The duchess of chic

Baltimore's Wallis Simpson always gave fashion the royal treatment.

September 19, 1999|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

To some, Baltimorean Wallis Simpson was one of the century's most romantic figures, the divorcee Edward VIII gave up his kingdom for. To others, she was a social climber who as the Duchess of Windsor spent a vain and useless life after marrying the ex-king.

But whatever people think of her, they agree she dressed well.

"She was the personification of pared-down, sleek minimalism," says Kohle Yohannan, a professor at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Yohannan is guest curator of "Wallis: Duchess of Windsor," an exhibition exploring the duchess's personal style, which opens today at the Maryland Historical Society.

On display are clothes, accessories and memorabilia, including her famous "monkey dress" (so called because of the monkeys embroidered on it). The duchess herself donated it to the historical society.

With her 23 1/2 -inch waist and impeccable taste, the Duchess of Windsor was a favorite customer of the Paris couturiers she frequented. She was a woman who took her fashion seriously. When designer Mainbocher warned her during a fitting that she wouldn't be able to sit down in a skirt if he made it any narrower, she replied, "Then I won't sit down in it."

When she found a particularly flattering dress, the duchess often had it copied in several different colors and fabrics. She spent as much as $10,000 a month on clothes, and each season had 20 or 30 new outfits.

"Even her leisure-wear was chic," says Yohannan. "Her casual clothes have a certain tailored quality to them."

Everything Wallis bought was beautifully fitted; she often chose where she shopped by how good the fitter was. And she took meticulous care of the clothes she had. "Even the soles of her shoes were polished," says Yohannan.

Considered one of the best-dressed women in the world and on best-dressed lists for more than 40 years, the Duchess of Windsor knew what suited her and rarely gave in to the vagaries of fashion. The saying "No woman can be too rich or too thin," is often attributed to her; whether she actually spoke the words or not, she embodied them.

Wallis was striking rather than pretty, with bold features, a prominent jaw and a sharp chin. But the slim, understated clothes she wore throughout her life made the most of her broad shoulders, tiny waist and narrow hips.

"She understood that elegance is refusal," says Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, published in Paris, and author of "The Windsor Style" (Salem House, 1987).

When Menkes interviewed fashion designer Marc Bohan of Dior for her book, he told her that the duchess would look at a couturier dress and say, "Let's take everything off." She favored simple, unadorned styles that would serve as backdrops for her fabulous jewelry.

She "knew the material of herself," Yohannan says, and stuck with it -- for the most part -- all her life.

She was a style setter; the vendeuses (salesgirls) at the couturier houses were bribed to reveal what the Duchess of Windsor had ordered.

But some who study design question whether she was an innovator, a muse to the designers who dressed her, like Audrey Hepburn or Jackie Kennedy.

"She followed the best of fashion, but she didn't inspire style," says Jimmy Newcomer, professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "The Duchess of Windsor in my opinion was just a consumer."

"To be honest with you, her clothes weren't half as exciting as his [the Duke of Windsor] were," says Tiffany Dubin, head of the fashion department at Sotheby's, which auctioned off many of the Windsors' possessions in February 1998. "They were safe and traditional. The results of the sale reflected that. Her things did OK; his did fabulously."

In any case, the public was fascinated by what the duchess wore. "This chic American woman has revolutionized the fashions of staid old English society!" trumpeted Modern Romances in 1937. The publication went on to report: "She likes and appears best in simple, severely cut clothes. She prefers plain black, perhaps edged with white or light gray, but she sets off this simplicity by wearing handsomely jeweled clips, bracelets and rings."

In the '40s, sewing patterns were manufactured so that women could make their own clothes in the Duchess of Windsor style. And no wonder. It was every girl's romantic dream to land a handsome prince as Wallis had.

While the Duchess of Windsor's day dresses were often understated, that wasn't true of her evening wear. Among the clothes on exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, two pieces are particularly fascinating.

One is a Madam Gres evening gown made of blue silk, sequins and beads, which the duchess wore when she was in her 70s. The floor-length skirt has a long slit to reveal plenty of leg -- and the hot pants underneath.

The other is the "monkey dress."

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