Spotlight on: Cecil Beaton

Curtis Moffat, 'Cecil Beaton', about 1925. Museum no. E.1556-2007 Copyright Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

Fashion week generally has the sights of the academic and commercial fashion worlds set firmly on the zeitgeist.  From New York to London to Paris to Milan and further afield, fashion images and information are transmitted at lightning pace. I find myself up late at night flicking through images on, reading reviews and clicking “like” to my favourites in an espresso fueled frenzy, only to feel slightly ashamed at the indulgence. I go a bit mad wondering how all this information may be archived, and which designs and designers will have a lasting impact on fashion’s history and development.

Cecil Beaton, 'Evening Dresses', 1936. Museum no. Ph.193-1977 Copyright Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

And just when looking ahead and imagining the future of fashion seems agonising, the fashion historian in me looks back rather nostalgically to great figures of the fashion past. A quick catalog of recent and upcoming events shows that I am clearly not alone in my current obsession with Cecil Beaton.

We may know of Beaton as a photographer, stage designer, film costume designer, diarist, celebrity, Englishman, “bright young thing,” or dandy. We associate him with iconic designs, personalities and 20th century events. Usually I have looked at Beaton from different angles individually. But currently, thanks to some quality time spent reading his diaries, as well as assisting Amy de la Haye and Judith Clark with design research into his work as a curator of a landmark exhibition at the V&A in 1971 I have been revelling in a more complete and total picture of an extraordinary figure, who deserves every bit of the attention being showered on him by museums, reseachers and new publications.

Installation view of Cecil Beaton: The New York Years at the Museum of the City of New York

Currently the Museum of the City of New York is presenting  Cecil Beaton the New York Years, which I was fortunate enough to catch while I was in NYC over the winter holidays. The exhibit is concise, stylish and informative with a well-curated selection of photographs, drawings and costumes from Beaton’s work at Vogue magazine as well as his stage designs and social activities while living in New York City at intervals of his long career.

Currently, and as recently mentioned in a Fashion Byte by Brenna, the V&A is holding an exhibition showcasing Beaton’s work as a Royal Photographer as part of Diamond Jubilee celebrations at cultural institutions in the UK.

This weekend as part of their monthly Friday Late program, the V&A are hosting an after hours event entitled Bright Young Things inspired by Beaton and his milieu. Events inlcude talks, musical and theatrical performances, interactive activities, film screenings and of course excellent people watching because dressing up is always encouraged! The Friday Lates are always a great place to spy some fashion personalities and to admire the creative dressing of up of London’s denizens.

The "Bright Young People" as photographed by Cecil Beaton in 1926

I’ll be particularly looking forward to hearing the talk on Beaton as curator being delivered by Amy de la Haye, which presents research I have helped to generate in the form of 3d modelmaking.

I am also extremely keen to check out the Beaton-esque fashion illustration workshop and the BFI’s curated selection of 1920s dance films.

What to wear will surely be occupying my thoughts in the coming days, but thankfully I have Rebecca’s recent post to refer to for tips and advice on curators’ dress!

If you can’t attend any of the Beaton events happening in London, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to soak up some of the glamour. Both vintage and new publications dedicated to his life, work and legacy are readily available. Here’s a few to add to your wishlist:

Cecil Beaton The New York Years (MCNY Exhibition Catalog) by Donald Albrecht

Self Portrait with Friends: Selected Diaries 1926-74, edited by Richard Buckle

Note: There are numerous versions in and out of print of Beaton’s diaries. I have this older edition, and it has some great illustrations in black and white and the edits are well-selected.

Cecil Beaton’s Fair Lady, illustrated vintage film souvenir book

A must-have for the fashion and film costume enthusiast!


Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook edited by James Danziger

This one is a real splurge but worth its weight in glamour….

Beaton in Vogue by Josephine Ross

This one is hot off the presses and features Beaton’s writings and journalistic as well as fashion photography.

As I get ready to spend another session reading Beaton’s biography, I reflect on the notes I have jotted down on his writings thus far. If I was asked to describe what it is about Beaton I find most attractive, most inspiring, I offer this quote from his writing in December of 1945:

How can one curb the day’s activity and say “no” when interesting, unexpected, additional jobs suddenly fall within one’s reach?


Related Articles


  • Roger February 22, 2012 02.12 pm

    Such a great review but sadly no mention of his fabric designs, particularly when the Museum of NY has used our wallpapers so extensively! These are a great way to enjoy a bit of special Beaton artwork on your walls at home!

  • jenna February 22, 2012 06.14 pm

    Thanks for the mention Roger. The wallpapers were a lovely element of the exhibition design, and indeed would add the Beaton touch to any interior.

  • Worn Through » London Fashion Umbrella: Cecil Beaton Theatre of War
    October 24, 2012 - 6:41 am

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.