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Women

The women, from outwardly feisty to quietly mutinous, who made the Edwardian era so colorful.

The Tailor-Made

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Probably this season’s revolution in gown designs has aroused no stronger interest in any point than in regard to tailor-made dresses…the desire to go around with as little luggage as possible, gives special interest to the tailor gown as the most suitable all-around costume yet invented for women. With the help of fancy blouses, dainty laces, jeweled girdles and similar knick-knacks, the tailor gown may be transformed into something much more elaborate at a moment’s notice. How desirable this is to women who have had occasion to wear one dress for even a few days at a time will be thoroughly appreciated. New York Times (1893)

It is no coincidence that around the time when America and Europe’s “surplus” women began to move into the workforce, women’s clothing took on a decidedly masculine appearance. The tailor-made, or as the French termed it, le tailleur, epitomized the new and public spheres which women began to enter.

How, when and who invented the tailor-made is up for conjecture. Some accounts recount the visit of an English duke to his tailor, who made him a tweed suit so pleasing, the duke ordered a similar outfit suitable for his wife. Another story featured Alexandra, Princess of Wales, noting that when she and the royal trunks failed to make connections on the occasion of a certain ceremonious dinner at a brilliant English house-party, the Princess, too gracious to spoil her hostess’ plans, resourcefully directed her maid to cut off the skirt of her riding habit.

The most credible story however, features the tailor commonly associated with the tailor-made, John Redfern. Accordingly, like most tailors of the late Victorian era, Redfern added a ladies’ department to his establishment. When Cowes became the center of yachting in the 1870s, Redfern adapted his designs for yachting outfits. The success of his flourishing business was assured when Lillie Langtry wore one of his train-less tailor-mades to the Cowes Regatta in 1879.

Despite being vetted by such illustrious women as the Princess of Wales and Lillie Langtry, among others, the tailor-made costume seemed to the older school repellently masculine. It was the first move towards a style signifying (unconsciously) that the wearer was engaged in some other pursuit than the capture of a man! This old-fashioned opinion was not helped by the growing numbers of women of all classes dining in public, taking up smoking, living and/or entertaining on their own, going about unescorted, and using slang! Though waistcoats for women with distinctly masculine connotations appeared in 1846, the tailor-made of the 1880s and 1890s, coupled with a four-in-hand tie, a shirtwaist, and a boater or another masculine hat style, was a strong statement for independence.

Anne Sebba – author of “American Jennie”

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Anne SebbaJennie Jerome is mainly known to modern audiences as “Winston Churchill’s mother.” Did you approach “American Jennie” with the object of explaining how Jennie’s personality shaped Winston, or to push this now-forgotten dynamo from behind the long shadow of her son?

Both is the honest answer. I didn’t want to write about someone who was not interesting in her own right and I do think that the way she lived life right up to the boundaries (and beyond) for a woman of her time is extraordinarily interesting. I believe even today the lives of ordinary women are often much more compelling than those of celebrities – it’s the inner turmoil and the clashes with what is, or is not, possible rather than the getting your face in the paper that is fascinating.

That having been said, I am well aware that a publisher would not have given me a contract for a book about Jennie Bloggins, however dramatic her inner life, just because I thought she was intriguing. Once I started researching I did get swept up into how much her strong personality and attitudes and relentless action and networking had shaped Winston, how much they shared in their personality traits and how closely they worked together and were mutually infatuated with each other. At many levels.

Another thing: Since I grew up in a family of unashamed Churchillians (one of my earliest memories was being taken as a young child to the lying in state of WSC in London in 1965) it was of critical importance to discover that actually it was an American woman with no aristocratic pretensions who had been the formative influence behind this great man rather than the Marlboroughs of Blenheim.

American coverDid you approach Jennie with any preconceptions and/or misconceptions?

I’m sure I must have but you know that’s a very hard question for a biographer because when you get so familiar with a subject you sometimes forget when you first learnt a certain fact and that actually you haven’t always known it. But no, I don’t think so other than the usual “she had 200 lovers” which I did think ridiculous. Tantalising but a crazy number so obviously planted by a jealous rival….

Jennie was an American who adapted to the British aristocracy. Did you have any issues, as a 21st century Briton, delving into the culture of 19th century America?

Ah “ issues” what a lovely 21st century word! I like to think Jennie had more issues adapting to British aristocrats (eg Blenheim and Randolph’s plain sisters and her sense of superiority, etc) than I have had as a trained historian–but also don’t forget Jennie really was NOT an American.

One of the questions Lady Soames asked me right at the beginning was “Did she speak with an American accent – could I find out?” I don’t believe she did although she used certain American words eg Beau and swell but then I realized–well, why would she have done because she was mostly educated in Paris not NYC. She saw herself as a European. All the culture she imbibed in her crucial adolescent years was French.

UK coverHow would you define the relationship between Jennie and the men in her life (sons, husbands, father, lovers, friends)?

You have to take each one of these separately I’m afraid, even the two sons. Now that, you might think, lays me open to criticism from those who argue she was a bad mother because she treated her two sons differently – precisely the opposite, I cry. Anyone who has different children will know they need different parts of you in different ways at different times. I think it’s yet another reason why she should be praised if not as a “good “ mother when they were little, then as the right mother for those boys and as good as possible at the time and in the circumstances she faced. As they got older I do think she was a fantastic and exciting and supportive mother. In relationships with men Jennie was generally always exciting; she was fun, vibrant, daring and risqué. Never complaining and passionate about men and about everything she ever did. She was fun and witty and obviously physical. The sort of woman who comes in to a room and everyone senses the fire, the sparkle. Is that charisma? I think so.

Many people view Jennie through the eyes of the modern world (i.e. she neglected Winston, she was promiscuous,etc), but for her time, she was pretty remarkable. Do you agree? Do you feel she could have bucked societal roles for women even further? Was it in her nature to reflect on her individuality?

Her courage, her getting on with things, her nature was not to reflect on what might have been but to make the best of what was on offer and constantly to try new things (eg plays and magazines and decorating houses).

I get really angry on her behalf when people use the word “promiscuous” about Jennie. She was the loyal one in the marriage to Randolph. She loved him always I believe and he was the one who abandoned the marital bed, quite possibly if not probably because he had syphilis (see my book for evidence – it is certainly what the doctors of the time thought and they should know and they told her so ) but also because he had other fish to fry. So abandoned and betrayed, she sought the comfort of other men. And she was pretty discreet about it all too.

You ask about viewing Jennie through modern eyes. Well, that’s what a history degree is meant to teach you. You do have it dinned in to you from the first day never ever ever to apply today’s attitudes. So yes, I think she was pretty remarkable for her time; she was on the cusp of being an independent woman.

Out of all American brides who flooded British shores between 1874 and 1914, why did Jennie thrive where others (most notably Consuelo Vanderbilt) suffer?

Personality, education, determination.

The Primrose League was founded in the early 1880s with Jennie as one of its guiding (female) founders at a time when tangible feminine participation in politics was unknown. Do you feel her involvement in Randolph’s career, and later in Winston’s, had an impact on their political outlook?

No I don’t think she influenced Randolph but I do think her anti suffrage stance probably had some effect in her son’s views. Because she was able to have power and influence behind the scenes without having a vote. It’s her one blind spot. However, women have been influencing men in politics quietly behind the scenes for years. Mrs. Hester Thrale, the 18th century diarist and female friend of Dr Johnson, helped her husband in his political life. The interest in Jennie is because at this time women being active in politics in their own right was already a hot issue. Jennie did lots of boring behind the scenes work such as visiting schools and factories, and canvassing voters–all of which she has not been given credit for previously. I have read many newspaper articles about her traveling the country to do this and help Randolph when he was either too ill or couldn’t be bothered.

For a woman so influential and famous in her time, why hasn’t Jennie left a lasting impression on the public as an individual? I feel she is as much a pioneer as Dr Jex-Blake or the Pankhursts.

So do I, so why hasn’t she? I think there are a number of factors at play here: the idea that she was a mongrel or half caste and that Churchill owed his brash and extravagant side to her, whereas his brilliance and good connections were due to his Marlborough side. I don’t wish to downplay what his father gave him but think that most Churchill historians have been male and have given Jennie a bad press. I think Winston’s 1930 memoir, My Early Life, didn’t help because he called his mother distant and so she has been criticized for being a bad mother when clearly she was the mother Churchill needed. Winston was trying to show that even though he had a difficult childhood he had emerged unscathed. It was him using spin! Also other women were jealous of Jennie and her ability to attract younger men.

BUT

I think she could have bucked the trend as far as supporting votes for women was concerned.

Are there any other women in history who have caught your attention? Why did Jennie capture your imagination?

Oh yes masses of them. I have always written about strong women who know how to make the most of what is available: Enid Bagnold, Mother Teresa, Laura Ashley. Publishers however, won’t always allow you write about people who are extraordinary if they think the public doesn’t know who they are. I was lucky with Jennie because she interested me and as a Churchill she both interested and appealed to publishers. I want to write about several other women with extraordinary lives but they aren’t household names so I may never manage it.

Any last words?

Yes Jennie has been a most engaging companion for the last 6 years and I don’t feel ready to relinquish her. The relationship between biographer and subject is so strong that I sometimes have dreams in which I meet my subjects and beg their forgiveness for anything I may have misinterpreted. But with Jennie it’s different. I think she would be pleased with what I have done. Of all my subjects, I wish I could spend a day with her, chatting!

Purchase the UK edition | US edition

Visit Anne at AnneSebba.com

The Shoe Queen: Rita Lydig

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Rita Lydig She was known as the “fabulous Mrs. Lydig.” The daughter of a prominent New York family and descendant of the Dukes of Alba, Rita Lydig (née da Costa) was born for an opulent, dramatic life. At an early age she caught the eye of millionaire W.E.D. Stokes, collecting a cool million after divorcing him shortly after their marriage. She then promptly married sporting man and retired U.S. Army Captain Phillip M. Lydig with that million, and launched herself into a life of beauty, fashion and culture. She “belonged,” in the words of Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, “to the days and to the novels of Balzac, to the pages of Turgenev, the stories of Maupassant.” A romantic- and would-be literary- rival to Edith Wharton, she set Parisian society ablaze the moment she arrived at the Ritz loaded down with hairdresser, masseuse, chauffeur, secretary, maid, valet and forty Louis Vuitton trunks.

She was a confessed shopaholic, never ordering one thing of a kind, but duplications of each item by the dozens, often with the slightest of variations in materials, lace or design. It was not uncommon for her closet to boast twenty-five copies of a favorite coat. However Rita didn’t dress for display; she dressed for art. Each item was but a piece on the canvas of her body, to convey a mood perhaps, or a “look” she felt that day. For her own pleasure she would dress herself in an antique gown made of 11th century lace which cost her $9,000. Daily costumes included black velvet dresses for day, low-cut and bare-backed evening gowns, jackets and coats of rich and rare materials to be worn with velvet skirts by day or satin culottes by night, black lace mantillas, small sable hats, and an umbrella stick of platinum with her name set in diamonds on top. She also brought her own linens, books, silver and objects when she traveled, and filled her hotel rooms (an entire floor) with white flowers. “Politicians bowed to her, painters painted her and sculptors sculpted”.

Yanturni shoe ca. 1920 But more than clothing and art, shoes were her first passion. True to form as a lady of society, Rita only walked short distances, yet she owned at least three hundred pairs of shoes. Each was specially crafted by the elusive Pietro Yanturni, the East India Curator of the Cluny Museum in Paris, who only created his feather-light, unique shoes for a select clientèle. Before he would even agree to add a woman to his list, he would demand a deposit of $1,000, from which he would subtract the price of each shoe or boot supplied, though delivery often took two or three years. If he accepted the lady as a client, he would make a plaster model of each foot, on which he would then work and mold his materials until they were as flexible as the finest of silk.

Rita's Shoes The shoes he designed for Rita were fashioned from costly 11th and 12th century velvets, the toes varying between long and pointed, or square with square heels. Evening and boudoir slippers utilized brocades of gold- and silver-metal tissue, some covered with lace appliqué and leather spats that fit like a silk sock. To house these delicate, expensive shoes, Rita would collect violins to use their thin, light wood as shoe trees, and then these would be placed in trunks of Russian leather made in St. Petersburg, closed with heavy locks and lined with a rich cream velvet.

In the midst of this opulent beauty, one would assume her life was a thing of beauty as well. By 50, her feverish pursuit of aesthetics led to financial ruin. She was barred from marrying Reverend Dr. Percy Stickney Grant by his bishop on the grounds of her previous divorce, and soon after, her health failed. Bankrupt and denied the pleasure of her life-long purchases, she died at 53 in relative obscurity in comparison to the fame of her earlier years.

Further Reading:
The Glass of Fashion by Cecil Beaton
The Power of Style by Annette Tapert & Diana Edkin
Step Lively: Pierre Yantourny by An Aesthete’s Lament