19 February 2010

Ottoline~ ready for her close-up


"I took great delight in attiring, fine dress and fashions, especially such fashions as I did invent myself, not taking that pleasure in such fashions as were invented by others; also I did dislike that any should follow my fashion, for I always took great delight in a singularity, even in accoutrements." MLC

Lady Ottoline Morrell encouraged her friend Virginia Woolf to include the Duchess of Newcastle-Margaret Lucas Cavendish-in Woolf's The Common Reader. Woolf's description of the Duchess: generous to a fault, her desire for knowledge and her longing to be the best of friends, also seems to have described Lady Ottoline Morrell perfectly. More than anything- both the Duchess and Ottoline shared a penchant for unconventional fashion:flamboyant, eccentric, romantic. For Ottoline all these similarities were familial, the 17th writer-poet Margaret Cavendish was  Ottoline's famous ancestor. Margaret Cavendish wrote the words about her "fashions as I did invent myself", but they could easily have been written by Ottoline Morrell.

Ottoline's bearing- striking at six feet ,and her fantastical fashions,were inspiration for countless novels in her day. As Virginia Woolf recorded elegant Ottoline's appearance- it was something akin to a mermaid, "red-gold hair in masses, cheeks as soft as cushions with a lovely deep cromson on the crest of them, and a body ... swelling, but smooth." As the Lady aged, her appearance was said to have taken on a caricature of her younger self, Woolf's nephew Quentin Bell still said of Ottoline ( at age 60) that there was still 'something sexy 'about her which fascinated him. She was 'that fantastic Baroque flamingo.'

'a tall, slow, reluctant woman with...a pale, long face, wearing eccentric garments in luxurious fabrics(probably by Fortuny).' from D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love'

'her voice, her laughter, were deep and masculine..Everything about her was manly . She had a large, square, middle-aged ace, with a massive projecting nose and little greenish eyes, the whole surrounded by a lofty and elaborate coiffure of curiously improbably shade of orange ' from Adolous Huxley's Crome Yellow.

Her striking gowns were born in her imagination. She expressed herself in her dress- regardless of the fashions in vogue of the day. The historic costume lines she wore made her stand out and drew people to her. As fashions changed in the 1900's and onward, Ottoline's dress looked even more eccentric. While Lady Ottoline was head designer the creator-seamtress of most of the dresses was her devoted maid Benty. Benty was master of adapting the dresses Ottoline found in paintings as she traveled extensively. In a bit of costuming, Benty would tack hems & skimp on seams. It was the Lady along with precious period fabrics that made the dresses striking. The embellishments of Ottoline and Benty's embroidery added the finer details to their latest creations.

In  1928 Cecil Beaton photographed Ottoline in her signature pearls-once belonging to Marie Antoinette- and a dress
 taken from the Goya manner of the 18th century style- in a vivid yellow (a favourite Ottoline colour) embroidered with mauve and silver flowers. Juxtaposing the period frock are a Dufylike textile backdrop and a Cubist fan.

the dress 

all photographs of Ottoline Morrell by Cecil Beaton

The Lady Ottoline Morrell collection was purchased in March 2000 by the Museum of Costume, Bath, with a grant from the National Art Collections Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Museums & Galleries Commission / Victoria & Albert Museum Purchase Fund


  1. Wow, really cool. Thanks for posting this. I am fascinated by the lives of nobility/importance in the world of fashion. I've never heard about her, but you instigated me to research more about this fascinating woman.

    Thanks again!

  2. Oh
    to be known as a
    "fantastic baroque flamingo."

    Great photos.
    LOVE that fan!


  3. I do love how you have gathered this into a neat basket. Ottoline Morrell is worthy of many posts and I would love to see more from you especially. Some of these Cecil Beaton photographs I have never seen. The dress appears so dark in the Beatons. Makes one wonder how often we are fooled by black and white photography.

  4. I never thought of Ottoline as having red-gold hair! Thank you for the photo of the dress which looks very prim without her in it. Poor Ottoline, in many ways she was the bridesmaid and never the bride. Well in terms of creativity but then one shouldn't underrate her power to bring people together.

  5. What a stylish, strong looking lady! It's surprising how yellow the dress is, in color. It must have looked insane, in a striking way, of course, against her red hair. And as for the Beaton photo, I LOVE the Cubist fan. Lauren

  6. she's a fave of mine. great post



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