The French Riviera
A century ago, the French Riviera had become the most stylish winter holiday spot for European royalty and aristocrats, particularly the British, who journeyed to Menton, Nice and Cannes for the gentle climate. These high society visitors soon created their own well-mannered enclave. They sipped tea in the exotic gardens of Belle Epoque villas, surrounded by blossoming almond and mimosa trees. They introduced cricket, croquet, lawn tennis and golf to the Côte d’Azur, and organized charming thés dansants where only English was spoken. Come April, they packed up and went home, before the hot weather arrived.
Though a convergence of circumstances arguably sparked the decade or so of hedonism and decadence that descended upon the hilly coastline at this time (including post-war modernity and a sense of frivolity, a weak franc to the dollar, Prohibition, and the subsequent influx of Americans), it is Gerald and Sara Murphy, a couple from America with inherited wealth, who are most famously credited with securing the French Riviera’s status as a fashionable summer destination. With them came jazz, lounging, dancing and sunbathing, and a style that lent itself perfectly to these activities.
Having spent a winter break on the Côte d’Azur, they were so enamoured of the area that they persuaded the old, traditional Hotel du Cap, which sits on a 25-acre pine forest bordering the sea in Cap d’Antibes, to keep a floor open for them during the summer so they could entertain and enjoy the good life. “It was a hot summer,” wrote Gerald Murphy, “but the air was dry, and it was cool in the evening, and the water was that wonderful jade-and-amethyst color. We bathed there and sat in the sun, and we decided that this was where we wanted to be.”.
Shortly afterwards, the Murphys bought and carefully redesigned a nearby villa overlooking the sea, fittingly christened it “Villa America”, and proceeded to draw much of their illustrious coterie south. Others joined and the area was soon teeming with summering socialites, musicians, artists and writers.
Villa America was shockingly unique for the time – no stuffy Rococo salons here – there were black floors and zebra rugs and large mirrors, and previously unseen innovations such as screen doors and stainless steel bathroom fixtures were installed. There was a garden terrace with grey and white tiles for cocktails and dancing (Gerald, a jazz aficionado, had an immense record collection containing original jazz/blues/ragtime pieces which he shared with his friends), and perhaps most startling in design for the times, a flat roof that served as a sun deck.
To the shock of the locals, the Murphys and their guests would swim, sunbathe and have lavish sherry-saturated picnics in the sand. Even Picasso relaxed in his bathing trunks and a black homburg.
But otherwise, what were they wearing?
Firstly, a tan. Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel is largely credited with making the tan fashionable, but she brought it back to Paris after a summer holiday in the South of France. The Murphys were already there. Indeed, Chanel, a close friend of Picasso’s, was a part of their extended circle and was also said to have been inspired by Gerald’s adopted summer uniform of striped sailors’ jerseys, loose cotton shorts and trousers, knit caps and espadrilles. Gerald, who loved a costume, was known to approach dressing like an artist and had such a passion for the look that he would hand out striped tops to party guests.
As a self-professed consummate dandy, Gerald had a more distinctive wardrobe than his male contemporaries did at the time (he hated, for example, carrying anything in his pockets, and was often seen transporting his possessions around in pieces of colourful fabric). Others tended towards a less stylized look - a short tuxedo (perhaps with the relatively new “cummerbund” for warmer weather) or dinner jacket for the evening and simple loose fitting shirts and short linen trousers for the casual day. On the beach, Gerald rarely strayed from his favoured theme – photographs show him usually in stripes (even striped bathing trunks), always with a cap or headscarf. Friends wore simple bathing trunks or belted tank suits with undershorts. Lightweight brimmed hats and driving caps were common.
Sara Murphy, of whom Picasso, Fitzgerald and Hemingway were all enamoured, is famously known for wearing a rope of pearls down her back at the beach. Fitzgerald quite blatantly modelled Nicole Diver’s character in Tender Is the Night after Sara, describing her “bathing suit pulled off her shoulders, and her back, a ruddy, orange brown, set off by a string of creamy pearls” which “shone in the sun”. When sunning her pearls, Sara also favoured wide scarves tied around her head, and loose short-sleeved blouses and dresses – a romantic, yet casual look that was emblematic of the more liberated 1920s woman. Elegant simplicity was inherent in the Murphys and those around them. Sara and Gerald were wealthy, but they played stylishly with bohemia.
Swimwear consisted of tight wool tank suits with built-in undershorts, and Sara tended to accessorise with a large embroidered or fringed shawl at the beach. During the day, the women would often wear hats that fit close to the head, such as the cloche, or a brimmed sun hat – but not always: tanning the face was acceptable and shorter hairdos kept their necks cool.
And on warm summer nights, with the fragrant air smelling of “eucalyptus, tomatoes and heliotrope” (as Dos Passos wrote), the men threw on their dinner jackets and the women would don long, drapey dresses. Few photos exist of the Murphys and friends after sunset, but enough can be gleaned from relevant writings and history to manage a fairly accurate image. Wealthier guests, including the hostess, would likely be wearing silk dresses from Paris (Lanvin, Vionnet, Poiret, etc.), many with beading or fringing.
The waist was dropped or undefined and the fit loose to allow for easy dancing (particularly after a few of Gerald’s painstakingly created yet potent cocktails). A sleeveless or backless design, slightly seductive, would be comfortable for balmier evenings. Also: a simple scarf, band or barrette in the hair; a fabric corsage at the shoulder or hip; a string or two of pearls. Dancing to jazz at the local casinos may have called for shorter styles, but never above the knee – the clichéd flapper dress look (as we now think of it) would have been considered too faddish.
Given the lifestyle and more importantly, the company they kept, it is no wonder that the couple served as iconic fodder for many great works of literature and art – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Tales of a Jazz Age, Philip Barry’s Holiday, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises, Dos Passos’ The Big Money, Picasso’s The Pipes of Pan and The Woman in White, and Léger’s Man With a Hat, among others. Their real story is tinged with tragedy (the couple later suffered through the illness and subsequent death of two of their three children), but it is a necessary history. It was the story of an era. There was optimism, painting, writing, singing, dancing, cocktails and money – and the sun was shining. For a while at least, life was good.