Twelve years ago Crown published a very successful book about prominent and stylish women called ‘The Power of Style,” by Annette Tapert in collaboration with Diana Edkins, the photographic editor. Their subject: the lives and fashion of Rita Lydig, Mona, Countess Bismarck, Elsie de Wolfe, Coco Chanel, Millicent Rogers, Diana Vreeland, The Duchess of Windsor, Daisy Fellowes, Pauline de Rothschild, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It is a biographical and photo essay of these women, briefly but succinctly outlining their “stories” and investigating the essence of their “style.”
“The Power of Style” has had a phenomenal success: all these years later, it still sells in hardcover and the authors are still collecting royalties. Mrs. Tapert is a friend of mine and having long been a fan of her book, we were discussing it recently when she reminded how long it’s been out and how it’s still selling. I suggested we have lunch to talk about why it remains popular. This was done yesterday at Michael’s.
DPC and Annette Tapert yesterday at Michael's (10.31.06). Photo: Steve Millington.
Style is a hard word to define. The late Joe Alsop said all style was “phenomenal,” mainly a matter of opinion. Jean Cocteau said that Style is a simple way of saying complicated things. In a discussion of the word in the introduction of the book, the author tells the story of Daisy Fellowes, the sewing machine heiress, traveling from Paris overnight to the South of France with the couturier Antonio Castillo.
“Long before sunrise, Castillo was awakened by a commotion coming from the next cabin, where Daisy was ensconced. When she emerged from her compartment shortly before their arrival, he thought to ask why she had awakened so early. Then he realized that Daisy was perfectly dressed and in full makeup:
‘Is there a gentleman waiting for you at the station, Daisy?’ Castillo asked.
‘Only my driver,’ she replied.
‘Then why are you so dressed up? Why not just a pair of sunglasses?’
‘I did it for myself,’ Daisy explained. ‘It’s a question of discipline, you see.’”
There are many attributes to style: discipline, wit, resourcefulness, originality, verve. Tapert says that ambition has a little something to do with it. She doesn’t mind the word. “If a woman wants to have an interesting life, know interesting people and see the world, that takes a certain amount of desire and resourcefulness. That is what these women had. That is ambition and it is also style.”
Money helps but doesn’t always clinch the title. Talking about Babe Paley and Gloria Guinness, both known for their fashionable presence and stylish ways, Tapert said that both women made “the Faustian pact, Babe especially. Babe married the devil,” referring to her media tycoon husband who was famous for his charm and his fortune which during his lifetime excused a multitude of sins such as treating his family and many of his “friends” insensitively and even cruelly.
Although Paley did set up his wife with a trust fund which, according to Tapert gave her an income of $160,000 a year with which she had to buy her clothes. And buy she did.
The late Eleanor Lambert likened Babe Paley’s style in putting herself together not unlike that of an artist working a painting.
Gloria Guinness, on the other hand, Babe’s friend and friendly fashion rival, did not get a cent from her wealthy husband. The jewels she wore were kept in the family safe and taken out (by her husband), worn, and then returned (by her husband). They were the Guinness Jewels, not Gloria’s. She was completely under the financial control of Mr.
However she handled this emotionally, Gloria Guinness, like her friend Mrs. Paley, died at a fairly young age. By that time in her life, she was haunted by the fear that her beauty was fading and that she would lose even her husband. So great was her sorrow about her situation that many believed she took her own life.
I asked Annette Tapert what she thought was the difference between these women, her subjects, and women today.
She doesn’t believe that the women today are all that much different from the women then. Except: “These women didn’t have choices. There was a look, which they all followed religiously. If they couldn’t afford a couturier, they had dressmakers who were very good. The ones with style reached beyond the look in creating their signatures.”
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“Nowadays women have so much choice that it’s hard to define what is style anymore. Today girls never over-reach and create new style as these women did because there are too many choices.”
She thinks there a lot of women around today with the taste and the means to match their predecessors in style. “Although there are a lot of women who might be stylish if were not for their ‘defective social radar,’” she added, mentioning a couple of very well known fashionable women married to very rich husbands and yet who never quite make the cut because their mouths dilute it with their native lack of cool. Also known as manners and courtesy.
That is not to say some of the ladies of “The Power of Style” didn’t have more than a little of that bad news in them from time to time. However, the byword of Tapert and Edkins book, that which nourishes style and which these ladies all had in abundance was: originality. They were, in Tapert’s words “the first women in this (20th) century to use style to propel themselves out of anonymity and into the limelight.” They “spoke several languages, translated poetry, made themselves into mistresses of conversation. They spied for their country, championed causes and ran businesses. They adored beautiful dresses, entertained fops and married the wrong man time and again.”
Which is probably why “Power of Style” is still available at your favorite bookstore or on the web.
Rita Lydig. Born in 1879, Rita de Acosta Lydig “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 contemporary of Edith Wharton and in a way, a romantic rival of Mrs. Wharton, Lydig married wealth and from that she created a world of artists, writers, composers, musicians, painters and poets. She was the toast of Paris where she arrived at the Ritz with a hairdresser, masseuse, chauffeur, secretary, maid, valet and forty Louis Vuitton trunks.
She also brought her own linens, books, silver and objects, and filled the rooms (an entire floor) with white flowers. Politicians bowed to her, painters painted her and sculptors sculpted.
Above: Her 150 pairs of shoes were covered in antique velvet, lace, damask and embroidery All with exaggerated Louis XV heels and long pencil pointed toes.
Below: In her trunk drawers: 48 swan-necked blouses of hand drawn linen and Binche lace, and all Venetian lace. Rita was a shopper. In fact her single-minded pursuit of style and luxury eventually led to losses both marital and financial, and completely bankrupted. After a fascinating tale of woes beset her, she died at 50.
Millicent Rogers was a head of her time aesthetically. An heiress to a Standard Oil fortune, she was famous for her devotion to clothes and contemporary art. She was one of the early collectors of American painting and wearing Native American clothes designs (in the 40s).
Rogers' shoes that she wore when she lived in Austria's Tyrol valley.
She didn’t follow anyone else’s ideas about dress. Tapert explains that she wore 19th century dresses on her plantation and Native American and Mexican costume at house in Taos. She was an aficionado and client of the great and extremely eccentric designer Charles James. He’d create a blouse for her and she’d order four dozen. Many were never worn but just packed away forever.
Once, when Millicent's secretary called to order more blouses, the infuriated designer, outraged that his creations would never see the light of day, referred to his client as a “hoarder.” Mrs. Rogers’ secretary corrected Mr. James, “She is not a hoarder; she is a collector.” Millicent Rogers was married three times and died at fifty. In many ways her life had been a failure. However, when she died, as Tapert describes it, “she was buried in a small cemetery in Taos with the entire Pueblo community turning out and entering for the first time a white man’s cathedral to pay their respects to ... ’this gringo’ woman who had understood, appreciated and helped them.”
When the styles of the 70s conjured up the 1940s, Vreeland called it the Late Late Show. She thought it was ridiculous. She liked the new. Forgetting for a moment that to the young eye, it was new. Today, in Tapert’s opinion is like the Late Late Late Show.
Diana Vreeland was, in Tapert’s words, “a jolie laidewho absolutely adored her husband,” describing him as “the platform on which she danced.” They were sophisticated and well-connected but not wealthy. Nevertheless, their style, and her style, propelled them to the heights of the glamorous New York and international social life.
In 1982 she was asked how she’d like to appear in a future Costume Institute exhibition. “I’d like to be very luxuriouslydressed,” she replied. “I'd like to have the most luxurious black cashmere sweater, the most luxurious black satin pants, very beautiful stockings, very beautiful shoes – marvelous shoes – and whatever would be suitable around the neck.”
Gloria Guinness, born Gloria Rubino was first married to a von Furstenberg (and lived in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, once claiming in passing that “no place in the world was more chic than Berlin,” in those days). Her days in Germany were cloudy enough that when in 1949 she married Loel Guinness, an heir to the great Guinness ale fortune he is said to have paid $1 million to obtain the dossier on her wartime activities.
“Gloria was happiest when she was an adventuress. She really liked that,” theDuchess of Windsor sniffed. Despite being married to the rich Guinness, she had no money of her own. “Even the jewels belonged to the Guinness Corporation,” Tapert reports.
Despite her luxurious and glamorous life amidst great wealth, Guinness battled depressions. She was reported to have died of a heart attack (at 65) but some believe that “disillusioned by the life she always desired ... she had killed herself.”
Upper left: The childJacqueline Bouvier with her mother and father, 1934, age five. Upper right:Vogue portrait of Jacqueline Bouvier in 1951 after she won first prize in the magazine’s Prix de Paris writing competition. Right: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, a Mark Shawportrait also for Vogue in 1961. Bottom left: America’s First Lady, 1962, age 33. Bottom right: the eternal horsewoman. “Jackie changed the way a generation of women wanted to look. Before her was Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, all older, and very much dowdy women. Jackie was young, vibrant and gorgeous, the kind of look that women wanted to emulate.”
All images courtesy of "The Power of Style" (Crown Publishers).