The photograph itself is cut at different angles, faceted like a diamond. Inside that diamond is its jewel, a girl who is poised like a bird, its wings demure and folded. At the back of the photograph, in a hobbled, feminine script with deep scrolls and loops as tight as unopened flowers is written: ‘Dorothy, 1923’. It is a year that is advanced enough to both remember the past decade and to suspect what lies ahead as each year becomes faster and louder.
There were brocaded memories of the Ballet Russes, of Bakst’s untamed color and Nijinsky’s sublime scandal. The Russians inspired a fascination for exotic allure and colors that blossomed from the passionate bowers of their Oriental sunsets. Hypnotized ladies walked the streets, wearing velvet turbans and lassoed in ropes of pearls like untutored empresses. Then there was a War. And as the decade ended, men and women on three continents still endured nightmares of the bloody earth and the scythe-like barbed wire.
But in 1923 there came a distant agitation. Girls dreamt of feverish nights, bare shoulders, silk kimonos and fringed hems that tickled their knees. Fast asleep, they searched for clubs buried in cities like bunkers; passwords jingling like keys in their pockets. Freedom was a coin they tossed in the air: revolving in the light, each side was illuminated: the freedom of youth, the freedom of their sex. And their liberation would remain in play while it continued to spin beyond the clutches of gravity.
Dorothy is balanced between these two decades that beckon to her, that whisper in her curled and dainty ear. Her eyelids, weighed down with kohl and Vaseline, are dark and feral – the suffering eyes of Theda Bara that she remembered from her girlhood. Her headband is as rich as a Russian diadem, peppered with sequins and glittering across her forehead like a belt of stars. There is a part of her that aspires to the velvet seductions of the temptress. It is possible that as soon as the photographer departed Dorothy leaned back on her leopard divan and picked up her cigarette holder – raising her dusky lids only to peer through the arabesques of lilac-scented smoke.
And yet perhaps not. Dorothy has bobbed her hair – not a common style in the early 1920’s – a single acquiescent curl is all that remains of a childhood spent in ringlets, pigtails and tangles. She is not wrapped in tinted velvets or shining brocades – nor is she decorated with gilded tassels or garlanded with furbelows: the ornamentation of fashion’s garish past. Dorothy wears a simple – albeit richly patterned – jacket; beneath it is a chemise unimpeded by twisting corsets: its simple silk lying against her skin in androgynous comfort.
Dorothy is a member of ‘The Lost Generation’ – those that came of age during World War I. The term would become popular with its use in The Sun Also Rises, published only three years after Dorothy sat for this portrait. Her downcast eyes are eloquent; dwelling perhaps on memories of newspaper columns listing the war dead, of maps of Ypres, Gallipoli, the Piave River: faraway places, but none with the alien glamour of her youthful dreams. Lightly eccentric, her youth tarred with grief, Dorothy is young enough to see no sin in forgetting; but old enough to know what she dares to lose. Dorothy has witnessed history: the Gilded Age imploding upon itself in wasteful decadence, The Great War and the end of society’s innocence and petty deceits. She is poised to take part in more: the Jazz Age, the Bright Young Things and their subsequent tarnish, the Crash, the Depression.
But when Dorothy grows older hopefully she will accept the wisdom of history and remember these times. Hopefully she will observe and learn, and not fall into the pit of Santayana’s warning, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”