Fashions for the penitent come down to a few options. There are the classics: the hair shirt, in bristly goat, or anything in sackcloth, a coarse material borrowed from the traditional wardrobe of corpses. Occasionally, there have been such style innovators as St. Margaret of Hungary (1242–1271), who wore clothes infested with lice—the more lice, the greater the penance.
At the Conrad Black trial in Chicago, however, no one seems to have bought into the self-mortified look. Black has mused that no shareholder was going to get him into a hair shirt or sackcloth. And David Radler waltzed into the courtroom wearing that much talked-about necktie in a shade of pink that was called Shocking back in 1936, when the surrealist couturière Elsa Schiaparelli came upon it in her search for an astonishing colour that would recall princes of the Vatican and Peruvian Incas.
Otherwise, Radler’s aviator frames and Gucci loafers suggested that his style was set in the 1970s. About the tan—that fashion goes back to 1923 when Coco Chanel, arriving in Cannes, disembarked from the Duke of Westminster’s yacht with a brazenly bronzed complexion.
Old-school socialites, like Gloria Vanderbilt (Anderson Cooper’s mom), might still insist on parasols, but for much of the last century, the year-round tan was popular among the jet set. In her 1976 book, The Rich and Other Atrocities, Charlotte Curtis described it as “a symbol of that ability to be where the sun is regardless of season.”
It’s too bad that Curtis, who died in 1987, having been the op-ed editor of The New York Times and the first woman on its masthead, was not around to parse the guest list of Barbara Amiel’s 60th birthday party, a fascinating study in the links between American fashion and right-wing thinking. Oscar de la Renta, of course, was there, a favourite of Nancy Reagan and Nancy Kissinger and a prime example of the New York designer as social player. Also in attendance was Henry Kravis, Marie-Josée’s husband, who was previously married to Carolyne Roehm, designer and socialite rolled into one.
Instead, for commentary on the rich and famous, we now have Dominick Dunne, who, on Larry King last Friday night, spoke of Eddie Greenspan’s performance in Chicago, saying he was “the toughest guy I ever saw in my life.” Given media reports of a no-love-lost relationship between Dunne and Greenspan, it was surprising that his tone was more of awe than antagonism. He also had nice things to say about Black and his wife.
The New York Post this past Tuesday called her “Lady Light Lift” in a headline over a story about the removal of chandeliers from her Park Avenue apartment, but Barbara Amiel has maintained a deft and cool appearance throughout the trial. There really hasn’t been a bad picture of her. Even in photographs taken during those moments of personal reassembly that are always required after going through security procedures and are never attractive, her military-style Chanel jacket never lost any of its authority. Even in a front-page picture of her having just been hit by a camera, there is something about her side-parted hair, sunglasses, red jacket, décolletage and model-thin frame that makes her look like a mannequin in one of those Guy Bourdin fashion photographs that combine glamour and disorder.