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Fashion archive: Cecil Beaton’s testament of fashion

No one but Cecil Beaton could have cajoled so many beautiful dresses from so many fashionable women, and in doing so confer upon their owners a sort of immortality. That clothes one has worn should become a permanent acquisition of the Victoria and Albert Museum is an exceptional way of embalming the ego.

Fashion: An Anthology by Cecil Beaton” is the title of an exhibition which opens at the V and A on October 13. It might be called Cecil Beaton’s testament of fashion, for professionally and socially he has been involved with the beau monde and the haute chic for almost half a century; and his emotional involvement with fashion goes back still farther – to the time when as a small boy before the First World War his imagination was enslaved by his fashionable Aunt Jessie, with her trunk loads of frivolities from Paris. Recollections of Aunt Jessie have inspired some of his costume designs for stage and films, in particular for “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi.”

As a portrait photographer Cecil Beaton has done wonders for women, bestowing mystery and magic upon fashionable faces, royal faces, theatrical faces; bestowing romantic beauty upon the asymmetrical eccentricities of the intelligentsia. One of his books, “The Glass of Fashion,” contains the most wittily evocative descriptions of clothes as they were worn, and the women who wore them, ever written in the English language. And in the same book he refers to fashion as “‘the triumph of the ephemeral.” For this V and A exhibition he has caught past ephemera in his butterfly net, and catalogued it for all time.

As its title implies, the exhibition is his personal choice; but everything in it will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. Sir John Pope-Hennessey, director of the V and A, stresses that it is a criterion of the museum that everything in it must be a work of art, and this criterion must apply to costume… “the museum shares Mr Beaton’s belief that style in dress is an art form, worthy to be collected and displayed.”

Stuck with it
And he is content that Mr Beaton’s exacting taste should decide what clothes should be accepted. This shows great confidence in Mr Beaton as a connoisseur of clothes – once the museum accepts something they are stuck with it for ever. There is no legal way of getting rid of it. It does not need of course, to be on display, but clothes take up a lot of storage space.

Over the past 18 months Mr Beaton has followed clues from many countries, travelling as far as Argentina in pursuit of a desirable garment. He arrived in Chicago six weeks too late to acquire a collection of Worths; but an exciting journey to Leeds captured a Queen Mary toque. He has acquired a Dior dress from the Duchess of Windsor, a black dress so constructed in the Dior nineteen-fifties manner that it stands up on its own without the Duchess inside.

Diana Vreeland, editor of American “Vogue,” has given a Chanel evening trouser suit of the nineteenth thirties, and Princess Radziwill a Courrèges dress, vintage 1965. He has come by a Balmain suit belonging to Gertrude Stein, of all people, and Sacheverell Sitwell has given him the medieval gown that Dame Edith wore for her seventy-fifth birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall and the golden toque she always wore when reciting. She bought it at Whiteleys.

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The Guardian, 28 September 1971

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