As Ethel Mannin, rapidly becoming my favourite commentator on the period, states in Young In The Twenties,
“The cloche hat has become almost a symbol of the Twenties; it came down to our brows, almost enveloping us, but it was not unbecoming, I think, and we liked it; it stayed with us a long time; we wore it with our sacks of dresses and with our mannish suits; we wore it in town and in the country, and at tea dances, and in our own homes at luncheon parties.”
The cloche hat reigned for about ten years (1923-1933) and is indeed ever present in contemporary photographs and illustrations . It had been around since 1908, but it was particularly suited to the new lines in clothing and, especially, hairstyles.Noel Coward’s friend Edward Molyneux has as good a claim as any for making it so popular but something about it (brimmed or brimless) so fitted the spirit of the age that every leading fashion designer promoted it.
Monte Carlo 1920s
It is appropriate then that the wittiest and most delightful pastiche of the modes and mores of the 1920s should be entitled “For Whom The Cloche Tolls”.Although regularly reprinted, this charming satire has slipped somewhat from popular consciousness but I urge you to seek it out. It is a joy to read – witty, occasionally acerbic and superbly camp.
“For Whom The Cloche Tolls: A Scrapbook of the Twenties” appeared in 1953. Its author was Angus Wilson, a novelist whose star has rather faded.The early fifties in English Literature were dominated by authors such as William Cooper, John Wain and Kingsley Amis, whose anti-Dandyism and hostility to all things Bright and Young has been well documented (particularly by Martin Green in his much maligned but very rewarding Children of the Sun). Angus Wilson was once grouped together with these writers but his agenda (and aesthetic) differed considerably.
Always essentially a satirist, Wilson, in Cloche, shows himself a master of pure comedy. It is a light-hearted affair, full of in-jokes and innuendo. The narrative is Gay in both senses of the word. The premise is that of a series of reminiscences about a recently deceased, rich, American woman (Maisie) and her adventures in London and Paris in the 1920s, accompanied by her debutante daughter (Bridget) and her epicene son (Tata). Every iconic marker of the period is mentioned – the Blackbirds Revue, Mews Parties, Bohemians and booze, cocktails and cocaine. It is determinedly nostalgic and very funny.
Equally entertaining are the “photographs” that accompany the text. These are, in fact, cartoons/illustration by the French aesthete and collector, Philippe Julian. Whether recording a Mah Jongg game or Josephine Baker at the Bal Negre, they capture the mood perfectly and have a louche decadence to them that gives the book a certain bite.
Philippe Julian is another name that appears to have been largely forgotten. He does have a “cult” following and there is a very good article on him (and Cloche) here
Among his many works, he wrote an informative biography of Violet Trefusis and his book on Symbolist artists, Dreamers of Decadence, almost single-handedly reminded British art-lovers of the existence of that movement. If you see a copy, grab hold of it, it is everything you want a book on Art to be.
There is a drawing in For Whom the Cloche Tolls of Edith Thompson in the dock. This accompanies a passage deploring Maisie’s constant pursuit of younger men. The great trials that I have been posting about are briefly covered in the text, employed to cruel comic effect while indicating their significance as symbols of the times.
“I suppose when one thinks of some of the tragedies that infatuation with younger men brought in those days – those stupid, passionate letters of that poor feather-brained Edith Thompson and later Mrs.Rattenbury (I remember how upset I was to think how easily she might have been one’s own neighbour – shopping at Harrod’s and staying at quite a smart residential hotel with her own chauffeur).And of course Mrs.Barney, who was quite a friend of Maisie’s. (Such different backgrounds, and yet not one of them disreputable. I’m afraid the horror of the First War affected us all a great deal more deeply than we realized.) When, indeed, I think about some of Maisie’s friends, I’m amazed that things did not turn out worse than they did.”
For me, of course, mention of Elvira is a bonus, but the whole book is bursting with apt and amusing references. There are too many highlights to dwell on but the more literary minded might enjoy the affectionate but barbed pastiches of Huxley, Bennett, Mansfield and Woolf that appear towards the end.
In 1953, For Whom The Cloche Tolls was reviewed positively by actual veterans of the 1920s such as John Betjeman but I’ll give Cecil Beaton, notoriously begrudging when it came to praise, the last word,
“Mr. Angus Wilson and Mr. Philippe Julian are too young to have experienced the Twenties, but they are both Fetishists immoderately reverencing that remote period. Together they have created an evocative nostalgic scrapbook. Through the wry and malicious memoirs, compiled by her immediate family friends, lovers and gigolos, Mr.Wilson brings back to life the fun-mad, man-mad Maisie, a red-hot grandmother from Texas, who lived in London, took trips to Montmartre and the Riviera, generously pensioned off her lovers sniped from her daughter, and who with her “curious coarse happiness”, animal spirits and “self-generated joi de vivre” was, all agreed, the embodiment of the Naughty Twenties.”