NEW YORK - The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were quite possibly the most overblown and superficial personalities of the 20th century, but they did manage to make their contribution to society, which the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute is celebrating with a lavish new exhibition called Blithe Spirit: The Windsor Set.
Their legacy can be summed up with one word: style - her nearly perfect taste and his inventive personal flair, which became other men's fashion.
If you doubt that assertion, consider this: According to institute associate curator Andrew Bolton, gentlemen using men's rooms might still be fumbling with buttons were it not for the duke, whom the museum credits with popularizing the zipper fly.
The duke, of course, was briefly (for most of 1936) king of England, reigning as Edward VIII before abandoning the throne to marry Baltimore-born American divorcee Wallis Simpson. From this spun "the love story of the century," as their tale was trumpeted relentlessly in the press.
The truth of the two is a little less than fairy-tale perfection.
Self-centered and anti-Semitic (he made a speech titled "Germany Is Our Friend" after Hitler came to power and was heard complaining about "the tentacles of the Jews" at a dinner party in 1955) the duke had been given to forsaking royal duties for the sake of fun and frolic, gamboling at his country retreat or on ocean-going yachts with his married mistresses. Ultimately, their number came to include the duchess, then known as Mrs. Simpson.
Born to shabby Baltimore gentility, Bessie Wallis Warfield Spencer Simpson Windsor (as a schoolgirl, she dropped the name Bessie) was a social climber who earlier married a dashing alcoholic aviator from Chicago's North Shore and a dull but prosperous British-American businessman before turning her sights on the duke, then the Prince of Wales.
Supporting herself at times playing poker or sponging off friends, Wallis eventually got her man but would not be queen of England.
Instead, the two spent the rest of their days in exile, reigning as king and queen of Paris and New York nouveau riche cafe society and frequently living off richer folk thrilled to find themselves entertaining "royalty."
Nevertheless, the duke and duchess in their day cut quite a figure, and the Met has captured its essence in this show, on view through Feb. 9.
It's a more expansive view of the couple than in a similar exhibit presented three years ago by the Maryland Historical Society, which focused almost exclusively on the duchess. The duchess was a fashion leader of her 1930s West End set, favoring clothes designed by Elsa Schiaparelli and Mainbocher (Chicago-born designer Main Rousseau Bocher), who designed the wedding gown she wore at her marriage to the duke.
"They defined the sort of hard-edged, very tailored look she was known for," Bolton said. "[Photographer] Cecil Beaton called it her `trim, messenger-boy look.' Always as neat as the latest Louis Vuitton luggage. She was very much about fashion austerity. Her clothes are quite simple. The idea of wearing a simple dress was as a background for her jewelry."
One cigarette case of hers was inlaid with the jewels from the tie stickpins worn by the duke's father, King George V.
"That was Edward turning propriety on its head," said Bolton, noting how much King George despised the duke's lifestyle and taste in women.
The duke likely was more concerned with style and fashion even than the duchess.
"He was much more stylish than she was," Bolton said. "She always wore the height of fashion, but there wasn't as much personal flair as the duke. His impact on men's fashion was much longer-lasting than hers. He had such a specific individual style."
One enduring example he set was mixing patterns - "plaids with stripes with polka dots," he said. The duke was only 5-foot-5 but was able to defy the rule about short people not wearing bold patterns and colors by having his clothing cleverly tailored.
"The reason he doesn't appear so short in his photographs," Bolton said, "was that he always had his jackets cut with a higher waist, which gave him a longer leg. He had an astute sense of proportion."
Windsor also popularized what the British call "turn-ups" and Americans call "cuffs" on trousers - a departure from tradition that enraged his more Victorian father, Bolton said.
"Some of the biggest fights they had were about fashion and style," he said. "King George was much more about Victorian propriety, whereas the duke was about the modern monarchy, and one aspect of sharing his modernity was fashion."
His royal highness also designed his clothes to suit his personal habits. The left-hand inner pocket of his jackets was larger than the right "because he kept his cigarette case in his left-hand pocket and wanted easy access to it."