Category Archives: history

La Dolce Vita and Blonde

La Dolce Vita Movie poster, blondeThis Monday I was lucky enough to go to a lecture on La Dolce Vita by Professor Richard Dyer. I say lucky advisedly. It was pure chance that I went.

I never enjoyed this 1960 movie very much and, apart from its iconic status, remember little about it. But one of my best friends invited me. I wanted to see my friend. And so I went – and got so much more than I expected.

La Dolce Vita by Richard DyerProfessor Dyer is the sort of enthusiast I could listen to for ever. Moreover, he loves La Dolce Vita. Not uncritically, you understand. He wrote the British Film Institute’s guide to the movie – which I immediately ordered – and he clearly continues to research its creation and ponder its message(s). Above all he is just wonderful on the gossip that surrounds the movie.

Indeed, a major part of his thesis is that the movie is precisely about that gossip: how it arises, how it is delivered, how it is received.

La Dolce Vita: Iconic Status

I’m going to illustrate rather than argue that La Dolce Vita has set its stamp on a time and a way of seeing life to which we still refer today. For this I offer two pieces out of the great body of evidence propounded by Professor Dyer.

La Dolce VitaFirst – that title! La dolce vita is now universal shorthand for a hedonistic, fast-paced, self-absorbed lifestyle, part playful, part empty, dependent on display. It paid, and pays, celebrity an almost religious devotion. Consider certain current politicians.

Second – paparazzi. The word was an introduced by the movie. The photographer who accompanies the journalist, Marcello, is named Paparazzo. He is one of a group of photographers who, Professor Dyer points out, actually become part of the story they are photographing.

The new light-weight cameras of 1960 allowed photographers to get in really close to their subjects, sometimes while running. Many resisted. Some fled. Some fought back, in the film, as in real life.

Anita Ekberg, the star of La Dolce Vita, was photographed threatening photographers with a bow and arrow outside her home in Rome. (Looks a bit staged to me.) But there were undoubtedly fistfights between paparazzi and their subjects/clients/victims.

La Dolce Vita: Rome

Like its 1952 predecessor, Roman Holiday, La Dolce Vita was made in black and white and is a visual love poem to Rome. The other thing the two have in common is that both put a journalist centre stage. In each movie, he pursues a celebrity, during which his personal and private life collide. And he is accompanied by a photographer.

Roman Holiday subtextBut William Wyler’s confection is pure joy. Audrey Hepburn travels delightfully from royal wooden top  through a day of teenage exuberance to woman on the edge of love.  Well, the journalist is Gregory Peck. Who wouldn’t? He’s an American, a foreign correspondent in Rome.

Fellini takes us on an altogether darker journey. Literally to a great extent. The streets of Rome, whether crowded or dangerous and near-deserted, are shot in a chiaroscuro that Caravaggio would have envied.

La Dolce Vita: the Hero – or Is He?

La Dolce Vita Mastroianni and EkbergMarcello Mastroianni as the journalist is as hungry for a story as is Gregory Peck, at the beginning hunting down his princess. But, while Peck learns empathy and possibly love, Mastroianni’s character is altogether more equivocal. He is on his home turf, a gossip columnist. The moment where he almost loves Sylvia, the famous actress, evaporates. He is defeated – her husband, an ageing actor who once played Tarzan, slugs him in the stomach – deflected and, ultimately, absorbed by other stories and other roles for himself.

La Dolce Vita: the Blonde

La Dolce Vita Gentleman Prefer BlondesThe Blonde, as a concept, was already iconic before La Dolce Vita. Anita Loos published Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1925.

Professor Dyer points out that by 1960 Marilyn Monroe was The Blonde and that nearly every country had at least one celebrity sharing her type of big-busted blondness. There was Diana Dors in the UK, Anita Ekberg in Sweden and, oddly enough, American Jayne Mansfield living and much photographed in Rome that year.

The part of Sylvia references Marilyn explicitly at least twice, possibly also Jayne. (Professor Dyer’s thesis is convincing. Buy the book!) But what took me aback, is that it also uses episodes from Ekberg’s own life. The first, rather sweetly, was when she was photographed paddling in the Trevi Fountain two years earlier. The second, which sticks in my craw rather, comes when Sylvia’s husband slaps her. Professor Dyer believes this to be based on an incident with her former husband, British actor Anthony Steel. As so much does seem to be a distorted reflection of the life around Fellini, I can believe it. But it does seem particularly unkind.

And the Other Blonde – Maybe

Iris Tree by ModiglianiHowever, there are other sorts of blondes (I may well return to this theme) and I think I caught sight of one, very briefly in Fellini’s film.

During the salon scene, we catch a glimpse of Iris Tree.  She was the daughter of Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, Edwardian London’s premier actor-manager (and, incidentally, grandfather of the late, lamented Oliver Reed. In 1916 she sat for Modigliani. To him she was clearly a brunette at that time.

Dolce Vita Iris TreeThis amazing woman, poet, actor and all-round free spirit, was living in Rome at the time of La Dolce Vita. She was, by my reckoning, 63. At the gathering of literati she is, like so many others in this film apparently, playing herself.

She wears druidic robes and her hair, which I suppose could well have been grey by then, looks  – well – blonde.

Sophie Weston Author


Magic of a Georgian Library

The last couple of weeks I have been contemplating the magic of a Georgian Library. As a result I have been researching libraries in general and, in particular, libraries I have known intimately. There are a surprising number of them scattered through my career. My spiritual home, maybe?

Georgian Library

Grand Library at Osterley Park, not like my poor house at all!

Partly this must be due to the novel I am currently editing. It stars a distinctly down-at-heel stately home. Its library was put together in the eighteenth century on the basis of some sketches by the Adam brothers and a certain amount of DIY on the part of the servants and the cash-strapped owner. A classical frieze in the library, indeed, was constructed out of clever paint effects and paper mâché. I’m rather in love with that frieze. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820: a spencer for a skimpy gown?

In BBC's 1995 Pride and Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear spencers, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

In BBC’s 1995 Pride & Prejudice, Mary and Jane wear a spencer, Lizzie wears a shawl, and Lydia wears…er…nothing

What to wear if it’s cold? A spencer?

replica Regency gowns with spencers

Replica spencers (BBC’s Persuasion)

As the Pride & Prejudice picture shows, the high-waisted Regency gown needed a particular kind of outerwear.
A normally-waisted coat would have ruined the shape of the lady’s silhouette. So fashion called for something special. The answer was the spencer.

From about 1804, the spencer was a short-waisted jacket with long sleeves. It could be prim and proper, buttoned up to the neck, as modelled by Mary Bennet (above). Or it could be rather more risqué, accentuating the bosom, as Jane Bennet’s does.

But why was it called a spencer? Continue reading

Historical Costume 1800-1820 : the simple Regency gown?

1807 white muslin wedding dress © Victoria & Albert Museum, London

A Regency gown might not be so simple?

1807 wedding dress asymmetric embroidery on front

A Regency gown might look simple but the wedding dress shown above clearly is not. Mainly because of the hand-embroidered muslin, rather than the fairly standard design.

That stunning dress was worn by a seventeen-year-old bride, Mary Dalton Norcliffe, for her marriage to Dr Charles Best in York on 11 June 1807. It’s made of Indian muslin and the V&A suggests the embroidery was done in India, too. Not only is there beautiful embroidery all round the hem and train, there is asymmetric embroidery across the front of the skirt, recalling the classical toga. You may find it easier to see the white-on-white embroidery in the close-up, shown left. Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Caraco. But what IS a caraco?

What is a Caraco?

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Striped silk sack-backed caraco, 1760-1780

Caraco isn’t a word that many of us are familiar with. It’s not in many dictionaries, either. It is in Wikipedia, though, along with this illustration of a lovely caraco jacket, dating from 1760 but altered in the 1780s. The original is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

So… what is a caraco?

It’s a woman’s jacket, usually waisted and thigh length, with a front opening. It could be worn as the bodice of a gown and was termed a “caraco dress” when it was complete with a skirt. Some simple versions had high waists even as early as the 1780s.

According to Wikipedia, the original French caraco was often worn with a stomacher to fill the front opening, as with the silk one in the picture above. The English version was designed to meet in front and didn’t need a stomacher. Which is a pity, as stomachers can be truly beautiful, like these from earlier periods… Continue reading

Historical Costume 1780s : Polonaise Gown

Polonaise not Panniers!

1780 polonaise replica

1780 polonaise replica

1787 polonaise original

1787 polonaise original

This blog looks at the lovely Georgian polonaise gown, as a follow-up to my earlier blogs about the hard work of the seamstress and the lady’s maid. We marvel at these gowns in museums — and most of us know that every stitch was hand-sewn — but do we stop to think about the detail of the process?

Shown left is a modern replica of a 1780 polonaise gown, made in plain white fabric to show off the detail of construction. Shown right is an original gown dating from the late 1780s and with the back only partly lifted.

Normally, the back of the polonaise would be lifted in two or more places to show the petticoat beneath, as shown below. Continue reading

When is it Art and when is it Porn? The Pompeii Poser

Warning: this blog contains images of full-frontal female and male nudity; if you are likely to be offended by those images, please do not read on.

On a recent TV programme on BBC4, Andrew Graham-Dixon mentioned (just in passing) that, in the nineteenth century, it was illegal for a woman to pose in the nude for a male artist. Really? Didn’t anyone tell Ingres?

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Graham-Dixon was showing TV viewers nude paintings of ordinary Danish women. He said they would have created a scandal if they had been shown in public. So it was OK to put nude figures into classical poses, but not into modern-day, realistic ones?
Ingres’ Odalisque or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was art but a Danish working woman was not? Continue reading

A Highland Regiment has History, with Added Badger

highland dancing as practised by regimentsIf asked to name a Highland Regiment, many people would think of The Black Watch, though it’s by no means the oldest; that title belongs to The Royal Scots.  But Sophie’s recent post about the reel of the 51st (Highland) Division reminded me of two other famous regiments that we have come to know by the amalgamated title of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

There were originally two separate regiments: the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment, raised in 1794 by the Duke of Argyll; and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment raised by the Countess of Sutherland in 1799.

Raised? What did that entail? How much choice did recruits have? Continue reading

Stirling Castle & Mary Queen of Scots’ Dad!

Stirling Castle, sitting on extinct volcano

Apologies for the tongue-in-cheek title to this post. I’m guessing that if I had headed it “Stirling Castle and James V”, quite a few of our readers would have said, “Who he?”

Stirling's statue of James V as Old Testament prophetHe is James V, King of Scots. Yes, he was the father of the rather better-known Mary, Queen of Scots.
James V and Stirling Castle had quite a relationship. (And did you know that the mound on which the castle sits is actually an extinct volcano?)

Portrait of James V of ScotlandBoth these images represent James V. In the statue, he has a long flowing beard, like an Old Testament prophet, ready to usher in a golden age for Scotland. In the portrait, he has his normal neat beard and gorgeous clothes.
He didn’t make it to prophet status. James died when he was just 30, leaving one legitimate child (Mary), who was only 6 days old. James also left at least 9 illegitimate children, so he was definitely neither saint nor prophet 😉 Continue reading

Forth Bridge #3 — the Queensferry Crossing

Forth bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

Forth Bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

A few days ago, on 4th September 2017 to be exact, the Queen opened the #3 crossing of the River Forth, at Queensferry. The date was chosen, I assume, because it was 53 years to the day since she had opened the #2 crossing, the original Forth Road Bridge, back in 1964 (shown below with the Queensferry Crossing beyond).

Forth Bridge #2 the Forth Road bridge

The Queen did not, of course, open the original Forth Bridge; that was done by her great-grandfather, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1890. Continue reading