NEW YORK — Even on the cusp of World War II, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and their ever-glamorous troupe knew how to have a good time. Testimony to that is found in “Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set,” an exhibition that debuts Friday and toasts café society at The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.
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Merriment isn’t generally associated with the period between 1935 and 1940, but the show’s 80 elegant and extravagant pieces challenge that. The period is depicted by couture pieces from the likes of Chanel, Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli. Paintings of the times include Dali, Berard and Cocteau, and Horst, Beaton, Man Ray and Hoyningen-Huene cover photography. Jansen and Emilio Terry represent furniture. Combined, they chronicle some of the higher times shared by the Windsors, Lady Mendl, who decorated Henry Clay Frick’s mansion, and various baronesses and countesses.
Andrew Bolton, associate curator of The Costume Institute, who assembled the exhibition with help from the curator in charge, Harold Koda, noted how the Windsors and their friends continued to celebrate style, fashion and entertaining from 1935 to 1940.
“Within Europe, storm clouds were brewing and fascism was rising, building up to the second World War,” Bolton said. “But le beau monde in Paris still lived this escapist life. It was a retreat from the real world’s events. There are some parallels to today’s political and economical instability.”
The Mainbocher gown worn by Wallis Warfield Simpson in 1937 at her wedding to the Duke of Windsor, the former King of England Edward VIII, is sure to be the show-stopper for many. But others are sure to make one pause. Consider the shocking pink Schiaparelli evening dress embedded with beaded flies and bugs, the designer’s not-so-subtle nod to war’s devastation. The designer’s “tear” evening gown — referring to the verb, not the noun — has printed tears and real ones in it.
“It will be interesting to see if people draw associations to the period,” Bolton said. “The exhibition implies that despite the fact that it was a time of crisis, it was also a time of creativity in society and couture. Some of the best couture of the 20th century was produced at that time.”
The Windsor set also seemed to have a jump on the whole day-into-evening trend. Evening suits were a favorite with café society, since they could be worn to restaurants, theatres or nightclubs, and always made for a photogenic ensemble framing the wearer’s face. Bolton’s personal favorite is a Schiaparelli jacket with fractured roccoco mirrors along the breasts, an “ominous prelude to war,” he said.
What amazed Bolton more than anything in his research was the Duke of Windsor’s keen sense of proportion. Not known for his height, he managed to manipulate the camera by raising the waist of his jacket to elongate the length of his pant legs, and selecting midnight blue evening suits instead of customary black to accentuate the details.
The gowns that will be on display were originally part of “Paris Openings: 1932-1940,” an exhibition organized by Lady Mendl and headed by the Duchess of Windsor to benefit French war Charities in 1940. Given the glitz amassed, “Blithe Spirit” casts doubt on one of the duchess’s favorite American pastimes.
“I never make a trip to the U.S. without visiting a supermarket,” she once said. “To me, they’re more fascinating than any fashion salon.”