Designing the Jazz Age – Gordon Conway & Mary Evans at the Fashion & Textile Museum

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The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.

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Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.

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Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’

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Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.

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Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.

We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.

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The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.

The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.

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Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.

To see more Gordon Conway images click here

Cream of the Crop – the Pond’s Society Girls

Illustrations depicting women using various Pond's skincare products, available in jars for use at home, or tube for when travelling. Date: 1935

Buy a glossy magazine today and you’ll be guaranteed to find at least a third of its pages are given over to advertisements.  But this is nothing new.  Advertising have kept the wheels of magazine publishing turning for over 150 years.  Some titles in the ILN archive, particularly The Tatler, are bulging with hundreds of ads in every issue, and in many cases, they’re just as fascinating as the features and photographs in the main body of the magazine, offering an acute, in-the-moment snapshot of readers’ interests and aspirations.  Many of the most successful brands are still going, testament in part to their canny marketing campaigns through the years.

 One of the beauty brands with remarkable longevity is Pond’s Cold Cream, the origins of which stretch back to the mid-19th century when an American pharmacist, Theron T. Pond developed Pond’s Extract, containing witch hazel, which claimed to act as a panacea against all manner of ailments from haemmorhoids to painful feet.  By 1904, the company had created a beauty product, Pond’s Cold Cream, designed to cleanse the skin, and an accompanying Vanishing Cream to soften and ward against the dire effects of cold or hot weather in equal measure.  It was a two-step skincare regime that formed a blueprint for skincare systems developed by countless cosmetics companies since.   The company would also introduce a ‘freshener’ (toner), vitamin cream and powder to complement their flagship lotions.

Pond’s face creams enjoyed a steady success until the 1920s when increased competition from expensive brands launched by Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden caused Pond’s to re-think its low-key advertising campaign. The solution was to embark on a testimonials campaign that was to rally (with, presumably, substantial cash incentives) the support of firstly stage actresses, and then well-known, wealthy socialite beauties of the 1930s.  If economical, fuss-free and effective Pond’s was good enough for the blue blooded ladies of the land it was good enough for anyone.  As a marketing premise it was remarkably effective but did not come cheap; Pond’s regularly spent three times as much as Elizabeth Arden on its annual advertising.

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Every week during the 1930s The Tatler carried an advertisement for Pond’s, with most of the personalities endorsing the creams already familiar faces in the magazine’s society pages.  We hold alternative portrait images of many of these women at the library, if not from the ILN archive, then through the pictures taken by society photographer Madame Yevonde whose archive we represent.

The accompanying copy is flattering to the point of obsequiousness.  Each lady, countess or duchess is lauded for her sportiness, busy lifestyle, her jet setting or exquisite beauty.  Their personal anecdotes are laughably old-fashioned as they witter about how Pond’s helped to fix ruddy cheeks after exertion on wind-swept hockey pitches, or helped them achieve a vision of loveliness for their first debutante ball.

The Duchess of Leinster (the Duke’s second of four wives), American socialite Agnes Rafaelle, recounted her girlish worries about her first Yale University Ball:

“If you knew how much American girls long to go to Yale University Dances – or ‘Proms,’ as they call them – you’d realise my excitement at receiving an invitation to the midsummer prom. I’d never been to one before but I knew it was necessary to look your very loveliest if you were to win the approval of critical college boys!

I found myself muttering ‘Pond’s, Pond’s, lots and lots of Pond’s’ over and over again. Even more than a smart frock I had to get a smart face!

There was a fortnight to do it in. Each night I cleansed with Cold Cream. And during the day I smoothed on Vanishing Cream to ward off roughness and lines.  You should have seen the difference in my skin the night we motored out to Yale!  No blemishes, no dryness – soft as velvet!  The ‘prom’ proved gayer than my wildest dreams – everyone ‘cut-in’ on my dances.  I’m sure I had the best time of any girl there.”

The sporty Countess of Warwick relied on Pond’s to maintain her ‘flawless skin’ at all times whether ‘At Cannes or Cowes, Goodwood or Gleneagles,’ while Lady Smiley, the former Nancy Beaton, sister of Cecil, tells of ‘what a marvellous time I had’ at a Christmas party aged sixteen, all because of Pond’s. “I’m sure that’s why I’ve kept my skin free from dryness and little worry lines – the curse of a fine skin like mine,” she modestly confided. “People tell me my skin still looks as young as it did at sixteen.”  Lady Marguerite Strickland, just back from a sporting holiday of walking, golfing and riding was relieved to find her ‘dazzling’ skin had survived due to Pond’s.  Lady Bridgett Poulett made no apologies for her views on the importance of appearance:

“To be successful socially or professionally depends not only on one’s brain but on one’s looks,” she lectured, “There’s no excuse for an ‘ugly duckling’ in any family… The first essential to beauty is a fresh , clear youthful complexion and I’ve no patience with the woman who doesn’t make the best of her looks when it’s so simple.”

Woe betide anyone who had a bad skin day and ran into Lady Bridgett, who, despite her strident views on cosmetic slovenliness, was hailed by Pond’s as a, ‘brilliant, young favourite in London society…likened to a famous painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds’ (though the advert declined to elaborate further on which particular painting).

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If Lady Bridgett’s sharp observations, no doubt delivered in a cut-glass accent, are not enough to make us cringe then let me share those of Constance, Lady Moon who, in her Pond’s advertisement, found her creams a godsend while big game hunting in Kenya.

“We had gone hundreds of miles off into Kenya for elephant hunting. In my small mirror I saw my face getting rougher and drier every day.  Then I found – packed away in the luggage by a thoughtful person – several jars of Pond’s Creams.  How my skin changed when I started using them!”

Thank goodness Lady Moon’s maid had the foresight to send her mistress off with a secret stash of Pond’s. And thank goodness Lady Moon’s complexion was restored despite all that strenuous elephant slaughtering.

Upper class stereotypes abound, as well as the peddled rule that social advancement, in the form of engagement and marriage, could only be achieved by looking one’s best. One article in The Tatler around this time instructed women, ‘Beauty is the passport to happiness and all that it signifies, including romance.’  These are adverts that convey despairingly short-sighted ambitions for women of the era, though plenty of beauty adverts of recent times might be accused of the same.  But what is particularly intriguing is that many of the privileged women behind these endorsements led fascinating lives, often a far cry from the polish and poise projected in Pond’s advertising.

Take Lady Milbanke for instance (‘Vivid, gay, utterly charming’). Born Sheila Chisholm in Australia, she met the dissipated Lord Loughborough while nursing in Cairo in 1915 and married him later that year.  ‘Loughie’ was a compulsive gambler, to the point where his father the Earl of Rosslyn, put a notice in The Times declaring he would not be responsible for his son’s debts.  While her husband gambled away their money, Sheila was free to enjoy high society and soon came into the orbit of the Prince of Wales and Bertie, his younger brother – the future King George VI.  For a time, Sheila and Bertie enjoyed a romantic affair, forming a partnership with his brother and his mistress Freda Dudley-Ward.  They dubbed themselves, ‘the four ‘do’s’.   When George V got wind of the romance, he put a stop to it but the pair continued to enjoy a close, platonic relationship.  Sheila married twice more – to Lord Milbanke and then Prince Dmitri Romanoff.  It’s unlikely she ever came close to marrying the future king of England but there was no doubting his feelings about her.  In one letter he wrote, “”Whenever I go into a ballroom I always look around the room hoping to see you, as I know there is somebody missing, and it is so sad not seeing you, and I do so miss you.”

Another Pond’s Cream girl who did marry her Prince was Princess Marina of Greece (‘seen at the smartest functions in London’), who posed with her sister Elizabeth for a 1933 advertisement. A year and a half later, Pond’s had worked its magic.  She walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey with Prince George, Duke of Kent, younger brother of David and Bertie.  George was killed in a plane crash in Scotland during the Second World War aged 42 when their youngest child, the present Prince Michael of Kent, was just a few weeks old.  Marina never remarried.  Her eldest son is the present Duke of Kent.

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Rose Bingham was hailed as one of the prettiest debutantes of 1931 an accolade which, in this case, was probably true. With Bambi eyes and rosebud lips, Rose was a media darling, frequently photographed for the society pages.  Not only was she a Pond’s girl, but she also appeared in a full page advert for the prestigious Hotel George V in Paris declaring she stayed there because ‘only the best’ would do.  Hollywood came calling and she dabbled in film acting, appearing in ‘The Black Sheep’ in 1935 but not before she had married the 7th Earl of Warwick in 1933.  He too was a keen actor and the couple erected a cinema screen on the roof of Warwick Castle where society mingled with the Hollywood set.  If Rose had been alive today, L’Oréal would definitely have her whispering, “Because I’m worth it,” from our TV screens.  Rose and Fulke Warwick divorced; she lost custody of their son and in 1938 married Billy Fiske, an American bobsled Olympic champion instrumental in developing Aspen as a winter sports resort.  The pair were introduced to each other by David Niven who had starred alongside Rose’s ex-husband Fulke in Paramount picture, ‘The Dawn Patrol’.  The couple’s marriage was happy but tragically short-lived.  A speed freak with lightning reactions, Billy Fiske’s abilities made him a perfect fighter pilot and he became one of just seven US aircrew personnel who fought in the Battle of Britain.  On 16 August 1940, Fiske’s RAF squadron was scrambled to intercept German dive bombers over southern England.  After fifteen minutes in the air, the fuel tank of Fiske’s Hurricane was hit by a German bullet.  Despite suffering severe burns he managed to land his plane but died in hospital two days later aged 29.  Rose married twice more; to Lt. Col. Sir John Lawson in 1945, and, after divorcing him five years later, to Theodore Sheldon Bassett in 1951.  That marriage also ended in divorce.  She died in 1971 aged 59.

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Lady Alington, the former Lady Mary Ashley-Cooper, eldest daughter of the Earl of Salisbury, was the essence of the classic upper crust gal. Tall and sturdily built she was hailed as, ‘the best swimmer in London’ according to The Times, winning numerous prizes at the prestigious Bath Club in London.  Indeed, we have several examples in our archive of her swimming prowess including one page featuring her playing a part in a Royal Life Saving Society film featuring a number of well-known society women. According to a profile in The Bystander in 1936, part of a series entitled, ‘Popular Women,’ she was ‘striking in appearance…keen on hunting and racing and an exponent of physical culture that she particularly excels.’  She was also a ‘splendid hostess’ who really knew how to throw a party. ‘Hula’ as she was known to her friends, married Napier Alington, the 3rd Baron, in 1928.  They had one daughter, Marianna (Mary Anna Sturt Marten 1929-2010), but just a few years later the couple had separated.  Napier Alington presented a respectable façade in public, running as a candidate for Parliament, but in private was bisexual, indulged in drugs and had a love affair with Tallulah Bankhead which may or may not have ended by the time of his marriage to Mary.  In any case, the outdoorsy, head girl-like Lady Alington and the louche Napier seemed rather mis-matched.  Lady Alington appeared in a 1931 Pond’s Cold Cream advert (found in a copy of Miss Modern magazine here).   In April 1936, she was featured in The Bystander in a stunning Vivex colour photograph by Madame Yevonde, but just four months later, Lady Alington – fit-as-a-fiddle, swimming supremo, Amazonian Lady Alington – underwent an operation for acute appendicitis and, to the shock of everyone, died.  She was just 34 years old.  Napier was killed four years later on active service with the RAF.

Beauty, wealth, privilege – and Pond’s Cold Cream. None of it, it seems, could protect from the tragic hand of fate.

Follow the link to see more on Pond’s and the women who endorsed it http://www.maryevans.com/lb.php?ref=36706