,With much fanfare, Baz Luhrmann’s long-awaited, lavish film adaptation of The Great Gatsby is set to open the Cannes Film Festival, and will be released in the UK on 16 May. But to those who’ve seen and love director Jack Clayton’s Academy Award-winning, 1974 adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel – an ambivalent portrait of a glittering but gaudy Jazz Age America – the new, 3D movie will have a lot to live up to. For many of us, those iconic images of Robert Redford as the heart-stoppingly handsome, pastel-suited parvenu Jay Gatsby and an ethereal, fragile Mia Farrow as his sweetheart Daisy Buchanan are indelible.
In our book, 70s Style & Design, we devote a chapter called Belle Epoque to the 1970s obsession with Art Nouveau and, particularly, Art Deco – both of which pervaded fashion, interiors, graphics, films, TV and pop music. It was epitomised by Barbara Hulanicki’s Art Deco emporium Big Biba and embodied by singer Noosha Fox – she of the 1976 hit S-s-s-ingle Bed – who bobbed her hair and donned 20s attire after stumbling across a wardrobe filled with flapper frocks. Even Abba dipped their toes in it: remember Agnetha and Frida in slinky flapper dressers and sequined headbands singing Money, Money, Money, a song that nodded to Money Makes the World go Round from that 70s-meets-30s classic Cabaret?
We mention in our book that The Great Gatsby, whose ragtime gladrags were designed by Ralph Lauren (Barbara Hulanicki was asked first but was too busy) and Theoni Aldredge, had a huge influence on early 70s fashion. Aldredge’s designs were adapted for a clothing line sold by Bloomingdales in Manhattan. And, as part of our research, we interviewed influential 70s designer and Kensington Market stallholder Lloyd Johnson, who told us, ‘We did four-piece suits and caps like the ones Robert Redford wore, which were teamed with two-tone platforms’. We also featured the Penguin paperback cover of F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel with its vanilla ice cream-coloured cover, iconic still of Farrow and Redford and a neo-Art Deco typeface. Delish!
Now Gatsby-mania is truly upon us. Leaving aside Luhrmann’s movie, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy, there’s been the rip-roaringly successful New York production of Gatz – an eight-hour enactment of the book –which will be staged at London’s Noël Coward Theatre this summer. A dance adaptation by Northern Ballet will open soon at Sadler’s Wells. And writer Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby (Virago), about the novel’s genesis, is about to be published.
The famously Art Deco Claridge’s recently hosted ‘Charleston masterclasses’, while magazines and high street stores have been touting flapper chic since last year. Miuccia Prada designed 40 costumes for Luhrmann’s $100m-plus movie, which even saw vintage 20s cars imported from the US to Sydney, where the movie was shot. Luhrmann and his wife and collaborator Catherine Martin have also co-designed a collection of Jazz Age-inspired jewellery in diamonds and platinum for Tiffany. We don’t have pictures of these, but here’s a shot of their 70s equivalent…
Our book suggests some theories about why Jazz Age razzmatazz appealed so much in the 70s. A craze for Art Nouveau in the 60s had paved the way for this, with a renewed interest in the risqué work of Aubrey Beardsley in particular chiming with the increasingly permissive climate of the times. For many people, the ensuing Art Deco revival and the 20s represented a sybaritic spirit typified by The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald set his novel in 1922 – just after the ‘general decision to be amused that began with the cocktail parties of 1921,’ he wrote – in order to tell of a ‘whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure’. Viewed in a broader historical context, after the trauma of the World War I, it’s not surprising that people partied as hard as they did in the 20s.
To an extent, the 70s obsession with the 20s was a revisionist revival that glossed over such realities as the General Strike of 1926 and the 1929 Wall Street Crash. Like Abba’s rendition of Money, Money, Money – and the focus in Gatsby on the super-rich – the 20s were mainly associated with affluence and opulence.
That said, perhaps some people in the 70s related to the 20s because of its more progressive aspects. In the UK, in 1928 women, who’d become increasingly emancipated since the start of the 20th century, won the right to vote like men. In fact, arguably rebellious, independent-minded women in the 20s prefigured the women’s liberationists of the 60s in their determination to reinvent the way they lived. It’s a subject explored in a new book, Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation by dance critic Judith Mackrell, published this month, which focuses on six pioneering women: Zelda Fitzgerald (who was married to F Scott Fitzgerald), Diana Cooper, Nancy Cunard, Tallulah Bankhead, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka.
And, according to Churchwell, the 20s saw greater social mobility: ‘Speakeasies were breaking down social barriers by creating spaces where the upper crust rubbed shoulders with the lower orders’. And, of course, Gatsby was nouveau riche with aristocratic pretensions. For our book, we interviewed East End-born photographer Justin de Villeneuve who told us that, in the 70s, affecting an aristocratic-sounding pseudonym and wearing suits by Savile Row tailor Tommy Nutter allowed him to hobnob seamlessly with the upper-middle classes.
For an older generation, all this divinely decadent Deco-mania offered escapism from the privations of rationing in the early 50s. Recalling his 50s childhood, Bevis Hillier, author of several books on Art Deco which did much to fuel the revival, told us, ‘The chocolate-vending machines in the Underground stations didn’t have chocolate bars. For me, the Deco revival represented bubbles, fizz and frivolity.’
And for a younger generation, the 20s offered pure escapism from the recession-hit 70s. Others, like French illustrator Philippe Morillon, feel that the Deco revival was spurred on by apolitical escapism: ‘In France, many of us were tired of the political activism of the 60s and of May 1968.’ He and his friends found parallels between the decadent vibe of the 20s and a growing gay liberation movement and an increasingly relaxed attitude to drugs: ‘We were smoking joints and some of us were openly gay’.
In the early 70s, the same went for the mainly gay, LSD-taking, San Francisco-based hippie drag troupe the Cockettes. They interpreted the 20s in terms of an old Hollywood, Busby Berkeley-esque full-blown glamour and fuelled the new, early 70s craze for vintage clothing, swishing about in drop-waisted dresses and 20s showgirl-style, ostrich-feather headdresses. Incidentally, Ken Russell in the UK paid homage to Berkeley in his 1971 campfest of a movie, The Boy Friend. This starred Twiggy who, in real life, adored Greta Garbo and sported Biba and vintage 20s togs.
Today, the reasons for Gatsby-mania are different, more positive if journalist Heather Long, writing recently in the Guardian, is to be believed: ‘After a horrendous few years for people’s wallets, luxury is unabashedly back, and this latest film adaptation is like an invitation to celebrate it.’ The feature’s intro even reads: ‘Luhrmann’s over-the-top take on Gatsby suggests we’ve recovered from the recession and are ready to worship wealth again’. The wealth-worshipping idea is surely an exaggeration but it does seem the worst of the recession is over, and, if so, perhaps the extravagant aesthetic of Luhrmann’s film reflects a desire to speed along the economic recovery.
We know we’re biased, but we can’t help but wonder which will be the greater Gatsby – Luhrmann’s or Clayton’s? In terms of style, it’s interesting that Mulligan’s look – she sports a very stiff, apparently lacquered geometric bob, sometimes with a headscarf forming a thick band – is really a 60s take on the 20s, as were Julie Andrews’s get-ups in the 60s movie Thoroughly Modern Millie. Farrow’s gently curling shingle hairdo and plucked, pencilled eyebrows looked more authentically 20s. But perhaps this was easier to achieve since 20s-inspired hair and make-up were in fashion then anyway.
If promotional stills are anything to go by, Mulligan also looks very baby-faced, a vacant-looking ingénue. And the caption that accompanies the poster of her uses a quote from the book (from Daisy about her young daughter): ‘That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’. Fitzgerald’s Daisy was being sarcastic, but how Mulligan plays her remains to be seen. Whatever, Mulligan as Daisy lacks the fascinatingly sophisticated air that Farrow exuded.
There again, Luhrmann’s aim, it seems, is to put his own stamp on Fitzgerald’s fated fable. It’s clear he wants to reach out to a younger generation with a soundtrack featuring Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Will.i.am, and perhaps he reasons they will immediately associate 20s high life with blingy R&B.
We can only hope he hasn’t airbrushed out the all-important sound of the Charleston!