DAYS OF SUNSHINE & ROSES How the British summer Season constantly changes while remaining forever constant
Fashions may change and new enthusiasms replace timeless traditions, yet, from the roar of the crowd at Ascot to the free-spirited revels of Port Eliot, the Season remains the very soul of the high-society summer
On a warm May evening, champagne coupes in hand, a glamorously international group strolled along the paths skirting the lavender beds. Among them were the fashion designers Clare Waight Keller, Erdem Moralioglu and the impeccably groomed Russian magnate Leon Max; a rock star, David Gilmour, and his writer wife Polly Samson; Marc Quinn, the artist, and the ethereal actress Emilia Fox. They had all assembled in their evening finery at Bazaar ’s invitation to wander round a tiny patch of Provence that had (courtesy of L’Occitane, the French beauty brand) miraculously been assembled in the grounds of the home of the Chelsea Pensioners…
If the English have a global reputation for eccentricity, it must be due, in part, to the Season. Invented in the 18th century by the shire-dwelling aristocracy as a way of marrying off daughters and keeping wives amused while Parliament was in session, the Season has always been a triumph of hope over experience. What other nation, faced with such unpredictable weather, would arrange its summer around a succession of quirky outdoor events, and insist on a rigid dress code in which to attend them?
What is perhaps still more surprising is that, 250 years later, such English eccentricity is now appealing to an international audience – as Bazaar’s party last year at the Chelsea Flower Show proves. No longer is it the case that, in the words of My Fair Lady’s famous Ascot Gavotte, ‘Ev’ry duke and earl and peer is here/Ev’ryone who should be here is here’; for although Ascot is as popular as ever, the dukes and earls and peers are no more important nowadays than, for instance, A-list actors, social-media stars and oligarchs. One might also argue that the participation (and money) of the Qatari royal family is just as crucial to the success of the races as that of the Windsors… Meanwhile, for the past three years, Goldman Sachs, the American bank, has sponsored the annual pavilion at the Serpentine Galleries. Last year, its former employee Yana Peel, the elegant Russian-born philanthropist, took over as the galleries’ CEO. As a sign of things to come, its Summer Party – perhaps the most eagerly anticipated invitation of the New Season – was hosted by Salma Hayek and Tommy Hilfiger.
But it is not merely the guest lists that have changed beyond recognition. The hallowed Season itself, once deemed to begin with the Chelsea Flower Show and end after Goodwood (or Cowes, for those not grouse shooting from August the 12th) has also been adapted to suit modern tastes, vastly expanding beyond the traditional sporting and horticultural fixtures.
The literary-minded can have a summer of inspiring intellectual stimulation with never a horse in sight: for them, the Season begins with Charleston; continues into the Hay Festival – memorably described by Bill Clinton as ‘the Woodstock of the mind’ – and climaxes with Port Eliot. Music-lovers are equally spoilt for choice, with the formal joys of opera and a picnic at Glyndebourne (or Garsington, or Grange Park), the bacchanalian revelries of Glastonbury and Wilderness, and the tear-jerking patriotism of the Proms; while for artistic types, the RA’s Summer Exhibition and the Serpentine party have now been joined by another unmissable fixture: the V&A’s Summer Party, inaugurated last year. The rest of us may pick and choose as we will.
Society is never static, new elites are for ever being formed, and fresh rituals observed. Yet what has remained constant is that throughout the 150 years of Bazaar’s history, the magazine has been at the forefront of smart society, in all its metamorphoses. Just as leafing through back issues allows one to follow the rise and fall of hemlines and the waxing and waning influence of certain designers, so a similarly vivid picture is drawn across the decades of the changing manners and mores of the beau monde.
In our turn-of-the-century American editions, for instance, an Edith Wharton world of competitive and novelty-obsessed high society comes vividly to life, peopled by Hearsts and Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Astors and Mellons; while the early British issues focus on the Bright Young Things: ‘Miss Nancy Mitford, of writing fame’, alongside Sir Oswald Mosley, at Mark Ogilvie-Grant’s Bloomsbury soirée; the debutante ball run by Lady Charles Cavendish (better known as Fred Astaire’s sister Adele), and the couturier Victor Stiebel’s party – ‘against his white walls we all looked our best’. The chronicler was Lady Sibell Lygon, the secondeldest daughter of the Earl of Beauchamp, who ironically found herself dropped from many guest lists after 1931, when her father was denounced for his homosexuality by his brother-in-law the Duke of Westminster, and subsequently divorced by his wife – a family tragedy later adapted by her friend Evelyn Waugh for the plot of Brideshead Revisited. (No wonder if there is occasionally a wistful note to Lady Sibell’s breathless depictions, in her society column, of events from several of which she might have been excluded.) There is something strangely gripping about these snippets of society gossip: in 1932, for instance, she noted that the chef Marcel Boulestin had prepared a gramophone record demonstrating the perfect method for creating an omelette – ‘Cooking by gramophone opens up all sorts of possibilities… It’s guaranteed to liven up the stoggiest [sic] party’. In June 1933 she hailed ‘the most tiara-y first night at Covent Garden since before the War’ and anticipated the ‘traditional orgy’ of Ascot: ‘millions of miles of frills, immense hats and tons of
aspic’ – a description that could equally accurately apply to today.
By 1939, Lady Sibell had moved on: her wedding to Michael Rowley, a pilot (later revealed to have been married already), was duly recorded in the column she had once written, though poignantly, her name had been misspelt. In any case, the advent of World War II brought such frivolities to an abrupt end, and few could have anticipated that the magazine’s heyday as a high-society publication was still to come.
This took place in 1970, a result of Bazaar’s merger with Queen magazine. Queen, which was even older than Bazaar, having been founded in 1861 by Samuel Beeton, husband of Mrs Beeton, the first domestic goddess, had become the bible of the Chelsea Set during the Swinging Sixties. Indeed, for a while, the pirate-radio station Radio Caroline (named after Queen’s purported reader), was run from the editorial offices.
This new joint publication, now named Harpers & Queen, was noted for its society column, Jennifer’s Diary, a litany of weddings, balls, lunches, race meetings and parties, written by the impeccably coiffed Betty Kenward until her retirement in 1991 at the age of 84. It was read by aficionados almost as a cryptogram: if a hostess was called ‘tireless’, you knew the evening had been a frost, while the description of a debutante as merely ‘pretty’ as opposed to, say, ‘exquisite’, was utterly damning to those in the know. Famously, Kenward refused to refer to Lord Snowdon by name in her column, since he was a mere photographer; instead, he was always ‘Princess Margaret’s husband’. The Queen’s name, by contrast, was separated from other words on the page with a reverential semi-colon.
Meanwhile, Ann Barr, Harpers & Queen’s features editor, had a scarlet coiffure and a pet parrot, and was something of a latter-day Dorothy Parker in her acute powers of observation and acerbic wit. A notable talent-spotter, who launched the careers of Craig Brown and Loyd Grossman among many others, she was also responsible for the witty analyses of social types that so often migrated from the magazine’s pages to become national talking points, just as Nancy Mitford’s essay on U and non-U for Encounter magazine had done in the 1950s.
The most famous of Barr’s brainchildren were the Sloane Rangers. The original article was not even flagged on the cover of the October 1975 edition, yet, as its writer Peter York now says, ‘it went viral’. The term entered the vernacular, and the subsequent The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, published by Harpers & Queen in 1982, sold more than a million copies.
Certainly, the timing was perfect: Lady Diana Spencer, the ultimate Sloane, had become the new Princess of Wales; Brideshead Revisited had been dramatised on ITV the previous year (the novel itself, lest we forget, inspired by Bazaar’s former social diarist) and both had sparked an enthusiastic nostalgia for traditional and aspirational Englishness. Indeed, while exploring the magazine’s archives, I was startled to come across correspondence between the publishers and the impresario Cameron Mackintosh over a planned Sloane Ranger musical.
New social tribes continued to emerge in these pages: in April 1976, York turned his eye, and his pen, upon the ‘Mayfair Mercenaries’ – ruthless blonde social climbers; then there were the ‘Leathers’, who were perma-tanned rock-star types. A few years later, it was here that the ‘Foodie’ was born, encompassing such sub-strata as the ‘Whole Food-ier Than Thou’ and the ‘Coffee Bore’, whose obsession with arabica was identified as early as 1982, long before today’s hipster baristas were even conceived. And when I first joined this magazine as features editor in the late 1990s, we had noticed the rise of another elite: the ‘New Establishment’ of right-thinking left-wingers, led by Tony Blair. In 1998, I commissioned a young journalist called Michael Gove to describe them for these pages, while the following year, Jason Cowley (now the editor of the New Statesman) picked out for us the youthful power players who were shaking up politics. ‘Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at the Treasury, David Miliband… may not be household names,’ he wrote presciently, ‘but they wield huge power.’
Even Jennifer’s Diary changed; and in 2004, it was replaced altogether with the more glamorous Flash!, while the following year, the magazine reverted to its original title of Harper’s Bazaar.
Today, the Mayfair Mercenaries have ceded place to the Moscow equivalent, who can actually afford to live around Berkeley Square; the embattled Sloane Rangers have lost their jobs in publishing and migrated from SW3 to Clapham, while a new tribe of ‘Nouveaux Peasants’, a faux-rustic social set I described in Bazaar in 2013, has emerged, identifiable by their vast number of offspring and their Daylesford trugs heaped high with home-grown organic veg.
And of course, where society changes, so do its pleasures. Little wonder that where Bazaar ’s readers once wanted to find out about Queen Charlotte’s Ball, Port Eliot now holds sway; that film stars rather than debutantes dance through our pages, and that Flash! is as likely to record the goings on at Glastonbury as at Glyndebourne.
Yet throughout all these evolutions and permutations, the English Season itself continues to bloom and to grow, glorious and fleeting as a summer rose, pressed and preserved between the covers of this magazine.