My recent visit to New York inspired me to revisit Edith Wharton’s 1921 Pulitzer Prize winning novel; The Age of Innocence. I first read this story of New York society too many years ago to admit to, and it’s commentary on the vagaries of upper class New York passed me by. It seemed to me, at the time, to be a superficial story of unrequited romance in a classic love triangle of frivolous emotion. My, how outlooks change as we get older!
The subtleties of a fragile new society in the recently established social whirl of 1870’s New York have a certain resonance now, and I find myself comparing todays larger American society with that of Newland Archer and May Welland. Fashion, as always, plays a part in forming opinion across society. Judgements are made based on modes of dress and etiquette, today, just as they were in the 19th century. Jenny Bevan was recently judged and found wanting by some of Hollywood’s elite, for her choice of outfit at the the Oscars ceremony. Rather than conforming to accepted ‘glamorous’ dress code for the ceremony, Ms Bevan chose to homage the Mad Max film for which she so brilliantly designed the costumes. As she said to Hollywood Reporter: ” I really would look ridiculous in a gown. What I was actually wearing at the Oscars was sort of an homage to Mad Max — a kind of biker outfit.”Jenny Bevan as part of Marie Claire’s best moments of the 2016 oscars
In Edith Wharton’s New York, the Countess Olenska , on her return to America, is haunted by her infamous appearance at her coming-out ball in black satin, rather than the customary pale colours of innocence. Her return to New York is overshadowed by the scandal of her having left her husband in Europe, ostensibly in search of a divorce; something unheard of in polite New York society. This scandal accompanies her and is emphasised in Wharton’s writing by referencing the bohemian streak to her lifestyle, and commentary on her choice of dress; a shocking ’empire line’ navy dress, worn to the Opera. Her choice of home is also under judgement by the society ladies of New York.
As one gentleman says:” I should really like to take Louisa to see her, if the neighbourhood were not so unpleasant.” Newland is dangerously enchanted by the personal touch of the decor in what Countess Olenska calls her “funny house.” What he saw meanwhile, with the help of the lamp, was the faded shadowy charm of a room unlike any he had ever known…… the vague pervading perfume that was not what one put on handkerchiefs, but rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses.” This bohemian, artistic tendency is Archer’s downfall, and he is drawn into a complicated tug of emotions between accepted genteel etiquette personified by his sweet fiancé, May Welland to whom he sends a daily box of lilies-of-the-valley, and the untouchable temptations of Countess Olenska, to whom he sends yellow roses; ” He had never seen any as sun-golden before, and his first impulse was to send them to May instead of the lilies. But they did not look like her – there was something too rich, too strong in their fiery beauty”.
I leave it to you to discover the outcome to this story, but as you do so, do enjoy the word pictures painted by Edith Wharton of the restrained opulence of Upper class society and the richness of the’alternative’ lifestyle of Madame Olenska. personally I can just see her wearing this wonderful embroidered coat that I saw yesterday in the V&A museum!