CULTURE SNATCH returns! The Sultanette unravels London’s offerings, high and low.
“A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere,” Diana Vreeland famously quipped. “It’s the life you’re living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later.”
The Sultanette might add that it’s what you will do not in it later but that’s another post. I couldn’t help but wonder how the imperiously passionate fashionista might have redressed the exhibit Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 31 January.
I’d escaped Oxford’s sacred spires for a weekend of profane amusements in London. This was guaranteed by a stay at the Chelsea Arts Club where Salvador Dali greets you at the door. Membership at an affiliate arts club in New York City was my entree, and though the corridors could have used a coat of paint, I’d heard the clientele made up for the dog-eared interior.
At breakfast, I met a man with gout and a passion for fly fishing who everybody called “doctor,” a sculptress from Malta, a cable TV personality, and a guy, profession unknown, who favored billiards and booze. I got an inkling of the club’s activities my first morning when, admiring the trellised back garden, a guy puffing on a fag responded, “Plenty of places to hide.”
On Saturday night the bar’s billiard table was put out of service for the main event, an English indie rock band from Brixton called The Thirst, playing at appropriate decibels. I was adopted by two club members on a man-date, whose wives were off with the kids for the weekend. They invited me up to their table in the loft-balcony where we could shout at each other in conversation. But when I pulled out my cell phone to snap a picture of the scene below, one of the guys shot me an alarmed, “No photos here!”
Turns out on any given night, this multifarious crowd sprinkled with fashion victims, fringe artists and ne’er-do-well dilettantes might harbor the discreet debutante or posh parliamentarian. Never mind those stories about the overly-rouged regulars who occasionally slid off the bar stool and were politely stepped over in that passive avoidance English kind of way. The calling card here was its reputation as a spot to see and be unseen.
I’d come to London for the high life so at the crack of Sunday I hailed a pricy London cab, destination the Wallace Collection at Hertford House, Manchester Square. It had been recommended to me by a student in my history class – a cultivated gentleman with a rogue twinkle in his eye. But neither he nor its website billing as a “national museum containing unsurpassed displays of French 18th-century painting, furniture and porcelain with superb Old Master paintings” had prepared me for the breasts.
Breasts adorned porcelain vases. Breasts were meticulously brushed on gold-framed miniature portraits and stroked on commanding oils. When breasts weren’t on call, the audio guide informed that In this chamber, the lady of the house had entertained her lover, the future George IV, or that portrait of a lady with her lapdog was a famous courtesan.
With the gilded marquetry, brocade walls, sumptuous furnishings and revered courtesans, The Sultanette could have gotten comfy in the 18th century. But 19th London was calling and I headed next for the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, Kensington. I’d seen Frederic, Lord Leighton’s, Flaming Jane, all the buzz at The Frick Collection, before leaving New York so I was anxious to explore the home and studio of the Royal Academy president whose circle included artists, writers, politicians and the royals.
I caught up with a tour at Leighton’s studio – a soaring chapel to the art of making art when it needed more space than a computer. In the anteroom, a curtained lounge invited indulgence.
And then we were lead to the Arab Hall. The house is described as a place “Where East meets West” but in this room with its golden mosaic dome, Persian rugs, Islamic tiled walls, and sunken pool with fountain, East seduces West. Had Victoria dipped a toe in that pool of glass? It all spoke of the eclectic grandeur you might expect of a prominent Victorian artist’s residence.
So it was a culture shock when our tour guide brought us to Leighton’s bedroom – a monk’s cell with bare walls, a single bed, and unadorned furniture. Was it a form of penance to relieve the Victorian guilt of having too much fun in his sparkling milieu? Or an escape from it? It was rumored that Leighton was gay. It was whispered he’d fathered an illegitimate child. Was the enigmatic Leighton most artful at straddling separate worlds?
Now stimulated by two centuries of sensuality, The Sultanette was primed for two-hundred shoes, glorious shoes, at the V&A. But I needed to rest my feet! After dinner at the Chelsea Club served by the darling Italian bartender (who became a Male Harem fan) I climbed the creaking stairs to my London garret and turned the space heater on high.
While admission to the V&A is free, the pleasure of Shoes comes with the pain of a £20 tariff, slightly more than the suggested entry price for the entire Metropolitan Museum. But when it comes to shoes who’s counting quid? At the show’s entrance, barely able to restrain myself from the glass cases, aglow in the darkened interior where moody shoe music played, I stopped to read the introduction.
“Shoes allow the wearer to become who they want to be.” They do? “Fairy tales teach us the power of shoes.” Cinderella again? I joined the crowd inside. “Manolo owners take pleasure in knowing that they are in the most desirable shoes on the market.” Was this the V&A or Rue La La? There was a queue at the Seduction case one of five categories among Status, Transformation, Creation, and Obsession. The label read, “Wearing shoes while naked makes nudity all the more audacious” while “military boots bring masculine connotation.” Finally some clarity on that!
On the second level, shoe gurus Manolo, Louboutin and Choo held forth in a looped film. I passed a Cinderella slipper labeled “One shoe can change your life” and made my way to a tall glass case displaying a single pair of black-and-white slingbacks. Lady Di’s perhaps? Or some inspiring arbiter of originality, style and taste? Not exactly. The shoes had been owned by Imelda Marcos who once said, “Win or lose, we go shopping after the election.” Never mind that this was one material girl. We are told that the “Steel Butterfly” will be remembered for “her capacity to survive upheaval.” Nothing beats retail therapy when you’re exiled from the palace.
It wasn’t the homage to Imelda, the brand-name-dropping, or even the patronizing aphorisms that did me in. It was the utter lack of play. We love our shoes like a courtesan loves her lapdog but they are accessories not necessities. Why this urgency to analyze, validate, substantiate? Do shoes really give a girl permission to be herself? Do we learn about power through fairy tales? Is it stilettos that make a woman sexy or the life she lives in them?
“A new pair of shoes doesn’t get you anywhere,” the canny DV might have added, “It’s the feet that take you there.” I left the V&A and made tracks for the Chelsea Arts Club in all its rag-tag glory.
CULTURE SNATCH is a series on The Sultanette’s ramble among the arts. Watch for BETWEEN THE COVERS book reviews and DICK OF THE WEEK commentaries on notably notorious males in the news.