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They Don’t Make Socialites Like They Used To

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Ryan Murphy’s new limited series, “Feud: Capote vs. the Swans,” takes viewers into a defunct world, set in the rooms once inhabited by the carefully coifed fixtures of Manhattan’s high society.

The show examines the rift between the writer Truman Capote and his friends — a pack of socialites whom he called his “Swans” — after a fictionalized excerpt from his unfinished novel spilling their secrets was published in Esquire magazine in 1975.

The Swans, each dressed in her own polished, throwback style, are played by an impressive cast: Diane Lane as Nancy “Slim” Keith, Calista Flockhart as Lee Radziwill, Naomi Watts as Barbara “Babe” Paley and Chloë Sevigny as C.Z. Guest.

Ahead of the release of the first two episodes, members of the Styles desk gathered to discuss the designers highlighted in the series and how the show made them nostalgic, but also hopeful, for the return of a more intentional way of dressing.

VANESSA FRIEDMAN This show is such a fashion feast (Verdura! Hermès! Mainbocher!) that it’s hard to know where to start. But I do wonder whether having this example of extreme wardrobing dangled so alluringly on all our small screens will herald an end to the sweatpants era, or instead — because it reveals how fashion can be an armature covering corrosion and rot — give coordinated dressing a bad name.

JESSICA TESTA I don’t expect this show will start a frenzy for matching tweed sets and perfect coifs (although, boy, I’d love to be wrong). One thing I do think will resonate with a modern audience is the attitude of discernment that the Swans have.

One of the great lines of the first episode was Truman Capote saying “baby’s breath is vomitous.” Moments later, Babe Paley criticizes a woman’s perfume by saying it’s “too much sandalwood for a woman with her face.”

I love these sometimes banal broad pronouncements — this random thing is good, this random thing is not good — that defined this group of society women. It reminded me of how, around New Year’s, so many “in and out” lists went viral.

FRIEDMAN What strikes me is less any one specific item — though some of them are fabulous — than the whole idea that no matter what, one needs to put oneself together from earrings to pearls to dress to jacket to shoes to bag to furs. That kind of care with outfits is almost a lost art. They even have Ann Woodward donning her fur coat to overdose on pills. (Like all the fur in the show, it’s fake.)

GUY TREBAY One thing I’d love to see come out of this is a resurfacing and reappraisal of Mainbocher.

FRIEDMAN Yes — and Mila Schön, whose work plays a role here.

TREBAY Think for a minute about silhouettes, how little is extraneous to shape and outline. Everything is close to the body, pared down and yet functional.

FRIEDMAN I was struck by how each character has such specific style. C.Z. Guest with her tweeds, turtlenecks and shirt dresses. Slim Keith with her square-shouldered jackets, silk shirts and high-waisted pants. Babe with her neat little jackets and matching dresses, her mandarin-collared evening wear and extraordinary jewels. The costume designer, Lou Eyrich, must have had a jaw-dropping budget.

TESTA Of all those characters, I look forward to seeing more of Slim Keith’s outfits.

TREBAY High-society branding. Slim had more of a Hollywood look, always slightly out of step with fashion.

FRIEDMAN I’m also looking forward to seeing more of Lee Radziwill, another famous tastemaker, in the next episodes.

TESTA There’s one particular Babe Paley outfit that I thought was a stroke of costuming genius: She’s just been double-crossed by Capote, and she’s wearing a double strand of pearls around her neck, and there are double navy lines trimming her matching jacket and top.

FRIEDMAN Capote has almost as many outfits as his Swans.

TREBAY In early photos Capote was so odd and fey, in the dictionary sense of that word. He dressed in the manner of a gay man of his generation, conservatively and yet with enough concern for the details — those that needed to know, knew. I don’t particularly see that person in the characterization of Tom Hollander.

FRIEDMAN One final thing that interested me: All the show’s stars got gussied up in black-and-white gowns for the premiere as if to honor the women they portrayed. So in one way at least, it’s already having an influence.

TREBAY I would be delighted to see some of that restraint return. And, to a substantial extent, it has been on the runways.

The assumption is that without stunt dressing, it is impossible to wow people in the Instagram era. But people were astonished when those women appeared in public, whether at La Côte Basque or the Met Ball.

TESTA And now the Met Ball is basically a competition of who is, as we often say on Styles, doing the most.

FRIEDMAN Which brings us to Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, and the next episode. Can’t wait to see what they wear.

Vanessa Friedman, Jessica Testa, Guy Trebay and Katie Van Syckle contributed reporting.



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