Exhibition Review: Vogue 100 – A Century of Style

I have to admit that I have an ambivalent attitude towards Vogue and other fashion magazines (Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Tatler, Town and Country). Sure it’s sometimes nice to look at pictures of wonderful clothes and jewels, stunning locations and even read an interesting article or two. I can also find some inspiration among its pages for how to style my clothes, visit a particular place or even read or see something as recommended by a magazine.

However, what gets my goat is the is not the amount of adverts but rather the subliminal messages that the likes of Vogue peddle – that one has to be rich, be of a certain size or age to be fashionable; the obscene price tags attached to clothes, accessories and beauty products and the pointless vacuity of the parties and events featured where everyone seems to look the same. Crucially what is galling is the celebration of mediocrity and nepotism; the glorification of certain individuals who owe their newsworthiness for who their antecedents are rather than for any real talent, ability or hard work.

So I approach Vogue more from a historical perspective and hardly buy the magazine unless there are articles or features that really interest me. One of the times where I made an exception was to buy this month’s issue which celebrates the magazine’s centenary. The interest in how the magazine has evolved and chronicled the transformation in society is what drew me to visit Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

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One can see the effort put into staging the exhibition with thoughtfully curated photographs, footage and old magazine issues that captured the zeitgeist of the moment. Despite the sheer number of people when I was in the exhibition, it was well organised with a good layout and what impressed me was that I was still able to navigate the space without any problems at all and I was able to view and appreciate the displays without having to stand on tiptoe or strain my neck.

Displays are arranged by decade with iconic images placed side by side with more obscure ones giving the public a taste of what it was like during the 20s, 40s, 60s, 80s and down to the present through the eyes of the magazine. While the magazine does make forays into current events, society, politics, art and literature it’s always fashion that takes centre stage charting the looks that have entered the public consciousness from the flapper fashion of the Twenties to make do and mend in the Forties to the power suits of the Eighties and grunge in the Nineties.

More than anything, Vogue has always been known for its photography and from its inception in 1916 has worked with the best photographers of the age as well as being credited with launching the careers of the likes of Cecil Beaton and Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Earl of Snowdon). It was also through photography that Vogue attempted to show that it wasn’t just about fashion and frivolity as demonstrated by the images taken by Beaton and Lee Miller during the Second World War.

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As this blog focuses on British history from 1870 to 1939, most of my time in the exhibition was devoted to examining the displays from 1916 to 1929 and from 1930 to 1939. While there were portraits of famous personalities of the age such as the writer and society beauty Lady Diana Cooper, actresses Sybil Thorndike and Marlene Dietrich, theatre designer Oliver Messel and Wallis Simpson (later Duchess of Windsor); fashion photography was the main focus. During this time, the photos centred on the clothes rather than the settings and who was modelling them. The likes of Baron Adolph de Meyer, George Hoyningen-Huene and Cecil Beaton produced ground breaking photographs that served to enhance the subject rather than overwhelm it.

The exhibition over all doesn’t really reconcile the fact that while Vogue features, celebrates and encourages creativity on one hand, on the other it celebrates this unrealistic image and lifestyle that hardly anyone can realistically attain. However, therein lies a certain irony where in the 1916 to 1929 and 1930 to 1939 galleries, Vogue manages to subvert our popular notion of flappers and extremely thin women as exemplified in the illustrations by featuring women – such as Maxine Elliott and Edith Sitwell –  who do not fit our notion of the typical 1920s woman, or by showing the photograph of a “Modern torso” by Arnold Genthe where the body with its gentle womanly curves was out of step with the models wearing the latest fashions by Schiaparelli or Vionnet.

Perhaps therein lies the rub that no matter what Vogue may claim, in the end it has become nothing more than an aspirational lifestyle magazine that has held a mirror to the last 100 years albeit through a very narrow prism, and I feel that it has retreated a long way from the early years when high fashion and society  gossip was combined with serious reportage and ground breaking photography.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 21 May 2016

Photos of the exhibition catalogue, blogger’s own

Vogue 100: A Century of Style was at the National Portrait Gallery (London) from 11 February to 22 May 2016 and will be at the Manchester Art Gallery from 24 June to 30 October 2016 http://manchesterartgallery.org/exhibitions-and-events/exhibition/vogue100/

For a review of the exhibition from a different perspective: https://haggartymuseumgeek.wordpress.com/2016/04/17/fashion-art-or-vanity/

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Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase

 

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There have been several books written about domestic service as whole and memoirs from cooks such as Margaret Powell (Below Stairs) and Mollie Moran (Aprons and Silver Spoons), lady’s maids such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid) and a butler/valet such as Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten) but the housekeeper remains an enigma. During the 19th century, the position of housekeeper was the highest that a working class woman could expect to achieve if she entered service and didn’t marry. Despite the housekeeper looming large in literature, film and television from the malevolent Mrs Danvers from Rebecca to the kindly Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre and the perceptive Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, the real life stories of housekeepers have remained more or less unexplored.

Tessa Boase attempts to redress this omission with her first book The Housekeeper’s Tale which charts the history of the housekeeper from the early 19th century until the present. Eschewing a conventional chronological narrative, she tells their stories by using case studies to chart the changes in the role of the housekeeper and the diversity of the role from managing a grand household, to having to cope with a major war and to becoming virtually a maid of all works as service as an industry declined – down to the present where the two way radio has replaced the chatelaine as the housekeeper’s main helper.

Boase’s narrative spans nearly 150 years of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832 until 1971 when service was already a relic of an earlier era. She charts the rise and fall of the housekeeper through Dorothy Doar of Trentham Hall, Sarah Wells of Uppark down to Ellen Penketh of Erddig then Hannah Mackenzie of Wrest Park and finally Grace Higgens of Charleston. All these five women were silent witnesses to history and how it impacted their own lives and the houses and families they worked for.

As the five case stories point out, the role of a housekeeper was one of great power and responsibility. She was responsible for hiring and sacking of housemaids as well as seeing to their welfare. In addition she was in charge of the linen cupboard and the supplies, being the public face of the house for tourists when the family were away and in charge of the household budget: and was the mistress’s right hand woman when it came to planning of dinners, balls, house parties and the overall running of the house. In today’s terms, a housekeeper was equal to a line manager, event planner, visitor services supervisor, finance officer and human resources director all rolled into one.

However to be a housekeeper was also to be in a vulnerable position. The power and responsibility that she had been entrusted with could be used against her especially when it came to money, and overseeing the household could leave her open to charges of theft and abuse. Additionally, the position could also be a lonely one – too lowly for upstairs but too senior for downstairs, impossible to fraternise with anyone and personality clashes with her employers and/or colleagues could make her work difficult. In the end, the housekeeper was solely reliant on her employer’s goodwill and if she was sacked the housekeeper would be left with no home and crucially no reference that would enable her to land another position.

And contrary to what fiction and period drama especially would have led us to believe, the housekeeper’s work was hard. She might not be doing the cleaning and scrubbing herself but having to delegate, to set the budget, to balance the books and ensure that the household was running smoothly rested on her shoulders. A mistress’ reputation rested on the quality of her entertaining and the overall appearance of the house – in short, she had to be seen to be “presenting magnificence” in order to entertain and impress so the housekeeper’s role was very crucial here and as Boase demonstrates in her prologue which chronicles the recruitment process undertaken to select a new housekeeper for Hatfield House in 1890, it could be a laborious one. Given who the employer was – the third Marquess of Salisbury,three times Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary –  it was a daunting task as the Salisburys (as befitting their rank and status) entertained frequently and were also away from Hatfield for long periods of time. Hence they needed a housekeeper who was effective, efficient and trustworthy.

Out of Boase’s five case studies, only one had more or less a happy ending and that was Grace Higgens who for nearly four decades was housekeeper for Duncan and Vanessa Bell. Despite the sometimes difficult relationship with the Bells (especially Vanessa), Grace was seen as a highly valued member of the Bell household and while Vanessa was unhappy that Grace married and started a family, the Higgenses became part of the household. When she finally retired after decades of service, Grace and her husband Walter were able to live comfortably in a house purchased with proceeds from the sale of an earlier house and a modest dabbling on the stock market, savings and cash presents from her employer. Centrally heated and containing the latest home appliances as well as with a kitchen fitted with the latest gadgets and adorned with paintings that were presented to her as gifts from Vanessa and other artists from the Bloomsbury Group, it was a far cry from the conditions Grace was born into and later had to work in. No way would she retire into an old cottage with an unreliable Aga and no central heating.

Others were not so fortunate. Dorothy Doar and Ellen Penketh left their positions under a cloud with both women accused of theft. In Doar’s case her second pregnancy was the catalyst for the accusations of theft that led her to being sacked while Penketh had to undergo a public humiliation when she was taken to court by her employer, Mrs Simon Yorke. Hannah Mackenzie on the other hand lost her position a year into the First World War when it was decided that Wrest Park, which had been converted into a military hospital, then had to be run on a more businesslike way. There could have been another reason for her dismissal but Mackenzie was able to find better employment in America as housekeeper to a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.

Then there was Sarah Wells, mother of the novelist H.G Wells who was housekeeper to Fanny Fetherstonhaugh, a woman who by her sister’s marriage to a local landowner was able to rise from her humble origins to being a chatelaine of a country estate. The fact that both women knew each other when Fanny Fetherstonhaugh was still Fanny Bullock was not lost on Wells and as Boase writes, eventually this friendship counted for nothing when after years of loyal service both as lady’s maid and housekeeper, Sarah Wells was sacked without much of a kind word much less a pension.

The Housekeeper’s Tale manages to deftly weave social, political, economic and demographic history through these five women aided by meticulous research and delving into long forgotten primary source material. It succeeds in putting the housekeeper back into the main narrative and adds their voice alongside that of the cooks, lady’s maids and butlers on what it was really like to be in service.

Note: This is a review of the paperback edition which was published in 2015.