Friday, September 23, 2011


Guest Post by Victoria Loomes

Nancy Cunard

At the Gucci show yesterday, Frida Giannini’s show notes - which cited her inspirations in detail - made for some interesting reading. Her Roaring Twenties homage was, she wrote, an attempt to “explore an optical side of femininity by creating a sculptural glamour for the Gucci woman”. But jarring against the easy jazz age familiarity of Louise Brooks and Man Ray, one name stood out ­– Nancy Cunard. The surname comes with connotations of luxury cruises…but Nancy? Who’s she?

Gucci SS12

Of course she was rich. Her father was Bache Cunard, the heir to the Cunard shipping business. Of course she was beautiful. During her youth, her beauty captivated writers and artists. In Anne Chisholm’s extensive biography, David Garnett recalled her “skin, as white as bleached almonds, the bluest eyes one has ever seen, and very fair hair. She was marvellous.” Later in life, Nancy became obsessed with primitive art, and wore African ivory bracelets stacked up each slender arm from wrist to elbow. Anthony Hobson recounted how “conversation was punctuated by their rhythmic clashing.”
Nancy, a woman who liked a bangle, and a finger wave

Michael Arlen based Iris March, a character in his best-selling novel The Green Hat (1924), on Nancy. Aldous Huxley, in the throes of unrequited passion sealed Cunard’s fate as ‘muse’ in Antic Hay, in which Myra Viveash owes more than a passing resemblance to Cunard. But it was in Paris that Nancy found her calling, becoming increasingly involved with provocative and fashionable artists. Her influence among the Dadaists led founder Tristan Tzara to write and dedicate Mouchoir de Nuages to her, sculptor Brancusi immortalised Nancy in Jeune Fille Sophistiquee. It was the Surrealists however, who truly captured Nancy’s attention, notably co-founder Louis Aragon, who was to remain a close friend for much of her life.

Nancy posing against a very this season polka dot screen

Yet Nancy was much more than a muse. A published poet, founder of the Hour Press, publisher of avant-garde and experimental literature, she was a passionate journalist, and a fearless traveller, but her greatest, and most controversial, achievement was Negro. Published in February 1934, this hefty tome (almost four years in the making) recorded ‘the struggles and achievements, the persecutions and the revolts against…the Negro peoples’ as she herself wrote in the foreword. In a limited run of 1,000 copies, Negro included around 250 contributions from over 150 writers, and was born out her relationship with Henry Crowder, an African-American jazz pianist who hailed from Georgia – a relationship that almost caused her mother to disown her.

Gucci SS12

Recently, shades of the uncompromising personality that Nancy personifies have crept onto the catwalk – these strong women coloured their lives with a splash of assured glamour, a little decadence and an unwavering self-belief.

It started at (where else?) Prada, last year. Spring Summer 2011 saw Miuccia send her models down the runway sporting the distinctive finger waves that Nancy favoured throughout her life. Styled by Guido Paulo, hair was teased into waves around the face, curved round the ear and moulded to the head, throwing the features of the models (themselves chosen by Miuccia for their striking distinctions) were thrown into sharp relief. 
Prada SS11

Fast-forward a season and Mary Katrantzou chanelled the strength and spirit of these women, albeit from a different source. Her striking interior prints were indebted to the stylish apartments of Cunard, Chanel, Vreeland, Paley et al – and their eclectic living spaces were simply an extension of their strong-willed personalities.

Nancy Cunard may be an unlikely fashion muse, but her particular blend of pioneering fearlessness is one that captivates contemporary designers. Her refusal to be defined by glamour and class may now seem inconsequential, her list of achievements overshadowed by an impressive roll call of lovers, yet a remarkable and enduring legacy remains.

Nancy died on March 17, 1965, aged 69, in a Paris hospital where she was being treated for mental illness and alcoholism after being found on the street, destitute, a few days earlier. She weighted 26 kilos. In her healthier, happier days would have recoiled from the epitaph of style icon, but there’s no denying that she is one, and it’s time she took her place among the greats.

Find more of Victoria Loome's writing at

Photographs of Nancy taken from Nancy Cunard: A Biography by Anne Chisholm

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