Such is the case with Wallis Simpson, the twice divorced American socialite whose marriage to Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor, involved his abdication from the throne in 1936.
Ostracised by the British monarchy, Simpson’s public persona (and pro-Nazi political views) polarised a nation, but in matters sartorial her legacy was undisputed. A free spirited lover of haute couture and fine jewellery, the Pennsylvanian native’s outré fashion statements were more weaponry than frippery; a manicured two fingers up to the strictures of royal etiquette.
With the cinematic release of W.E., a romantic drama from Madonna based around the relationship between Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward, much noise has been made of the late duchess’s opulent wardrobe — an equally infamous entity boasting names from Vionnet to Cartier.
Much like Kate Middleton, her fashion choices were presented and dissected on the world stage. That’s where the similarity ends. Unlike the Duchess of Cambridge, whose conservative high street choices have co-opted her into the hearts of the public, Simpson chose to push boundaries in a society where one simply doesn’t push.
Part of her mystique was her calculated refusal to play by the rules. Her clothes spoke volumes about her refusal to capitulate to the traditional values of the monarchy. When Chanel’s boyish sportswear made the 1920s roar, Simpson opted for the waist-whittling corsetry of couture house Mainbocher. Likewise, the revolutionary aesthetic of Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ reflected and complemented this rebel status. Her personal presentation — a raven mid-parted hairline coupled with alabaster skin, red lips and lean frame — was equally uncompromising.
Known for her nimble wit (and coining the phrase, “You can never be too rich or too thin”), Simpson presented herself as a sartorial satire. Who could forget the Elsa Schiaparelli gown captured for Vogue by photographer Cecil Beaton just before her marriage to Edward in May 1937? The lobster print designed by artist Salvador Dali was unusual in itself (a precursor to Lady Gaga’s lobster hat made by Philip Treacy) — let alone the fact that the surrealist reputedly used crustaceans to represent unbridled sexuality.
Her wedding dress, in contrast, a sapphire floor length silk crepe Mainbocher gown, known as ‘Wallis blue’ — was made to match the colour of her eyes and spawned its own department store copycats for $250.
It is also rumoured that she was blazed the pre-Kylie trail for sequinned hot pants; and wore a Paco Rabanne spacesuit to the funeral of Edward in 1972 — undoubtedly to highlight her increasingly distant position from the monarchy.
It was the duchess’s staggering collection of fine jewellery though that truly established her in fashion’s rank and file. The 214-piece collection represented neither a statement of protest nor of showmanship; but rather one of history’s most controversial love stories.
The jewels, commissioned from Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier, were bequeathed unsparingly by her husband to mark milestones in their 20-year marriage.
Such is the volume that more than 300 lots have gone under the hammer at Sotheby’s auction house twice. The first sold in Geneva in 1987, one year after her death, totalling £31 million (€37m) — a world record for a single-owner jewellery collection. In November 2010, a further 20 avant-garde pieces, commissioned for the duchess by Jeanne Toussiant, Cartier’s high jewellery director, raised just under £8m (€9.5m).
Highlights from the auction included several of Simpson’s prized treasures: an onyx and diamond panther bracelet, flamingo brooch made from rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrines and diamonds; and a Cartier gold and diamond ‘necessaire du soir’ engraved “Wallis from Edward 1947”.
A heart-shaped brooch, commissioned by the duke to mark their 20th wedding anniversary in 1957, bore their initials W.E. in emeralds. Similarly, a bracelet bearing nine jewelled crosses to symbolise special moments in their relationship between 1934 and ’44 was one of her favourites.
It’s this love, represented by its glimmering tokens that remains central to the fascination surrounding her, not least a love that would warrant familial estrangement, political scandal and, ultimately, exile.
The couple played out the remainder of their days together in the Bahamas and France, fatefully as W.E., with Simpson dying alone in April 1986, aged 89.
Twenty-six years later, and Simpson’s legacy lingers still, whether in the ladylike silhouettes favoured by Dior and Prada, or the daring trousseau of fellow fashion royal, Lady Gaga. Roland Mouret, whose autumn/winter 2011 collection featured a gold maxi dress inspired by Simpson, summed it up best. “Love or hate her, the world is still obsessed by that woman.” It appears that, a quarter of a century on, Simpson will always remain ‘that woman’. Divisiveness — isn’t that what fashion is all about?
* W.E. is on general release
Ladylike glam is still fashion’s biggest headline. Channel Simpson’s wardrobe with our 1930s-inspired edit
Moschino Cheap and Chic bouclé & cotton embellished jacket, My-wardrobe.com was €716.40; now €429.60.
MoMuse cream pearl and gold chain bead necklace, Style-tonic.com €120.
Peplum skirt, Warehouse €60.
NW3 Wentworth courts, Hobbs €150.
Raoul Candice shoulder bag, Brown Thomas €365.
Asos matt finish keyhole sunglasses, Asos.com €20.96.
Daisy print midi dress, Warehouse €63.
1950s Classic dark nude gloves, Hayworth Vintage €16.
Red Valentino two-tone patent-leather pumps, Net-a-Porter.com €290.
Asos — online at www.asos.com; Brown Thomas — Patrick Street, Cork, 021-4805555; and other branches; Hayworth Vintage — online at www.hayworthvintage.com; Hobbs — Dundrum Town Centre 01-2079619; and online at www.hobbs.co.uk; My-Wardrobe — online at www.my-wardrobe.com; Net-a-Porter — online at www.net-a-porter.com; Next — Opera Lane 021-4204000, www.next.co.uk and other branches; Style Tonic — online at www.style-tonic.com; Warehouse — Patrick Street, Cork, 021-4278215, www.warehouse.co.uk and other branches.