The moment we saw this we felt the heavy influence of this,
Nancy Cunard, muse and arbiter of style. We felt a bit of relief that our focus would be on her. As we prefer our world to be filled only with beautiful and elegant things, we do our best to not allow our eye to fall on anything that could possibly ruin what we see. But many beautiful things hide darkness.
In talking with our readers about our love for classic films and vintage fashion, we have stayed mostly focused on the side of glamour and gloss, shying away from the history underlying the well styled pictures we adore. This then means ignoring, the lack of black actors on film before the 1960s. Ignoring that when we do appear we are the help and never portrayed with dignity. Ignoring that our favorite period, the 1930s, meant for us no black actors with glamorous waved hair, no beautiful shadows and lighting in black and white photography, no Orry Kelly, Edith Head costumes, no gorgeous Art Deco jewelry, feathered hats or elaborate cigarette holders. These were the priveleges reserved only for whites.
But even ignoring that, it still means inevitably being disappointed. Picture discovering the actress Irene Dunne for the first time. Enjoying her in films such as, A Guy Named Joe, Love Affair, Anna and the King of Siam, Theodora Goes Wild and then one day watching Show Boat. And there, an actress you admire and hope to see more of, appears in black face, forcing you to turn off the film and reconsider all that you thought you knew. What we know is that many icons we have admired on screen would disappoint us were we to dig deeper into their personal lives, outlooks and beliefs.
As a Black woman, this is a particularly precarious situation, a dark cloud ever present in this world of classic beauty and style we so enjoy.
The relief about Nancy Cunard then, is that in addition to her influential style and colorful life, we can actually also respect who she had been personally, the way she lived her life. Nancy Cunard, lover to T.S. Elliot, Pablo Neruda and Samuel Beckett among others, “worked as a poet, a publisher, a journalist and, above all, a tireless supporter of the disenfranchised.” Through her relationship with Jazz musician Henry Crowder she became aware of the racial injustice suffered by blacks in America and found “the sense of purpose that would define the rest of her life.”
Nancy Cunard, in addition to publishing “Negro” (1934), an anthology of black history and culture, wrote about the Civil War in Spain and the invasion of Ethiopia, exposing injustice and carnage to the international press, in a personal crusade for change.
Nancy Cunard, did not meet a happy end, but what endures is a legacy of rebellion, passion, integrity and great style. We cannot say enough of our relief at seeing a beautiful mirage, then digging down deeper only to find what lies beneath even richer and more refined…
Images Via Citizens of Fashion, The French Sampler, Source Lois Gordon