Sunday, November 26, 2017

Finding Fashion in the Strangest Places

Gertrude by Beaton, 1939

I never expected to discover an interesting tidbit of fashion history while reading about Gertrude Stein, but there it was.

"Love, Cecil" is a wonderful documentary by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the filmmaker who gifted us with "The Eye Has to Travel" about Diana Vreeland. Cecil is Cecil Beaton, no slouch on the fashion scene as a photographer and designer of costumes and sets for "Gigi" and "My Fair Lady". In his long career Beaton photographed almost everyone who was anybody, among them Gertrude Stein.

Now Gertrude is not a fashion icon by any means, though she certainly had her own style. Sometimes, when I've gotten too short a haircut, I hope it doesn't make me look like Gertrude Stein. Fortunately hair grows quickly.

I've long been interested in Cecil Beaton. Inexplicably, his "The Glass of Fashion" was one of the first books I read on the subject. I was 11 or 12. Vreeland's film rekindled an interest in Cecil and his amazing talents. The book "Portraits and Profiles" by John Vickers pairs photos of his well known subjects with excerpts from the diaries he meticulously kept throughout his life.

There she was, between Winston Churchill and Colette, looking stern but softened by her nuzzling dog. An American who settled in Paris in the 1920s, Gertrude Stein's salon was the gathering place for Picasso, Cocteau, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. She was a writer in her own right and an early champion of modern art. Her constant companion was the somewhat mysterious Alice B Toklas. Alice said little but was a terrific cook.

Gertrude, Alice and another pet

Still no fashion... But wait.
In Cecil's diary excerpt is the story of how Gertrude and Alice, both Jewish, found refuge during WWII in the mountains of France. Quoting from the diary:

"During the years of cold and shortages Gertrude and Alice became friends with a neighbor at Aix, a simple young man named Pierre Balmain, with a taste for antiques and a natural bent for designing women's clothes. In fact he made with his own hands heavy tweeds and warm garments for Gertrude and Alice Toklas to wear during the hard winters."

After the war Balmain set up shop in Paris and became one of the leading couturiers until his death in 1982. His clothes were always sophisticated and elegant and worn by royalty and film stars. He never sold a ready-to-wear line, but did produce some memorable fragrances including one of my favorites, "Jolie Madame". Who doesn't want to smell like a "pretty lady"? Balmain also apprenticed at least two young men who went on to great things themselves, Karl Lagerfeld and Oscar de la Renta.

Typical Balmain elegance
Gertrude and Alice were guests at Balmain's first showing to the Paris press. They arrived in their usual states of un-fashion, Gertrude "in an old cinnamon colored sack and Panama hat" and Alice in "a long Chinese garment of bright colors". Beaton continues:

"Gertrude, seeing the world of fashion assembled, whispered 'Little do they know that we are the only people here dressed by Balmain, and it's just as well for him that they don't'."


  1. What an awesome story! I have a Balmain silk scarf that I thrifted a few years ago. I'll watch for this documentary, thank you, Michelle!

    1. Thanks, Sheila! The film is just being released so, yes, do try to look for it. And take good care of that scarf!

  2. Thank you for this! I'm going to track that book down.

    1. I checked it out from the library. The film has a companion book too, "Love, Cecil".

  3. Such a fabulous story, Michelle - thank you!
    Always love reading your posts - such good writing!

    1. Thank you for those very nice words. I love knowing that you enjoy reading.

  4. The most beautiful thing I've read all week. I absolutely adore Balmain. Who doesn't? With the new Olivier Rousteing at the helm they are back at it again.