Every week, starting now, our resident fashion history guru Keely Weiss will look inside the lives of eccentric icons of the industry’s past. Consider this a Throwback Thursday for the nerdy style set.
If there’s one souvenir our British forebears passed along to us, it would be a fondness for dynasties. For proof, one need only look to the “Celebrity Siblings” flipbooks on Huffington Post and the like—or to Hollywood’s current roster of fresh young things, boasting as it does such matching-set names as the Delevingnes and the Olsens. But no modern power family, no matter how glamorous, could ever hope to measure up to the luster of the Mitford sisters. As stylish as they were scandalous, the Mitfords were a family of minor British aristocracy and even more minor funds. As beautiful and alluring as the Mitford sisters were, however, their wildly disparate legacies would be defined by their insistence on forging their own paths—for better or for worse—in a society dripping with masculinity and tradition.
The eldest daughter, Nancy, born in 1904, was a voracious reader and quickly graduated to writing stories of her own. A dear friend of the acclaimed satirist Evelyn Waugh, Nancy was seen to rival him in wit—especially in the wake of her novels The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. After a disastrous and comparatively short-lived marriage, she sustained a torturous and largely one-sided affair with French colonel and politician Gaston Palewski for over two decades; in order to be closer to him after the end of World War II, she moved to Paris, where she would stay very nearly until her death in 1973, in which time she made the jump from novels to acclaimed biographies of historical figures like Louis XIV.
The second-oldest, Pamela (born in 1907), was something of an enigma compared to the rest of her sisters. Not one for society life, she retreated to the country and became known for her expertise in poultry—some accounts even claim she revolutionized the English poultry industry. In 1936 she married millionaire physicist Derek Jackson but before long divorced him; she spent the rest of her days as the companion of renowned horsewoman Giuditta Tommasi before dying at the ripe old age of 87.
Diana, the beauty of the family, also became its first black mark. Born in 1910, she married Bryan Walter Guinness at age 18—but left him in 1933 for Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists and close friend of Adolf Hitler. When Diana at last secretly wed Mosley in 1936, the ceremony took place in Joseph Goebbels’ drawing room. The Mosleys were interned for much of the War but afterward moved to France and enjoyed some acclaim as a writer and society figure, even appearing on Desert Island Discs in 1989. She remained an unrepentant Nazi until her death in 2003—a philosophy she was responsible for passing along to her younger sister Unity.
Then again, Unity—conceived in Swastika, Ontario, and saddled with the middle name Valkyrie—was practically destined from her birth in 1914 to weasel her way into the inner ranks of the Third Reich. She first laid eyes on Hitler at a rally in 1933; she finally met him in 1935, at which time they became obsessed with each other and she supposedly became his mistress—it’s rumored that she even had and gave up his love child. Throughout the course of Unity’s ingratiation with the Nazi Party, she remained a fierce British patriot, and after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 she shot herself through the head—which she somehow survived (with, of course, severe mental damage). Hitler paid for her medical expenses and sent her back to England, where her family cared for her until her death in 1948.
Their younger sister Jessica, however, born in 1917, swung in completely the opposite direction. At age 19, Jessica (known to everyone as Decca) eloped to Spain with Esmond Romilly, and they emigrated to the United States in 1939. A flagrant Communist until resigning from the Party in 1958, she worked diligently for social justice her entire life; Decca published her first book, the autobiographical novel Hons and Rebels, in 1960, but she would become far better known for her tomes of muckraking journalism—especially 1963’s The American Way of Death, a scathing exposé on the American funeral industry. Perhaps of greatest note, however, was Decca’s cowbell and kazoo orchestra, appropriately titled “Decca and the Dectones,” which recorded two duets with a close friend of Decca’s by the name of Maya Angelou. She passed away at age 78 and was put to rest with an absolutely bare-bones, shoestring funeral—just the way she wanted.
Next to her sisters, Deborah (born in 1920)—to this day the last Mitford standing—might seem downright boring. Unlike her more outlandish siblings, Deborah stayed in the family business of being classy and looking good doing it: she married Lord Andrew Cavendish in 1941, and the two inherited the landed estate of Chatsworth House. But even so, Deborah’s not exactly a wet blanket—when her kids were growing up she let them roller-blade through the halls of Chatsworth, which she just so happened to single-handedly turn into the most profitable landed estate in England. In any event, to this day Deborah and her sisters’ legacy lives on even beyond the confines of Chatsworth: in addition to the innumerable novels and films based upon their lives, designers who favor substance over empty style—such as Misha Nonoo—have continued to cite them as sources of inspiration. Beat that, Kardashian klan.