London Fashion Umbrella: Cecil Beaton Theatre of War

A WAAF cadet in training lines up on parade, RAF Bridgenorth, Shropshire, 1941
Beaton, Cecil
© Crown Copyright: IWM (HU 112283)

Until yesterday, I had never set foot inside London’s Imperial War Museum.  Not surprising, it took an exhibition devoted to the work of a figure well-known in the fashion realm to inspire me to cross the threshold into one of the world’s most comprehensive and diverse collections dedicated to chronicling the histories and impact of war (Since WW1) especially in Britain and the Commonwealth.


The imposing facade of London’s Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum is actually a network of museums, comprising not only the main galleries in South London, but also the Churchill War Rooms, HMS Belfast, the IWM Manchester, and the IWM Duxford near Cambridge. Among its collections are photographs, personal effects, uniforms, oral histories and artworks, which chronicle military and civilian life during conflict, many of which are useful resources for dress historians.

Bus Conductor’s Uniform & General Omnibus Co, 1916-1918, Museum of London Collections online

My first awareness of the Imperial War Museum came by way of the Museum of London, where one of my projects undertaken as a volunteer was to re-catalog a large collection of women’s World War 1 civic uniforms, which had been on loan to the Imperial War Museum since 1938! The uniforms were worn by women who took up jobs such as railway workers, ambulance drivers, and mail carriers in the absence of a male workforce in Britain during World War 1. Yet, despite the great interest and attention I gave to these objects, I still didn’t pop over to check out what the IWM was displaying these days.

A Cecil Beaton portrait of a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service equipped for gardening duties.
Beaton Cecil
© IWM (A 9742)

Maybe it was on account of the fact that alluring photos by Cecil Beaton starting popping up in Underground stations around London that I came nearer to visiting the Imperial War Museum. Last year, Cecil Beaton was much celebrated in the UK and the USA, with exhibitions and new publications revisiting his iconic works of photography, stage design and illustration. Part of me wondered whether this might be a case of overexposure – but then this is Cecil Beaton, who created himself as a personality to the extreme while spreading his talents around the creative industries for a good portion of the 20th century. He surely would have loved the attention.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War focuses on Beaton’s years as a war photographer for the Ministry of Information in the UK and abroad during the years 1940-1944. Beaton’s photographs chronicled civilian life during the Blitz, and his other early assignments included taking portraits of British war officers including Winston Churchill. Beaton’s photographs of the Prime Minister, and of war-torn London became instantly famous and propelled Beaton (whose career in fashion and theatre was already well established) back into the spotlight following a scandal in which he was held responsible for Anti-Semitic images being published in Vogue. This instance, and other significant events in Beaton’s personal and professional lives are presented to foreground his work for the Ministry of Information.

Beaton, Cecil
© Crown Copyright: IWM (IB 0990)

In his portraits of British and Foreign dignitaries and ordinary people, there is indeed an aura of glamour. I am somewhat loathe to admit my attraction to these pictures, despite a distaste for anything that glamourises human conflict, suffering and cruelty.

A Maintenance Wren models the WRNS official issue boiler suit and turban, Portsmouth, 1942
Beaton, Cecil
© Crown Copyright: IWM (A 12606)

Was Beaton handicapped by his “fashion eye,” or is it precisely what made his photographs so popular and effective? Does his portrayal of wartime as picturesque and horribly beautiful suggest he did not truly engage with its horrors?

Men of the Long Range Desert Group relax with cigarettes after returning to headquarters at the end of a desert patrol, Siwa, Libya, 1942
Beaton, Cecil
© Crown Copyright: IWM (CBM 1213)

Are his images of young handsome servicemen meant to be homoerotic? Did Beaton really have Anti-Semitic views and did he recant them during his time working for the Ministry?

All these questions came to my mind during my visit to the exhibition. The information that accompanied the well-curated selection of photographs was clear and easy to follow. The inclusion of Beaton works from before and after his wartime service provide a counterpoint and parallel to the war pictures and even trace patterns of influence.

A disabled soldier makes oiled paper umbrellas at the Chinese Army Convalescent and Rehabilitation Centre, Chungking, Szechuan, China, 1944
Beaton, Cecil
© Crown Copyright: IWM (IB 3369C)

Beaton’s costume design for Turandot.

For example, Beaton’s visit to China with the MOI influeced his later theatrical designs for Turandot, which were exhibited alongside the photos from China.

Installation view of Cecil Beaton Theatre of War

The exhibition design is characterised by angular, skewed walls and awkwardly shaped spaces that convey a sense of foreboding, modernity and in some sense also a hope for stability. The exhibition was not crowded but on a few occasions I found myself “trapped” in odd corners, forced to spend a bit more time looking at the images or artefacts. I was glad to have been made to look again.

The exhibition’s introductory panel included a quote from Beaton’s diaries in which he rather petulantly states that, “This war as far as I can see is something specifically designed to show up my inadequacy in every possible capacity. It’s doubtful if I’d be much good at camouflage-.”  This quote made me smile and cringe at the same time. Beaton, you did stand out from the crowd as a war photographer – and while the war was not ‘designed’ with your shortcomings in mind, it did give you the opportunity see something outside your usual realm, and to let us see what it looked like through your lens.

The exhibition closes with another Beaton quote, this one from 1974. “Yesterday I went to the Imperial War Museum, not my favourite place…” After visiting a beautiful and thought-provoking exhibition of your work there, Mr. Beaton, I don’t think I can agree with you. In fact, when Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War closes, I will certainly be back to visit the rest of the Imperial War Museum.



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