Tag Archives: lovely ladies

Beauty And Scandal

She stands, elongated and slender, before a sky that combines a soft storm with a lurid light. Leaning forward gently, she resembles a glistening tree that bends in a mild and fragile breeze.  Everything about her is lengthy:  limbs that ripple under lace and silk, a neck that extends from sloping shoulders in a white, dizzying curve, powdered hair that is curled and piled – swept away from a sad, thoughtful forehead.

One arm is extended to grasp a length of taffeta – gold and melting – the other arm is bent, pressing the fabric to a pale, chaste breast.  Gilded rosettes bloom and descend down the edges of her overskirt, they huddle in an embroidered bower at her elbows.  Her shoes are tiny and painful, their dainty heels made for the refined tapping on polished, elegant floors:  the elegant language of comings and goings.

Thomas Gainsborough painted this portrait in 1778, when his subject was 20 years old.  A portrait with a dark and thunderous background circulating around a still, luminous center, it is a portrayal of a quiet beauty wrapped in arsenic-colored skin and metallic cloth.

Dally

She has all the outward modesty and grace of a girl who has spent her childhood in a convent. Serene and aristocratic, she seems to be made for quietude.  Snowy skin, discreet roses strewn across her cheekbones, dark and poignant brows that overshadow languorous eyes…she is Mrs. Grace Elliott Dalrymple.

Nicknamed ‘Dally The Tall’ with typical 18th century familiarity – the equivalent to a boisterous slap on the rump – she was one of the most renown courtesans of late 18th century London.  Dally ruled with her fellow ‘impures’ over a city teeming with disease and debauchery.  The demimonde of England’s greatest city was a nest of snakes – horrible and beautiful – and they rose above the writhing half-world like indulgent, immoral goddesses.

Four years before this portrait was painted Dally was a young adulteress, running away from a marriage she entered into as a pale, 13 year-old bride.  Four years after this portrait was painted Dally was the mistress of the lush and improvident Prince of Wales (later George IV).  The daughter she bore soon after the beginning of this affair could have been fathered by any one of an assortment of men who were her ‘benefactors’ at the time.   The child was baptized Georgina Frederica Augusta Elliott Daughter of His Royal Highness George Prince of Wales & Grace Elliott – but whether out of audacity or accuracy no one ever knew.

Her adventures took her to Paris a few years before the storming of the Bastille; and no patrician loveliness could save her from a population that was threatened and therefore dangerous.  British, a known royalist, former lover of the Duke of Orleans (the Prince had introduced her to him), she was imprisoned in late 1793, shortly after the Reign of Terror had begun.  When she was released in October of 1794, Robespierre was dead , many of her noble friends were dead…but Dally was alive and free.

As with all women of beauty and scandal, rumors surrounded them like clouds of powder and blush, creating graceful, perfumed enigmas.  Rumor, for instance, had it that Dally was the mistress of Napoleon Bonaparte:  two warriors in their own chosen fields.  But what is surely known is that Grace Elliott Dalrymple, aka ‘Dally The Tall’, died in 1823.  She was sixty-five years old.

Gainsborough had no idea of the tumultuous life Dally still had before her once she stepped out his studio.   But perhaps through his earthy, intuitive genius he sensed her stormy future when he decided to paint her, a floating light, before a distant – yet impending – tempest.

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Bonnets And Bones

Her bonnet was nothing but a pointless decoration; a delicate failure.   Too small for protection, too light for balance – it was too pretty to be real. A tiny monument to silliness and frailty, it was perched on top of plaits of hair arranged like clenched hands.  It was false, useless and beautiful like the woman who wore it.   Her maid held it like a glittering child.  The lady wore it like a crown.

The Flock

 Scraps of lace, splashes of sequins, arcades of flowers, torn feathers…their patterns were lifelines of artificiality.  Small and complex like jewelry, they were made only to be handsome.  They were protected from a sudden breeze by a gloved hand quick to respond – like a mother reprimanding a child for going out into the cold without a coat.  No symmetry of lace would comfort that weakness; no knot of moiré ribbon could hold the flawed whimsy in place.

Velvet Trails

Yet for all of their frailties, their embarrassing sweetness, the perfume of weakness and memento mori…generations later they still exist.  But the names of their fey owners have been forgotten – and their bones have long vanished

Locked Rooms

I know how they used to visualize her.  Weak and erotic, pliable and romantic, vaguely Eastern – she lay hidden in a locked room heavy with silks and thick perfumes.

Her arms were flung about her head, lush and weak, and her body curved like a sated serpent's.  Her eyes gazed into the distance, into faraway Oriental skies the color of peacock feathers, a rinse of tinted shadows.

Although a creation of Victorian boredom and sexual whimsy, she actually did exist, and she was called an odalisque.  She served the concubines of the harem, washing their feet, rinsing their hair with henna.  She crushed flowers – ginger, lilies, orchids:  the gifts of an Ottoman garden – to create new fragrances and brushed her mistress' wrists with the scented oils.  She was a living woman, with exquisite skills.

But thousands of miles to the west she had become an art trend, and her name became a body writhing at the base of a lamp, or carvings that struggled against symmetry and the placid yoke of equilibrium.  She defined the curling enamels on cigarette boxes hidden in a man's pocket.

Comfortably exotic, she was willing to share tea as well as a water pipe with the discerning Victorian gentleman.  Weighed down with tassels and fabrics like a middle-class drawing room, she sighed across her couch, waiting.

She could be a child, crowned with flowers and glowing with false jewels and a brothel's promise.

She could be an exhausted icon.

To the Western mind of the 19th century, she was foreign but still accessible, genteel but still with the look of a concubine's apprentice.  It was an inaccurate vision, but this manageable fantasy was the Victorian way.

But I have my own vision, too. 

This woman is Josephine Baker – who danced with shameless joy and sang like a crystal bird.  I look at this image, and think 'surely she is the odalisque, more so than those posed, upholstered women'.

Perhaps.  Here, no bed or couch is evident – she seems to have stepped out of a bath of pure light.  The length of glistening fabric she holds is the merest decoration, as are the rivulets of pearls pouring from her hands.  Like Salome, she dresses in veils and jewelry and is a source of torment.

She does not look away into an imaginary horizon, steeped in pastels and mosques.  Her eyes stare straight ahead, daring and demanding.  Dark and feverish, cloaked in charcoal, they reflect a dangerous grace.  She stands straight and sleek, with the soft indentations of bones and muscles noticeable throughout her feline body.

This is not a vision of weakness from the 19th century, but one from the 1920's, when women were learning about their own appetites, instead of satisfying the hungers of others.  Still exotic, but with a bite.

Whose ideal was closest to the truth?  No one will really know.  The keys to those rooms, hung with tapestries both feminine and mysterious, were thrown away long ago.

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A Joyous Color

I found her in a darkened hallway of a museum that was new to me.  There was no marquee of adoring lights to surround her.  Yet she glowed with a froth of color that mocked like the sun frolicking across the ocean's surface, picking out the jeweled lights on Neptune's brow.

There were no benches placed before her; those that would visit her, proclaim their ardor and admiration, would have to stand, as they would before a princess.  But her glance, full of shallow youth and pride, would have to insist:  You will stay, and you will wait.  Her coral smile, a faint dimpling on soft, dangerous country, added:  And you will enjoy it.

There was nothing coy about the mischievous creature I found in the shadows.  She was lush and bold.  Pearls, translucent marbles that rolled from the mouths of oysters, wrapped around her neck and cascaded down her breast.  The thick, nacreous ropes were arranged with careful abandon over skin that was white and suffocating with arsenic.  Her hair melted into auburn coils, its henna exuberance held back by a pink ribbon which happily admitted its silken defeat.

Liquid colors flowed about her, swift-moving pastel rivers of blue, white and pink.  The currents of a spring sky – delicate, willful prisms – rushed through the fabric of her gown and gave it stormy life.  Her sapphire plumage was matched only by the parrot balanced on her lithe fingers, cautiously pulling her gown open.

Who was she?  I read the portrait's title:  'Young Lady With A Parrot'.  Frustrating!  She would have to remain a mystery – her dainty secrets locked away.  She might have been a lady-in-waiting, a royal daughter or a courtier's sin.  All I had was her beguiling light and joyous color.

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The Silent Party

Occasionally, when I come home from work and before I open my door, I will hear the most disconcerting sounds.  They frolic down the hallway, rambunctious and invisible.

I heard voices, as fragile as silver thread, embroidering the air with affectation and flippancy.  I heard laughter, soaring and birdlike, responding to witticisms that I missed as I tried to find my keys.

There was the sharp protest of glass tables, as jewelry accidently scraped against their surfaces (a sound I know well).  There was the intimate, private rustling of silken sleeves and dresses that dripped with sequins and impudence. 

In equally soft undertones, whispered asides were exchanged like rings – engraved, golden secrets.  These sounds were like dolls – tiny, delicate and perfectly formed – and they winked at me through the keyhole.

By the time I had finally untangled my keys, unlocked my door and burst into my apartment, I was full of questions, hoping for an introduction and afraid that I had arrived too late.

But the voices had stopped, the tables were cleared away, and the party was silent again.

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The Greedy Dress

It hung in a silken closet, cruel and biting, waiting for her to step into its graceful hell of bones, laces and hooks.

And when she did, it hemmed her in, unwilling to share her architecture of curves with an envious world.  It twisted the pathway of her hips and torso into its own desired journey.  The unyielding prison of fabric pressed and bruised her skin like selfish fingers.  Covetous fashion had made a cruel pattern that claimed ownership and turned the freedom of her body into a hobbled silhouette.

She balked at the restraints of her expensive harness.  But it must love her, she reasoned, because it made her beautiful.  So she was patient, and suffered its petty pinches and iron-clad esteem.  She accepted its grip as it clutched at her waist, making her gasp for air.  She relinquished the individuality of her feminine flesh to the ownership of her greedy dress.

And she was flattered by its attentions as it held her tightly, like a velvet ruffian.

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Painted Ladies

I collect postcards of lovely ladies.  When I consider a purchase, I only ask two things of them:  that they be, of course, lovely and that they be hand-tinted.  I've seen a couple from the 1890's – a woman in bed, wearing a sheer dressing gown and smoking an ornately carved opium pipe – but most that I own are from 1905-1915.  The ones from the 1920's on are painted too garishly…but the earlier ones must have been colored with brushes made of feathers.

This brings me to a book I once had.  It was a very scholarly treatment of the revolution in women's fashions during the beginning of the 20th century.  But it was VERY scholarly.  And the illustrations were infrequent and inconclusive.

So I got rid of it.

But some of the dresses were so very fetching, and I felt badly about never seeing them again.  So, I scissored them out, and decided to try my hand at hand-coloring them.    I was always curious about trying this, but would never attempt this on an authentic postcard.

Water-color was a washout.  I didn't have a subtle enough hand.  So out came the big guns, and I layered those poor women with poster-paint. 

These outfits are probably from around 1912, all inspired by the wonder and color of the Ballets Russes.  Clothes were bright, exotic and patterned.  Strands of pearls were wrapped, draped and hung:

Smoky-eyed and wearing harem pants, turbans, slippers with a jester's curled toes, twisted and coiled feathers and tent-like tunics…women were suddenly comfortable and cast new silhouettes. 

And the designer who cast the longest shadow during this time was Paul Poiret.   His wife would model his clothes:

And his parties would reflect the new designs.  One of them, "The Thousand And Second Night", required all guests to dress in 'Eastern'-style wardrobe.  For anyone improperly dressed, there was a closetful of his own creations for the agitator to change into. 

Who would have ever thought they'd ever see Sherazade take a walk down the Rue de Paix?  

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