to drink gin in and then throw oneself over the nearest bridge.

But one must provide a psychological counterpoise. So I buy dresses that make me happy because they look like those worn by Brigitte Bardot in her carefree days on the Riviera. Or I have clothes that make me feel confident and aggressive, because, historically, the people who wore them were just like that. In Italy I bought a genuine borsalino. This is a hat worn by French and Italian gangsters. There was even a film named after it, starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film, Borsalino, is the greatest gangster picture after The Godfather. The funny thing is as soon as I touch this hat I start talking slang out of the corner of my mouth, smoking cigarettes and turning up the collar of my coat.

Clothes are made to create a new identity, based on the best of the past and those who lived in it. Again, in Italy, I came across a boutique in a hotel called Il Pelicano selling what we historical chameleons regard as true must-haves. These were copies of nightgowns designed by the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio in the Twenties and Thirties for his girlfriends. As d'Annunzio had more chicks than a croupier has chips, there were about 40 of these things.

Apparently, the poet kept the originals in a secret room in his house, the Vittoriale degli Italiani on Lake Garda. These were worn, by amongst others, Ida Rubinstein, Eleonara Duse, Tamara de Lempicka and the mad beauty, the Marchesa Casati. …

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