Design Essay: Autumn/Winter Muse, The Protagonist

Words by Leanne Cloudsdale

The tussle of blonde versus brunette was brought to my attention at an early age. Inside my auntie’s biscuit tin of old photographs, there’s a snapshot of four young women, sitting grouped together on a coach. Their perfectly coiffed beehives and the brightly coloured swirl upholstery date it to the mid 1960s. In a sea of peroxide root volume, sits Sandra, owner of the biscuit tin and my dad’s older sister. She’s radiant. With a wide smile, crystal blue eyes and chocolate brown hair. As a fellow non-blonde, this image resonated with me – so much so that I stole it (she never realised or asked for it back). 

What’s the big deal? At first glance it’s just four ‘Dolly Birds’ on a day trip. Pencil skirts and pointy shoes, probably en route to the seaside for a whirl on the waltzers and a giggly stroll across the sand. Seeing her darkness in contrast to their brightness; it did make me wonder – did blondes really have more fun? When asked, her answer (with a grin) was always a firm, ‘no’. 

“Mention the word ‘blonde bombshell’ and Marilyn Monroe springs to mind. Etched into our collective psyche as the true blonde archetype, she’s a true 20th century icon.”

Reluctantly, we’ve all absorbed this ongoing narrative – across film, literature, music and fashion. The perceived differences between the tones. One sultry, the other playful. When there’s a sudden change from one shade to the other, it signals a change in style direction and a shift in attitude. Who hasn’t heard the phrase, ‘she’s gone blonde’. A verb, no less. 

In film especially, platinum and raven characteristics have been crystallised by female protagonists. Mention the word ‘blonde bombshell’ and Marilyn Monroe springs to mind. Etched into our collective psyche as the true blonde archetype, she’s a true 20th century icon. Probably one of the most referenced and imitated movie stars of all time, her ‘look’ endures – and like her, feels immortal. Bleached blonde locks. Comfortable in her soft, creamy skin. 

Left: The Brunette, Elizabeth Taylor, Right: The Blonde, Marilyn Monroe

She had body that ticked the sex appeal boxes with a mind that was bruised from abuse, neglect and lifelong insecurities. Marilyn was vulnerable and spent much of her (short) adult life in therapy. Publicly, she was a red-lipped siren. Pretty and powerful, she was adored by men and women alike. Privately, there was a growing sense of unhappiness, regardless of her success. With 3 broken marriages before the age of 30, Norma Jeane Mortenson was rarely out of the media spotlight. 

Artfully tousled, delicately poised, she always knew how to hold herself for the camera. For me, she looked best in The Misfits – absolute double denim dynamite. In my opinion, the tomboy stuff really suited her, more so than the satin and furs. As the original ‘material girl’, her off-duty wardrobe was surprisingly paired back. Chunky knits, Capri pants, headscarves and flats; a sharp contrast to her day-job’s glamour. Not a big fan of flashy jewellery (famously always giving precious pieces away) she preferred to accessorise with a cheek-lifting pair of cat-eye frames – a shape synonymous with Marilyn’s role as Pola Debevoise in the 1953 comedy How to Marry a Millionaire. Cutler & Gross pay homage to this face-defining frame with their new 9288. As you’d expect from them, it’s not a cookie-cutter vintage replica, but rather a modernised version of a classic shape. Cinematic and contemporary, the 9288 has this knack of making you look more alert, more awake – a bit like you’ve had a good, solid 8-hours sleep. Yes please. 

“[Marilyn] preferred to accessorise with a cheek-lifting pair of cat-eye frames – a shape synonymous with Marilyn’s role as Pola Debevoise in the 1953 comedy How to Marry a Millionaire. Cutler & Gross pay homage to this face-defining frame with their new 9288.”

The 9288 Optical in Striped Havana Brown

On the flipside to Marilyn, there was Elizabeth Taylor. The smouldering one with Bourneville locks and lavender eyes. Unforgettable in Cleopatra (which I recall seeing as a kid on the TV, open mouthed, in wonder, at the sight of her entrance into Rome). All that gold! The pomp! The splendour! The eyeliner! Not sure anyone could have played that part better. It’s worth watching that clip alone, especially the moment when she winks at Caesar. It’s almost Carry On Cleopatra. 

Unlike Monroe, Liz Taylor was a child star. Born in London to American parents, she was acting professionally from the age of 10. Lassie Come Home was her debut, closely followed by National Velvet in 1945, when she was just 12. Hers was a career marred by illness – she struggled throughout her life with various serious health conditions but continued to grace the golden screen, despite frequent stints in hospital. 

Once voted the most beautiful woman in the world, it’s her I think of when I look at auntie Sandra’s photo from the biscuit tin. The defiance of the brunette. That refusal to go to the light side. On screen Marilyn jiggled (her cobbler clipped half an inch from one of the heels of her Ferragamos to help accentuate this) but Elizabeth simply strode. Where Marilyn had marbles sewn to the inside of her bras to make her breasts look more prominent in her heyday, Elizabeth went big on the shoulder pads. Equal starlets, but very different in their approach. 

Striking, strong and facially symmetrical, Taylor had a brooding mystique. Monroe had the beauty spot and the crimson lips. Taylor’s eyes were the focal point – thanks to her violet irises and two rows of eyelashes (due to a genetic mutation of the FOXC2 gene). On the marriage front, Taylor’s longer life allowed for more husbands and there were 7 in total. Richard Burton even did a double stint.

Monroe’s sudden death meant she remained a mid-century enigma. We never got to see her style evolve like we did with the strong-willed badass Taylor (who always got the blockbuster roles). Through the decades Taylor maxes out with big hair, kaftans, perma-tanned skin and diamonds. In a game of Hollywood Top Trumps, it’ll always be Elizabeth for me.

Explore the full Autumn Winter 22 collection here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.