I almost called this post Balenciaga‘s Bitches, but I thought I should class it up a little. I’m talking, after all, about the dozens of women who made donations of their 1950-something gowns and shifts and capes and cape dresses designed by Cristobal Balenciaga, gamrnets that turned up at the de Young Museum here in San Francisco for the magnificent Balenciaga and Spain exhibit, which I saw over the weekend. All the normal thoughts went through my head – How insanely beautiful the pieces are, How great they would all hide the bloated belly of a woman suffering PMS, How the cuts of many dresses look totally right now, How many more look strange and avant-garde even today. And I also thought about all the women, noted on plaques, who had been the original owners. Who were these ladies?
Well, many of then were Mrs. Man T. Manly-Man Jr., with no actual name of their own, and so my crazed, obsessive Googling led nowhere because these women allowed their whole identity to be subsumed by their rich Texas oilman husbands! Is this why feminism happened, you guys? I got so mad at these ladies for letting themselves not exist, I really did! I hope the Balenciagas were worth it! They probably were. Anyway, these pictures here are of a woman who existed majorly and publicly, Bettina Ballard, who edited Vogue in the 50s. Bettina not only had Balenciagas, she had a dreamy career, and her name got to be Bettina! Jealous! Look at her toiling away under the perfect hem. You don’t get to be editor of Vogue for being casual about the details.Bttina had made a comment about Balenciaga’s bows being dignified, not fussy, and it’s totally true. I am sensitive to the infantalising potential of a bow, and I loved all the simple and sturdy bows Cristobal stuck on the waists of his pieces. Then there was the dress that had twin boob-bows right at the boob. But then that seemed so ridiculous I loved it also. Bettina also said, ‘The fashion world is no place for timid, dedicated souls; it is a field for strong, determined egoists . . . ‘, echoes of Karl Lagerfeld’s ‘If you want social justice be a civil servant. Fashion is dangerous, ephemeral and unfair.’ They’re just telling it like it is, ya’ll.
Here is Elizabeth Arden, queen of her own cosmetics empire and owner of many Balenciagas. For my 30th birthday I got my very first facial at an Elizabeth Arden salon. I wore a Ratt concert t-shirt and a busted silver sequined miniskirt, with sequins rotting off the fabric. Afterwards I undid all their efforts and did cocaine all night. I don’t do this anymore. And I bet Elizabeth Arden never did. She was Canadian! And a nursing school dropout. She had two marriages and the second was to a Russian prince, but it only lasted a couple years. She didn’t need a man, she bred horses! In Kentucky! Her scent, Blue Grass, is the first American perfume.
Helene Lazareff started Elle Magazine in Paris in 1945. Pretty cool. She’s like an old-school zinester! I love Elle Magazine. They actually showcase new designers, have a ton of space devoted to books, and generally don’t make me feel like I’m reading a fashion magazine geared to sixty-year-old society women. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Merci, Madame Lazareff!
Listen, I’m filled with envy at all these ladies who were somehow married off to European nobility at a young age and given a lifetime of opulence. Why couldn’t I have been promised to a Spanish count? I whine imagining a wholly different upbringing. But Kitty Carlisle Hart’s mom was so wacko about such things she took little Kitty on some crazed husband-hunting tour of Europe, hoping to marry her off to no avail, staying in ‘the worst rooms of the best hotels’ in Europe. I somehow think any parallel fates I may have would be more along the line of something like this. Anyway, Kitty was an actress and a singer and performed at the Plush Room in San Francisco the year before she died, at 95 years old. Like all these society women, she was an arts philanthropist.
Okay enough with the accomplished career women, let’s get to some crazy bitches. Mona von Bismarck is amaaaaaazing. In her first divorce she basically sold off custody of her child to her ex for half a million dollars. She had five husbands, starting out rich and older than her and then getting younger and broker as she aged and the golddigging tables got turned! Later in her life, after she’d amassed a fortune off her mens she was all, ‘What?! These young gigolos are after my ducats!’ One of her husbands owned the world’s largest ‘pleasure boat’ (eeew) and took Mona around the world on it. She owned a home in Capri that was formerly occupied by Caesar and the Emperor Tiberius, and it is in that home that she took to her bed for three days upon learning that Cristobal Balenciaga had closed his atelier and retired. von B went into mourning! In 1933 Mona was deemed ‘best dressed’ by Chanel, Vionnet, Lanvin and others. She was inspiration for a Truman Capote character and was painted by Salvador Dali. All in all, a pretty cool life.
Here is Princess Lillian of Belgium. PRINCESS! Is there a special title for a Princess’s dog or what? I like that I always think of princesses as young ladies but here is a marvelous elderly Princess! Princess Lillian and King Leopold the III fell in love during the Nazi’s commandeering of their country, she visited the King in a Nazi prison and they fell in love and then got married in jail, and they had kids and homeschooled them in the Nazi prison while dodging Nazi attempts to kill them with cyanide pills disguised as vitamins! After they were liberated by the Americans there was all this drama about whether or not the King was a collaborator, and the people were pissed that he was off getting married while the country was getting occupied and murdered, so theyhanded over the throne to a son and just hung out together being royal and in love and living off the blood money from the violent colonizing of the Congo.
Always a Princess, never a Queen: Princess Lil chillaxing with the Queen of Sweden
Oh, it’s the Viscountess Lambton, or Belinda Blew-Jones Lambton, otherwise known as Bindy. Bindy! That’s cute nickname. Bindy was expelled from 11 schools growing up, because she liked to punk her teachers. She lived a regal life, married to a Viscount and all that, and then later on she encountered horrible misfortune, shattering her legs in a Go-Kart accident. Once healed, she promptly ran into a truck in her automobile, breaking every bone in her body. Too much tragedy for one lady! It didn’t kill her, but when she did die her last words were the lyrics to this song from the 40s:
Cocaine Bill and Morphine Sue
Strolling down the avenue two by two.
Won’t you have a little sniff on me,
have a sniff on me.
Speaking of tragedy, here we have Balenciaga donor Eugenia Niarchos, seated, aside her sister Athina Onassis. Both sisters married super rich dudes, Athina to Aristotle, and Eugenia was the third wife of shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos. She died of a barbituate overdose on the Niarchos private island. Stavros was ruled out as a perpetrator of foul play but the possibility of a murder lingers forever over the whole sad drama.
A happier tale – Inge Morath was a French photographer, one of the first ladies to be signed to the Magnum Photo Agency. She became buddies with the director John Huston after being the still photographer on a few of his movies, and was invited along on a duck-hunting excursion in Mexico. While taking photos, she noticed that two of the men were out on a boat, ad it had capsized and they were drowning! She swam out to them and hauled them back to shore with her bra strap. No way! For her reward she got to live happily ever after with Arthur Miller.
Mitzah Bricard was actually Chritian Dior’s muse, but she wasn’t going to kick a Balenciaga out of her closet. She was a Parisian socialite with a mysterious past – no one knew where she had come from. She danced in a nude review and always wore a leopard scarf wrapped around her wrist, to cover a scar. She was essentially a stylist for Dior, but such a job didn’t exist at the time. She was just very helpful and stylish and could like make a hat out of three pieces of straw and look incredible. People complained about her terrible personality, and Dior said, ‘Would you prefer to see her in another couture house? I’d rather have her here.’
After intense research this woman, Mrs. John Rosekrans Jr., was revealed to have her own identity, Dodie Rosekrans! These women have the best names! Here is Dodie slinking into the Fairmont Hotel in Balenciaga back in the day. She married into a family of San Francisco sugar barons, the folks who built and donated the legion of honor. She has figured out the perfect living situation: San Francisco in the winter, Paris in the spring, Venice in the summer. Yes!!!! She also collects pretty great art, including this Chanel Guillotine by Tom Sachs:
Gloria Guinness, duh who I will certainly do a whole post on at some point. On the whole Guinness lady-clan, including amazing skunk-hared Daphne who just did a reverse strip tease into a McQueen in the windows of Barneys in New York City. But before Daphne there was Gloria – editor of Harper’s Bazaar, member of the International Best Dressed list (hey, how do you get on that?), wife to four husbands and a likely spy for the allies during World War II.
Okay I’ve got to go, unlike these ladies I have stuff to do! I leave you with Diane Arbus’ portrait of Philadelphia society lady Julia Henry in the ‘crown of thorns’ dress currently on view at the de Young. Adios.