14 March 2013

a little more Mrs. Higgins, CB, Ascot, & the Duchess of Rutland


 Lillie Langtry at Ascot, 1910.

When Cecil Beaton imagined his masterful sets & costumes for My Fair Lady's Ascot, he turned to the year 1910. "Black Ascot", 1910, found the British mourning the death of monarch Edward VII, and at Ascot his subjects dressed in black-or white to attend the Races.

Black Ascot 1910, above & below

When it came to Mrs. Higgins' costumes in the movie Cecil Beaton sought authenticity. So much so, Beaton & director Cukor planned to make her an "Original." Beaton wrote to friend Diana Cooper to ask- what does a Duchess wears to Ascot if she's an "Original." Specifically what her mother, the Duchess of Rutland would have worn at Ascot?  Violet Manners, the Duchess of Rutland, was an "Original, a member of the Souls, a painter, and the great beauty of her day.Violet Manners has always held a fascination for me-and it seems so-Beaton too, "the Duchess was an aesthetically inclined beauty...She dressed in a picturesque manner."

the Duchess of Rutland, 1910.

Here's what Diana, her devoted daughter, wrote to Cecil : 'Certainly cream. A straw hat trimmed, of course, by herself, with little bits of bird's breast and/or ribbon in dirty pink,wide-ish brimmed and fairly shallow because of the Grecian back-handle and the Sarah B. fringe in front. I don't suppose she ever stepped foot in a milliner's shop. She would have dressed from the old clothes cupboard with cream skirt to the ground, and cream shirt, and lace scarves around the neck held with paste brooches, a tortoise in enamel, and a bay leaf.'

collage inspired by Diana Manner's descriptions of her mother

She continued:  'The whole rag-bag camouflaged over by a demode, once good, three quarter length coat of beige, lace or brocade, inherited from sister Marjorie, perhaps. Good suede gloves (beige and long). Very high-heeled shoes she hoped didn't show. Parasol, of course.' (from Cecil Beaton's Fair Lady)

What Mrs. Higgins wore to Ascot...

 Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Higgins, in pale grey, at far left

When Cecil took Diana's description- by way of his sketches,Cukor said, 'You've gone way-out on the first one. We shouldn't see her as a freak: we must realize,by degrees, that she is intelligent, a woman of character. You've made her too altogether arty. Gladys must look lovely.' (from Beaton's Fair Lady) Gladys  did look lovely- though I've no doubt the Duchess of Rutland did as well. Beaton's Ascot costumes took Edwardian style to the enth degree. Mrs. Higgins pale grey silhouette was tame in contrast to the Beatonesque graphic gowns & the frothy plumage of his hats.

Beaton described hats of the era in his book My Bolivan Aunt: 'Perched on their heads, and elevated by a little roll just inside the crown, were hats which had grown as frivolous as the milliner’s trade could make them-enormous galleons of grey velvet with vast grey plumes of ostrich feathers sweeping upwards, outwards, or they would be trimmed with artificial flowers and fruit.' *

Gladys Cooper, at left of Audrey Hepburn

The costumes were the ultimate in chic and with Hermes Pan's choreographed gavotte-the only thing left was for Beaton to add the "Forzane slouche" to the dance movements?
His what?
No worries-Beaton brought Pan drawings by Etienne Drian just to be sure it was just so. Beaton's footnote in Fair Lady tells us of the "Forzane slouche"-the walk effected by pre-war cocottes-hands on hips thrust forward and one foot always trailing behind. The dancers certainly got that right. It's arguably one of the most memorable dances in movie music history.

the Forzane slouche illustrated by Drian on the cover of Harper's Bazar

*read more about My Bolivan Aunt, here
I've over 50 stories about Cecil Beaton here 




  1. Exquisite designing and a brilliant commentary on those times. I saw this film when it opened in Hong Kong, back in the mid-60's. It played in English with Chinese subtitles, and the audience was primarily Chinese. I wish I had known Chinese because when Eliza swore during Ascot, the Chinese translation was obviously so much more colorful! The whole audience was literally doubled over and crying.

  2. The Forzane Slouche! How funny we humans are with our fashions and things.

  3. i do hope you have a book proposal under your plumed hat!

  4. That is a fantastic collaged ode to Diana Manners' mother, Little Augury... beautiful showboat Edwardian hats, the heavy elaborate lace, the little sepia illustration, the passementerie and crossed legs of the lower right figure - ah... lovely!

    And, you have found an exquisite 1913 Drian illustration - for "one-a" Harper's Bazar. So clever to have depicted Fall with pinks, oranges, black, cream, and white... and those hats - plumed for the ladies, top hats for the gents. One sees the approach of iconic 1920s style - percolating - in that image you've found. There's the posturing, angularity, and streamlined sleekness of things to come, back then!



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