The Beaton Effect

The Cecil Beaton revival continues this month with the publication of Hugo Vickers’ Cecil Beaton: Portraits and Profiles and the opening of Beaton at Brook Street, which will run from 18 November to 5 January, at Colefax & Fowler’s Mayfair studio.

Photographer, designer, diarist, socialite and (failed) playwright, Sir Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) achieved fame and international respect through his costume designs for the Hollywood films Gigi (1958) and My Fair Lady (1964), for which he received Academy Awards. In Britain, Beaton photographed royalty – Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother dined at his home of two occasions – and the devastated remains of London during the Blitz. In 1968, he received the honour of being the first living photographer to have his work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. In 1972, he was knighted.

Beaton was named to the international best-dressed list in 1970 along with some of the most revered designers and dressers of the day, including Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Gianni Agnelli. In his youth, and as one of the Bright Young Things, Beaton dressed in a provocative manner; he loved fancy dress costumes and wore make-up. The desire to establish himself as an international photographer meant Beaton toned down his look during the mid-1930s, although contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic continued to remark on his style and flair, which owed much to Edwardian vogues and his love of theatrical productions. A client of some of Savile Row’s most prestigious tailors, including Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman and Henry Poole, Beaton also had garments made by a local tailor in Dorset. Significant collections of his clothing remain in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and London’s Victoria & Albert Museum.

In the process of gathering research for my book about Beaton’s dress, I have seen many contemporary interpretations of the ‘Beaton Look’. It is really no surprise that Beaton’s style continues to captivate because it champions individual expression and romanticism over homogeneity and conformity, which he loathed. Giles Deacon and Dries Van Noten claim Beaton’s work and style has inspired their catwalk creations. The revival of dandical dress has led to a more general interest in his clothing; William Banks-Blaney, founder and owner of William Vintage, told me that he regards Beaton as the father of vintage clothing. In the BBC’s 1984 documentary The Beaton Image, photographer David Bailey said that Cecil Beaton ‘could fit into any time … he was very adaptable’. Evidently, the same is true of his style.

I am talking about Beaton’s image in two lectures connected with the Beaton at Brook Street exhibition:

‘Something of Me’: Portraits of Sir Cecil Beaton ~ National Portrait Gallery, 20 November.

‘Sir Cecil Beaton: My Fashionable Life’ ~ Colefax & Fowler Studio, 2 December.

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