Whenever one thinks of Truman Capote’s relation to the world of fashion, the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The story of social-climbing starlet Holly Golightly is now inevitably associated with the waif-like Audrey Hepburn, chic dresses by Hubert Givenchy, and the aspirational appeal of Tiffany’s. However, it was Capote’s later work, 1970s roman à clef “Answered Prayers”, that captured one of the most intriguing 20th-century fashion phenomena: the ladies who lunch.
Disputably coined by “Women’s Wear Daily” publisher John Fairchild, but there is hardly a piece of literature that expressed its essence better than Capote’s “Answered Prayers”. Unfinished at the time of Capote’s death, the novel was published in installments in Esquire Magazine in the 1970s. The piece offered an unflinching look at Capote’s affluent lady friends, whom he called his “swans”: languid socialites, who navigated between lunch dates, fashion shows and charity galas.
At the time when the novel was written, the Western fashion industry existed solely for the sake of these ladies who lunch. But over the years, as the world of fashion became seemingly less stratified, the concept became dated. But over 50 years on, the concept hasn’t lost its appeal entirely.
Regardless of whether Fairchild coined “ladies who lunched”, he certainly wrote about them. Considerable chunks of Fairchild’s magazines were dedicated to the newest looks of high-society ladies, photographed outside New York’s most fashionable restaurants, where anyone who was anyone “lunched”. The preferred spots of New York’s lunching elite were 21, The Colony and La Cote Basque. The latter lent its name to the most scandalous chapter of Capote’s unfinished novel.
It was also in the 1960s that New York began to make serious claims towards being known as a fashion capital. New York designers such as Main Rousseau Bocher began to garner acclaim overseas, and New York’s jet-setting society of the post-war era oozed glamour. They weren’t afraid of bold sartorial statements, either. A notorious anecdote from 1968 talks about the time socialite Nan Kempner (a YSL devotee) wore Le Smoking to a lunch date. Back then it was still unacceptable for a lady to wear trousers to a respectable establishment. After being told off by the maître d’ at La Côte Basque, Kempner boldly shed the trousers and wore the jacket as a dress.
Oscar de la Renta also rose to prominence during the Sixties. The designer, who was trained by Balenciaga himself, became famous for dressing Jacqueline Kennedy. His creations, exquisitely feminine and elegantly impractical, set the standard for the classic First-Lady look.
Some 70's glamour: model Jeanette Christiansen in Valentino couture and Revlon makeup. Photo by Mario Santana in Linea Italiana magazine September 1972 in my archive. ??? 'Alta Moda. Il maquillage-inverno. Alla ribalta lo scozzese più inedito nella versione lamé; tratteggi d'oro sull'azurro opaline dello spender, con l'immancabile fiocco cravatta, tessuto Gandini. In questa sera azzurra il maquillage "Lotus Petal Look" che disegna una larga striscia pastello acceso lungo il contorno degli occhi, sulle palpebre ombretto in polvere in gradazione più intensa, sotto le sopracciglia ombretto in crema più chiaro, con riflessi madreperla… …Maguillage realizzato da Gil di Revlon "Ultima II" per Valentino. Gioielli Borbonese. Turbante Ophelia per Valentino.' @maisonvalentino @realmrvalentino #lineaitaliana #valentino #valentinogaravani #vintagevalentino #mariosantana #fashion #fashionmagazine #fashionphotographer #fashionphotography #fashionhistory #histoiredelamode #mode #moda #retro #vintage #vintagefashion #vintagemagazine #magazinecollection #madeinitaly #altamoda #beauty #jeanettechristiansen #turban #revlon #1970sfashion #70sfashion #70s #makeup #makeupartist
In the 1970s, Valentino Garavani became a go-to designer for high-society ladies. The darling of the formidable Diana Vreeland, Garavani perfected his style dressing Italian actors in Rome, where he founded his label in 1959. Valentino’s works certainly had a cinematic touch to them, and looked as good at a charity gala as they did on the red carpet. His success was firmly based on his personal relations with his clients. He was seen an integral part of the international party set, and repeatedly stated he drew his inspiration from his socialite clients. During the famous mini-skirt debate of the 1970s, Valentino remained firm. “The mini is a disaster”, he proclaimed, no doubt appeasing his rather conservative clientele.
Another Vreeland protégé who became popular in the seventies was Carolina Herrera, a long-time competitor of Oscar de la Renta and yet another expert in the style of the First Ladies. Herrera, who has created several outfits for Melania Trump, has stayed true to her original design philosophy over the years.
The power suit was undoubtedly the sartorial symbol of the eighties. It was as well-liked by working women as it was by the high society set. The haute monde’s favourite designers adapted admirably to the changing tastes and climate. We saw sexy dresses from Oscar de la Renta and broad-shouldered jackets from Valentino. The latter, however, later claimed to have hated everything he designed in the 1980s. “I hated those dresses in the ’80s, they were out of proportion with shoulders that didn’t belong to the fit, they were all terrible, terrible!” he claimed. “The shoes were not good — I never liked it.”
The fashion landscape of the 1980s was a changing one: the Japanese designers started to make waves in the mid-Eighties, and by the dawn of the 1990s the Antwerp Six had arrived. These avant-garde newcomers to the fashion world introduced an entirely different perspective on fashion: it did not necessarily had to be luxurious, glamorous and elegant. It could also be fun and weird.
The 1990s also brought the further democratisation of fashion. Young womenswear designers Helmut Lang, Maison Margiela and Yohji Yamamoto celebrated the banal and the mundane. They defied the hyper-feminine silhouette, which had been so ubiquitous in the post-war decades. Nineties fashion borrowed profusely from streetstyle — even Chanel, the traditional abode of elegance, dedicated a collection to surfers in 1994.
In his 2012 article for Vanity Fair, Bob Colacello made a stunning discovery about the socialites of the eighties and nineties. “Socialite” became such a dirty word in the nineties, that the ladies who lunch from that era fervently denied ever being part of that social set.
The nineties spelled the beginning of the end for the Lady Who Lunched, but it was the early 2000s that many saw as the final nail in the coffin. Celebrity scandals abounded, meaning the term “socialite” was more readily used for debauched debutantes than it was for the more conservative older generation. The old money set was no longer the center of the fashion world.
As though to truly signify the end of the era of the ladies who lunch, in 2008 Valentino Garavani stopped designing. Ladies who lunch and their epoch still remained a powerful fascination in the fashion world, but they were looked upon with irreverence. In his AW09 collection, dubbed “Horn of Plenty”, Alexander McQueen mocked the lavish style of the ladies who lunch. “Horn of Plenty” critiqued conspicuous consumption, with the clothes ridiculing the conventional elegance and piles of trash adorning the runway.
Today, Oscar de la Renta is keen to distance itself from its former reputation, as the highly wearable SS18 collection demonstrates. “There are no ladies who lunch,” says Fernando Garcia, half of the designer duo behind the brand. “Everybody’s too busy to do that. They just go to Pret. The world evolves. Oscar always told us to evolve with it.”
However, the allure of the ladies who lunch has not disappeared entirely. Vestiges of the old-time glamour are traceable in works by many designers, Marc Jacobs being a prominent example. Indeed, Marc Jacobs SS18 featured bold head scarves and statement coats that would not have looked out of place in La Cote Basque itself. Indeed, many SS18 collections echoed the wistfulness for the days gone by. There were streamlined gowns at Elizabeth Kennedy in New York, polka-dotted dressed with nipped-in waists at Carolina Herrera, 1950s-spirited designs at Jason Wu. High-priced and retro-looking, there certainly seems to be a thread of nostalgia for the sixties and seventies running through many of the major fashion houses. Maybe the ladies who lunch haven’t died, afterall — perhaps they were just taking a mid-afternoon nap before cocktail hour.