YOU WILL POSITIVELY SWOON
And then you will fight your way through the crowds of reverent gown-gogglers. From sweet-faced English teen girls to dignified great-grandmas, we ladies are bewitched by “Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950,” the current runaway hit at London’s Victoria & Albert museum. From demure white creations for English debutantes at Queen Charlotte’s Ball to racier red pieces designed for the red carpet, more than 60 dresses from across the past six decades are featured in all their sexy, glamorous glory.
“Ah, Audrey Hepburn,” sighs one octogenarian in classic Givenchy, to her ginger-haired grand-daughter in a school uniform. “She looked lovely in that dress. Do you remember?”
“Yes, mum,” the teenager responds absently. She doesn’t, actually remember the actress still dubbed “The Most Beautiful British Woman of all Time,” but the sheer drop-dead gorgeousness of the dresses they are inspecting together has taken the wind of adolescent cynicism out of her sails.
Nearby, earnest design students sketch furiously, drawing pads resting on one skinny hip. Their studiously hipsterish garb notwithstanding, these students of fashion know they are in the presence of Great Genius.
Everyone is entranced by the black-and-white fashion films from the early 1960s projected on the museum’s great white wall. We watch as a matronly young Queen Elizabeth and her jet-setting sister Princess Margaret admire a parade of fashion models pirouetting gracefully in the Earl of Somebody’s stately home.
“If you want your daughter or grand-daughter to be civilized, I say, you’ve got to give them a good reason to respect the fine arts,” a Tory dowager stage whispers to her friend, who nods sagely. The place is teeming with young ladies, all delighted with the new Fashion Galleries, and the atmosphere of preparing for a ball in a grand country house.
That Fabulous Fifties Look
RAVISHING: There’s simply no other word for it. Debutantes on their way to be presented to the Queen (above).
The ingénue Audrey Hepburn in a black-and-white fantasy (above).
LADIES OF THE NIGHT: Balanchine’s immortal designs (above)
and a velvet-and-silk taffeta cocktail version, in midnight black (above).
Princess Diana’s Lovely ‘Elvis Gown’
We are bewitched, entranced and delighted by Beauty. Indeed there is something mysterious, uncontrollable and other-worldly about it. That is why Beauty has long been considered an attribute of the Divine.
But it is the sheer beauty of the dresses that makes them sigh with desire. So, what is it that draws us to the Beautiful? Men love beautiful women. Women love beautiful things. We are bewitched, entranced and delighted by beauty –indeed there is something mysterious, uncontrollable and other-worldly about it. And no matter how ugly the world we live in becomes, somehow no power on Earth can quite stamp out our response to Beauty.
Of course, Beauty has long been seen as an attribute of the Divine. For a Christian view of this phenomenon, see Saint Augustine, a 5th century libertine-turned-Doctor-of-the-Church who famously penned the lines, “Late Have I loved Thee, oh Beauty so ancient and so new!”
The Popes of the Counter-Reformation understood our profound attraction to beauty, and turned Rome’s 450-odd churches into a symphony of the Baroque, extolling the beauty of the Faith. Today, millions of tourists crowd the Eternal City, gawking at these world-famous masterpieces by Michelangelo, Bramante and Da Vinci. Untaught, most sense the profound emotion of Man reaching towards the Eternal.
But not all Christians have been so sanguine about Beauty. America’s stern Puritan ancestors were in fact part of long line of Christian iconoclasts who saw the Devil’s work in man-made Beauty.
America’s Puritans were originally English, of course. Most hailed from the flat grazing fields of East Anglia, where they fomented a battle with the Crown that they eventually lost quite badly – but not before Cromwell’s soldiers had rampaged through England, smashing the medieval beauties of stained glass and sculpture that the Anglican Church had inherited from the Catholic culture it had unseated.
In contrast, the Catholic cultures of southern Europe have always viewed earthly beauty as a reflection – albeit a poor one – of the Divine Beauty. Similarly, the urge in us to create beauty is a reflection of our Creator’s infinitely greater passion for it. Both are an intrinsic part of men and women, being as we are “made in the image” of our Creator.
Our urge to create beauty is a reflection of our Creator’s infinitely greater passion for it.
Hence the issue of feminine modesty – and why Christendom as a culture has always sought to protect a woman’s beauty from being abused. This is NOT because Catholics are a bunch of prudes who hate sex.
The late Pope John Paul II drew on that great body of thought – part of the treasure house of the Church – when he wrote extensively on the “nuptial meaning of the body.” Essentially he says that we are made for nuptial love, by our Creator, who loves us. The very fact that we are “fearsomely” made is another sign of God’s love for us. Our beauty – our comeliness, if you will – is a deliberate act of God because he wants us to discover love through self-giving in marriage.
Therefore, our beauty –and the sexual desire it engenders — is not to be taken lightly, or for granted. Both Mark and Matthew recount the story of what Jesus said regarding divorce: “And the Pharisees coming to him asked him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife? tempting Him. 3 But He answering, saith to them: What did Moses command you? 4 Who said: Moses permitted to write a bill of divorce, and to put her away. 5 To whom Jesus answering, said: Because of the hardness of your heart He wrote you that precept. 6 But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. 7 For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother; and shall cleave to his wife. 8 And they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh.9 What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Serious business, right?
Hence the issue of feminine modesty – and why Christendom as a culture has always sought to protect a woman’s beauty from being abused. This is NOT because Catholics are a bunch of prudes that hate sex. It’s because the Church has always respected the great power of sexuality, and has ever been both the cradle and the school of true Beauty.