Partying in Style with Doris Langley Moore

1 June 2021

Eleanor Jones

On a midsummer’s evening in 1929, the Bright Young Things hosted ‘[o]ne of London’s most successful parties’.[1] For the uninvited, the illustrated weekly journal Sketch was on hand to document the occasion, labelled the Watteau Party, which took place aboard the Friend Ship docked at Charing Cross Pier. Inspired by the French artist Antoine Watteau’s 1717 painting Pilgrimage to Cythera, the themed evening was executed in a manner typical of the organisers who, by the late 1920s, were renowned for their extravagant style and behaviour. From costumed balls and treasure hunts to elaborately choreographed pranks, Bright Young parties were widely reported on by the contemporary British press. The extended network of aristocrats, artistic personalities, and queer bohemians were complicit in creating a public image defined by artifice and fantasy.

Page from the Sketch
Page from the Sketch reporting on an anonymous Watteau party in fact arranged by Heather Pilkington and Olivia Wyndham in July 1929. © Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans

Key members of this cultural milieu were photographed at the Watteau Party, including the actress Hermione Baddeley (1906–1986), the society portraitist and hostess Olivia Wyndham (1897–1967), and her girlfriend, the then-aspiring photographer Barbara Ker-Seymer (1905–1993). One pictured attendee, however, stands out as a figure not usually mentioned in histories of the Bright Young People: the author, scholar, and trailblazing fashion historian Doris Langley Moore (1902–1989).

Originally from Liverpool, Moore grew up in South Africa, where her father edited a newspaper and her mother worked in theatre. On returning to England as a young woman, Moore married a Yorkshire-based wool merchant in 1926 and enjoyed early success as a writer. It is in this capacity that modernist researchers may be familiar with Moore, whose long writing career traversed generic boundaries to include fiction, criticism, and biography. Her sophisticated debut, a translation of Greek poetry, was published the year of her marriage and followed two years later by a bestselling guidebook, The Technique of the Love Affair (1928), which was written, as she put it, ‘with at least the tip of my tongue in my cheek’.[2] Generally, though, she is best remembered today as the founder of the Museum of Costume in Bath, now the Fashion Museum. The institution houses an outstanding collection of fashion plates, costume, textiles, and needlework amassed by Moore throughout her lifetime.

In an introduction to a new edition of one of her novels, Not at Home (1948), Moore’s friend, the art historian and curator Sir Roy Strong, notes that ‘if the material existed Doris would be a good example of the new emancipated woman who burst on the scene in the 1920s flaunting convention’.[3] Her appearance in the July 1929 issue of the Sketch confirms that links with her party-going, fancy-dress wearing contemporaries need not be speculative. In fact, the group photograph of Moore with Wyndham and Ker-Seymer suggests it was the ‘harder-core bohemians’ embedded within the Bright Young People with whom she was closely associated.[4]

Doris Langley Moore, 1929 (b/w photo)
Portrait of Doris Langley-Moore in 1929, by Olivia Wyndham. © Fashion Museum Bath / Bridgeman Images

Moore’s connections to this coterie can be traced in other artefacts from the period, such as a photograph of Moore taken by Wyndham in 1929. The image is textured with fabrics symbolic of modernity as the writer is captured against a perforated screen while wearing a headscarf and matching suit trimmed with shiny pleats, her hands poised provocatively on her hips.

This particular subset of the youth cult had met as students at the Chelsea School of Art and included the painter Edward Burra (1905–1976) and ballet dancer and designer William Chappell (1907–1994). The friends were united in their love of jazz, Hollywood stars, gossip, and clothes, and they remained constant figures of support and fun throughout the interwar years. As Ker-Seymer later recalled, ‘we spoke the same language, we liked the same artists, we liked the same books. We were cinema-mad and great ballet fans […] we were what you might call birds of a feather, and yet we all came from different nests’.[5]

Later the same year, Moore was featured in the Bystander in a different though no less striking guise, hosting a breakfast in Victorian dress in keeping with ‘the new vogue for things Victorian’.[6] It was around this time that Moore became invested in collecting historic dress as a serious endeavour, having first taken an interest in period clothing and fashion plates while visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum ‘on one of my rather lonely rambles round London’ in the early 1920s.[7] Indeed, while playing a game of charades at a Christmas party in 1928, Moore was invited to dress up and try on some of the hostess’s old clothes. As she remembered:

The frocks we wore in 1928 revealed, of course, no waistline corresponding to anatomy, and my hostess in those distant days of my youth was so surprised to see I could make the dress fit that she told me I might keep it […] Soon, instead of being content with what came to me by chance, I was going out of my way in search of specimens.[8]

It is fitting that Moore’s inspiration to pursue the collection and research of costume was sparked by a party game. Her fascination with clothes and her appreciation of dress history as a significant object of study were incubated in the interwar years. For Moore at least, the era’s perceived frivolities of festivity and fancy dress paved the way to lasting creative achievements and a rich cultural legacy; as she said in a television documentary on clothes for the BBC in 1957, ‘artifice of some kind is always à la mode’.[9]


Sources:

[1] ‘All Aboard the Friend Ship’, Sketch, 3 July 1929, p. 10.

[2] Doris Langley Moore, The Technique of the Love Affair (London: Cassell, 1928; repr. 1936), p. iii.

[3] Sir Roy Strong, ‘Introduction’, in Doris Langley Moore, Not at Home (Dean Street Press, 2020).

[4] D. J. Taylor, Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation, 1918–1940 (London: Vintage, 2008), p. 27.

[5] Barbara Ker-Seymer interview, quoted in Julie Kavanagh, Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton (London: Faber, 1996), p. 83.

[6] ‘If Gossip We Must’, Bystander, 6 November 1929, p. 288.

[7] Doris Langley Moore, ‘The Beginning of the Collection’, Costume, 4 (1970), 2–3 (p. 2).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Doris Langley Moore, quoted in Men, Women and Clothes: Fashions in Faces and Figures, prod. by Charles R. Rogers (British Broadcasting Corporation, 1957).

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