The Beautiful People: From the Cradle to the Best-Dressed List and Back

Note: Introduction missing

... company, installed themselves at the Plaza Hotel and called up buyers and fashion editors. They came, looked at the clothes, which were to sell from $10 to $35 in sizes 3 to 6x, approved of Mrs. Lent's theories, placed orders and wrote feature stories.

"Everything has been Eton or terribly appliqued, and no color," said Mrs. Lent, listing what was wrong with boys' clothes. "Little boys are all bones and beautiful little necks. They should have clean lines and nice colors, without looking like little girls, of course. I also love white on little boys." But don't little boys have an affinity for dirt?" someone asked. "I change my son two times a day. I want him to have pride in himself," Mrs. Lent replied. She took the Eton jacket and made it into a cutaway. "It's an 18th-century look," she said. She did away with collars and sleeve buttons. Short pants buttoned onto shirts instead of being held up with straps. "They're always falling and driving little boys crazy," she said. She also omitted the fly from the pants, seemingly unconcerned about what this would do to a newly toilet-trained size 3. Nevertheless, Rachel Lent struck a responsive chord in the fashion industry. Said Women's Wear Daily on September 19, 1966:

RACHEL LENT ALWAYS DOES EVERYTHING RIGHT. Mrs. Lent's holiday clothes for little boys are paragons of fashion rectitude and propriety. Her attention to just the right fashion details makes all the difference.

LITTLE MR. RIGHT wears Mrs. Lent's blue worsted playsuit with white stitching trim and white pearl buttons. Mrs. Lent never heard of plastic buttons.

Two months later, Women's Wear reported again on Rachel Lent:

RACHEL DOESN'T APPROVE Of the way most parents dress their boys. "Mothers do everything for their little girls except buy them fur coats, and the boys walk into school in T-shirts and jeans. A child's appearance has an awful lot to do with his behavior. Put a girl in a pretty dress and she behaves like a lady. If you put a boy in something he really likes he will behave tike a well-mannered child-and I don't mean like Little Lord Fauntleroy."

Until recently, little boys had been the last of the free souls. They were let alone between the time they graduated from diapers they felt compelled to become teen-age pests. No one bothered about their fashion quotient. Then jealous mothers, whose friends were having such fun coordinating themselves to their daughters, started lobbying. Designers heard them. Now they and wishful writers like those who work for Women's Wear Daily refuse to believe that boys are made of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. As far as they and other progressive elements in the fashion industry are concerned, boys are coordinated sugar and spice. They can be coordinated to their mothers, sisters or their fathers. "Dressed like twin brothers, a father and a son," reads a caption in L'Express, the French weekly news magazine, beside a photograph of a three-foot pygmy with sideburns descending to the bottom of his earlobes, his hands jammed into the pockets of his tweed trousers. "We've already had the mother-daughter look. Thanks to the lightning progress of baby ready-to-wear, it's been extended to boys. Junior may, like papa, wear a crinkled cotton shirt, coordinated Shetland pullover and trousers and buckskin jacket. Provided, alas, that papa can afford them. Striped crinkled cotton shirt, 39 francs. Shetland, open at the neck, 69 francs. Trousers, 59 francs. Buckskin jacket, 220 francs. O'Kennedy, 50 Champs-Élysées." Figure roughly 5 francs to the dollar Boy or girl, the child who performs his duty as an accessory to his mother and father must have a look, a carefully coordinated look. The ideal family has a total look consisting, for example, of a child tailored by Rowes of Bond Street, a father with the unmistakable seal of Huntsman of Savile Row and a mother stitched together by Mainbocher. Or a fillette in a Dorothee Bis Bis mini-knit with a maman in a Christiane Bailly jersey from Dorothée Bis and a papa with a suit from the prêt-à-porter department at Pierre Cardin. In the absence of suitable parents, the child may be coordinated to the family that his would like to be. Would anyone ask a 4-year-old with a blue Y on his sweater if his father really went to Yale?

Even if their parents are inept about style, the Sixties generation of kids has its own idols. Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr., are perennial leaders of the Best-Dressed Children's List, an unofficial register that has never been formally published because there is no need to. There are more than enough Kennedy cousins to fill the places. The three children of John Vliet Lindsay are their potential rivals. "We've got another little John," exulted a press photographer after Lindsay's election in 1965. He was referring to the mayor's son, then 5, same age as John Kennedy. What with their skiing, horseback riding and private school attendance, the Lindsays are just the sort of children who enrapture socially conscious editors. Their parents, however, have an old-fashioned reluctance to use them as props, except in the dire need of a campaign.

The Kennedys, then, have to bear the brunt of the mass media's attention. Women's Wear Daily photographers have caught young John leaving the Colony Restaurant after lunch with his mother and snapped Caroline en route from her Fifth Avenue apartment to the Convent of the Sacred Heart. Unfazed by Caroline's uniform, Women's Wear managed to run up a trend in her monogrammed schoolbag.

"We are all people who like to identify," says Joseph Miller, president of the Miller Harness Company, an emporium for horse and rider that hasn't been hurt one bit by the Kennedys' patronage and by the widespread dissemination of photographs of Caroline and her mother in the saddle. "When you see those pictures, they look so nice. They look as though they were the chosen people. Naturally, mothers feel that whatever people like that want for their children, they want it too."

Figure 1.-- This photograph was taken about August 1966, taken at the wedding reception of Jackie Kennedy's half sister when John John was about 5 years old. John John and the other Pages, who consisted of several of cousins, ranging in age from about 3 to 9 years, were described as wearing white shirts with ruffled lace fronts, white short pants with satin blue cumberbund, white knee socks, and black patten leather shoes with silver buckles.

John Kennedy lacks his sister's enthusiasm for horses, but he shows every sign of being a regular guy, according to the Central Park playground benchwarmers who have observed him in chinos and turtle neck. Nevertheless, he is piling up negative points from his peers because of the sissy styles his mother foists upon him for state occasions when the photographers are on hand. He managed to come undone from the white silk shirt with ruffled front, blue satin cummerbund, white shorts and black patent slippers that he wore as a page in a Newport wedding. But the harm that just such outfits and his hairdo have done to other boys his age is incalculable. "Young John Kennedy, in his red shoes and the way his mother keeps him so impeccably dressed have had a lot of influence on children's fashion," said Bill Blass as he started designing for little boys.

John's haircut may brought severte criticism from around the country to the White House when he lived there, but since then it has become epidemic. The impact of his sister's blond hair drawn to the side with a barrette when she was his age was minor by comparison. Before John was born. the mophead coiffure was called the "English cut" or the "Prince Charles" and it was a struggle for a mother to refuse it for her son if she patronized chic children's barber shops like Michael's or Paul Mole's on Manhattan's Upper East Side. In those neighborhoods, England has always been the mother country and the crew cut the mark of the American peasant. When Prince Charles was a small boy, his hair was worn parted to one side with moderate bangs that left half the forehead bare, high sideburns and a clean-shaven neck. But then the heir to the British throne faded away to Gordonstoun, America gained its own royal family and little John Kennedy became the trend setter in young male fashion. Under his leadership, the coiffure thickened into a thatch with a pronounced bulge at the back. The bangs grew into the eyes. The "John-John cut," as it came to be known, was conferred even on boys who go to public or private progressive schools rather than traditional, English-accented institutions. They liked it, though, because it reminded them of the Beatles.

In 1966, Mrs. Kennedy directed the barbers at the Carlyle Hotel, where her son had his hair tended, to lengthen the sideburns and to shorten the bangs over the eyebrows so that at least the width of an adult finger was visible. In back, the hair was shaped to hang straight and long from the crown almost to the collar. These subtle changes, which were almost identical to tonsorial developments in such jet-set barbershops as Jerry's on Madison Avenue and Alexandre's men's salon in Paris, had their repercussions on the kiddie circuit. Sideburns descended to the tragus-the fleshy, cartilaginous protrusion at the front and mid-point of the ear-unless a mother was terribly stubborn or stylishly obtuse.

John Kennedy succeeded not only to the Prince of Wales' hairdo but to his childhood tailor as well. Rowes of Bond Street, "the custom tailor for boys and girls," which has been clothing the children of the British Royal Family for 100 years-it invented the sailor suit for Queen Victoria's offspring-has been sending its man; Kenneth Barnett, to the United States twice a year for 30 years. On these expeditions Mr. Barnett encamps at the Plaza Hotel in New York with brief forays to Boston and Philadelphia. In their younger days, Caroline and John wore the Rowes brother-sister, double-breasted French blue Harris tweed coats with the stitched velvet collars and the inverted back pleats and half belts. (At seven, a boy announces his departure from childhood by being measured for an open-necked style in a more solemn color.) The Kennedys own other styles from the Rowes wardrobe, which runs the gamut from duffle coats and kilts to Liberty lawn dresses with genuine smocking, Eton suits in navy serge or barathea with short pants (that American parents have given up trying to keep boys in past the age of seven), little Buster suits with velvet pants and silk tops and the black patent-leather shoes with large silver buckles that hark back to Oliver Cromwell.

But the Harris tweed coat with the stitched velvet collar is the one that the cognoscenti recognize in Royal photographs. It costs about $75, plus 25 per cent United States customs duty, a bargain, the faithful believe, because the large seams and four-inch hems give it an indefinite life span. Three years, Mr. Bamett says, but that does not include handing the coat down to a relative. The price also embraces the bespoke-tailor sales treatment, that trenchant mixture of understatement and overpoliteness that some Americans find so satisfying, even if it does make them ashamed of their accents and conscious that they talk too loudly.

The Rowes Harris tweed coat has been the backbone of the classic children's market for decades but in 1967 the British manufacturers who copy it for the popular-priced juvenile market were suddenly referring to it as the John-John coat. So were the American manufacturers and so was the French magazine Elle, which headlined a version of the coat and a Shetland sweater and flannel shorts as THE JOHN-JOHN LOOK.

The Kennedy children's look is, unquestionably, a form of Anglophilic fashion with a touch of the ancien régime as practiced by the international set. It's a look of gentility and security, of knowing one's place right at the top in a world where children were not beard, but, when they were seen, they looked exquisite. It presupposes a British nanny up to the age of six or thereabouts when, as the avid Kennedy-watchers noted, one changes to a Swiss-French governess.

"People who are fortunate enough to have nannies would still like neat little shirts and that well-cared-for look," said the merchandise manager for the children's departments of Hairdo's of London when she came to New York in the fall of 1964 to buy infants' stretcher, blue jeans, 'T-shirts and those "lovely plaid boys' shirts." The average child, she asserted, "spends a lot of time out of doors." Miss Bell was putting her finger on the crux of the matter, something that middle-class women in many nations found out after they started taking care of their own children and doing their own housework. The old English look is predicated on someone else coping with the child on a steady basis, and trotting him out, immaculate and chic, for brief contact with adults.

Why are children toilet-trained later in New York than in Colombo, Ceylon? Because in New York there are diaper services and washing machines, as well as psychiatrists. Why did the number of children between 2 and 12 departing for foreign parts from airports in the New York area jump 120 per cent from 1956 to 1965? Partly because there was no one to leave them with at home when their parents wanted to travel.

The realities of childhood are stimulating the captains of the new French ready-to-wear industry to venture into the kiddie field. "The problem with children is that they should always be in sports clothes, but in France they are always dressing them up. That's going to change, I hope," said Elie Jacobson, who has added a children's section to his boutique. Even now, the chances are that the child in dungarees and sneakers leaning into the boat basin of the Tuileries is Parisian while the one in the sweet knitted short pants suit is a tourist from New York.

The basic philosophy of the old British school of clildren's fashion was sound inasmuch as it allowed a leisurely childhood. The silhouettes were honest about the shape of a child's body, the fabrics and colors soft and undistracting. American designers like Helen Lee adopted and modified it for mass consumption. Miss Lee once put it this way:

I am saying, little girl, I think you are a real human being. I want to dress you with dignity. In other words, I want to give the child presence without gimmicks or gadgets. I think back to the time I was a child, and how I felt when I wore my pretty dresses. Designers should do this for adult fashions, too.

That was in 1964, the watershed of the pop Sixties, and Miss Lee, a grandmother, was already sounding quaint.

British mass manufacturers are updating the classics by translating them into machine-washable fabrics and livelier colors. Unfortunately, some of them feel obliged to inject something of Carnaby Street and the Kings Road and when they come up with blinding prints and hip-hugger belts for toddlers (don't they know that toddlers don't have hips?) the consequences are depressing. Restraint, one of the most admirable British characteristics, is, however, the enemy of forced obsolescence, as the English merchants who are trying to memorize their American mass merchandising lessons have caught onto.

American fashion editors are even more ambivalent and that's why the world of children as depicted in a fashion magazine is such a slick, sick fantasy. Trying to perpetuate the dying life style of the British aristocracy and attempting to whet consumer appetites under the pretense of disseminating news are irreconcilable objectives. The biggest advertisers in their publications are the producers of Kodel, Orion, Fortrel and other fibers that go into mass-produced, mass-priced clothes by manufacturers whose taste often affronts the editors' refined sensibilities.

And so the fashion editor takes the $6 synthetic knit suit she despises and sticks it on a child model whose hair is brushed into his eyes, and whose sausagy thighs will protrude from the short pants. Heavy English knee socks and sturdy brogues provide the subliminal message. Depending on the publication that employs her, she may put him in a group photograph with a Eurasian boy (straight black hair completely obscuring his forehead), a Negro girl and a child of either sex who has the map of Lodz on its face. But all of them are English from the knees down with identical heavy cuffed socks and brogues. "That's fashion's melting pot.

Fashion editors have a stubborn sense of mission about lifting the taste level of the masses that survives any amount of commercial compromise they are obliged to make. And so, in the same issue in which they "take care of the musts" (feature merchandise by big advertisers) they try to garner some space for the crusade.

The editorial pages that are the quid pro quo for the advertisements have captions that carefully enunciate the name of the manufacturer and the fiber that makes the fabric in the garment so attractive to nanny-less, laundress-less mothers, as well as the price of the garment, which is usually sensible, too. The advertiser is supposed to be kept happy by seeing his name in print and by the flood of orders that will result. Unless, of course, the readers are baffled by the presentation.

Take the December 1966 issue of Harper's Bazaar, which contains two pages of advertising in the front of the magazine for Kate Green-away dresses in Kodel and cotton, and Dacron and cotton fabric. Toward the back of the magazine are four pages of photographs of Kate Greenaway dresses in Dacron and cotton, size 7 to 12 (usually worn by girls from 6 to 10 years old). The model is a ballet dancer of indeterminate age and melancholy mien. She stands barefoot amid deep grass and leafy trees, clad in a simple lace-banded shift that would have ended in a proper length for a child, halfway up the thigh, were it not for a lace ruffle under the hemline. The caption reads:

Lace-trimmed pantalets peeping from under the refreshing simplicity of a pale chocolate brown shift with encirlings of lace--a perfect treat to wear on a visit to the Palace of Sweetmeats in the Forest of Christmas. The pantalets, our concoction. Dress by Kate Greenaway, in Dacron and cotton. About $11. At Bonwit Teller; Wanamaker's, Philadelphia; Frost Brothers, San Antonio. . . .

Translation: The pantalets are not for sale because the manufacturer didn't make them, but the fashion editor believes in them. Could it be because Pierre Cardin and Jacques Tiffeau were making them for mini-skirted adults?

So much for expediency. Now onward to the articles of faith.

In the same issue are four pages of color photographs, entitled "Rhymes in an English Nursery," depicting what might as well be dear Queen Victoria's children making merry while mama confers with Disraeli in another part of the palace:

TWINKLE. TWINKLE, LITTLE STAR? HOW I WONDER WHAT YOU ARE! Peeping out between the curtains of the night nursery, Edwina Hicks questions the Little Star while Master Ashley rides carelessly by on an antique toy-horse tricycle. Edwina wears a turquoise poplin pinafore tucked over a bright green poplin dress. Master Ashley companions her in a poplin shirt, a jerkin, knee breeches of corduroy. The children are the son and daughter of Mr. David Hicks and Lady Pamela Hicks. Mr. Hicks is the prominent interior decorator; Lady Pamela, the-daughter of Lord Louis Mountbatten and a cousin of the Queen. Their home, decorated by Mr. Hicks, is the brick, early Georgian, Britwell Salome, in Oxford.

LITTLE POLLY FLINDERS? SAT AMONG THE CINDERS. Nestled in her nursery fireplace at Hampstead, 4-year-old Lady Cosina Vane Tempest-Stewart, daughter of the Marquis and Marchioness of Londonderry. Locks tucked in a mob cap, Lady Cosina wears pink corduroy. The fashions on these pages were designed by Jinnie Spencer for Mary-Louise of London.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: May 25, 1998
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