Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things: The kids who made the 1920s roar

A century ago, a bohemian set of aristos and artists oozed glamour and wreaked havoc all through the streets of London. Hannah Betts gets an exclusive look at a new exhibition that celebrates the era.

Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things
Mozart-themed BYTs dig up Piccadilly, 1930 (Cecil Beaton with drill). Image: Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

On leap year’s night, 1928, Loelia Ponsonby, soon to be Duchess of Westminster, hosted the Dream of Fair Women Ball in the heart of London’s Mayfair, at Claridge’s newly redecorated mirrored silver and green ballroom. The ball featured what Tatler magazine termed ‘the loveliest women in England’ in a tableau vivant of futuristic fashions. It was the very embodiment of the Bright Young Things (a nickname given to them by the tabloid press), a hedonistic group of young artists and socialites who lit up interwar London with elaborate parties and pranks.

The photographer Cecil Beaton, who had just celebrated his 24th birthday, was tasked with designing the outfits for this most talked-about event, be it for the huntswoman of 1960, the bather of the future, the nun or the bridge-player of 1980 or Ascot 2000. Several bridal or going-away outfits were also included, with his wilful sister Baba exquisitely attired as ‘the bride of 2028’, in a white and silver embroidered satin confection along neoclassical lines, adorned with a vast Elizabethan lace collar. Beaton’s portrait of the Hon Mrs Inigo Freeman-Thomas (or Blossom, as she was known) in her towering Ascot garb, has become something of a symbol for the excesses of this era, her angular gaze one of patrician disdain.

Tickets for the ball cost three guineas, including supper and champagne, the equivalent of nine days’ wages for a skilled tradesman. Never before – and quite possibly never again – did so many glamorous society women parade in costumes as audacious as they were lovely.

Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things in fancy-dress
The Bright Young Things in full fancy-dress mode, 1927, including Cecil Beaton (rear, far right) and American screen siren Tallulah Bankhead (front right). Image: Mary Evans Picture Library 2015

One could not find a more lavish example of the way in which Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things – brought to us anew in the National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming exhibition of that title – found their playground amid Claridge’s art deco elegance. As Kate Hudson, the hotel’s archivist, recounts: ‘Claridge’s has always been at the heart of London society, and in the 1920s and 30s, it was the place to party for any BYT worth their salt.’

Leading the charge was the brightest of BYTs, socialite Stephen Tennant, said to be the model for Evelyn Waugh’s Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, Miles Malpractice in his Vile Bodies, and Cedric Hampton in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Around him flocked artist Rex Whistler, stage designer Oliver Messel, composer William Walton, modernist poets Iris Tree and Nancy Cunard, debutantes Edwina Mountbatten and Diana Guinness (née Mitford), and anglophile American actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Anna May Wong.

Together they created what the exhibition’s curator Robin Muir describes as ‘a deliriously eccentric, glamorous and creative era of British cultural life, combining high society and the avant-garde, artists and writers, socialites and partygoers, all set against the rhythms of the Jazz Age’. This fashionable set boasted its own language peppered with ‘darlings’ and ‘divines’, negative phenomena being ‘bogus’, ‘sick-making’ or ‘frightfully tiresome’.

Beaton saw this world more clearly in his capacity as an outsider. As Muir elaborates: ‘Cecil’s guiding impulse was a desire to escape what he perceived as a humdrum middle-class background and achieve the celebrity of those gilded, mostly aristocratic young people having a far more exciting time. Tellingly, he writes: “I don’t want people to know me as I really am, but as I’m pretending to be.” His experimentation with costume, camouflage and identity allows him to choose just who that Cecil Beaton might be.’

Cecil Beaton
A 1937 portrait of Cecil Beaton by Paul Tanqueray. Image: National Portrait Gallery, London

If Beaton was making himself up, then so were the women he photographed. This was the period in which cosmetics finally became acceptable – albeit shocking. Eyes, mouths and nails were painted, noses powdered, hair bobbed, breasts bound, skirts shortened, knees rouged. For Beaton’s flappers, make-up spelled rebellion and liberation. Faster types boasted kohl, block mascara, scarlet lipstick and Vaselined eyelids. Even country girls such as Mitford’s heroines in The Pursuit of Love felt the need to daub paint-box blue on their eyelids, ruddy their cheeks and talc their noses ‘like a couple of Dutch dolls’.

Perfume went from being a subtle, largely naturalistic affair to bold, synthetic and exotic – a weapon of seduction for society’s new sirens. Caron’s sumptuous, sexual Tabac Blond was taken up by smoking jazz babies. Guerlain’s sultry, spicy Shalimar led to the claim that there were three things no lady could do: smoke, dance the tango and sport Shalimar.

Chanel’s No 5, launched in 1921, had a stark, bracing, modernist quality, the product of its volume of aldehyde crystals, which lent it a fizzing ‘champagne’ aspect. The BYTs were often lambasted for being high on drugs; perhaps they were high on scent? As the decade wore on, cocktails became more ubiquitous, but, at first, flappers fizzed not with champagne, but lemonade.

In fact, their pursuits began as rather innocent, if not infantile. As Barbara Cartland recalled in her memoir, it was a group of girls who got things going. Along with their friends Enid Raphael and Lady Eleanor Smith, in 1924 sisters Zita and Teresa ‘Baby’ Jungman set the craze for London-wide treasure hunts by fast car. From midnight, 50 motors sped across the capital in search of clues. The Hovis factory made a loaf with a clue baked inside; a special Evening Standard was printed, concealing clues in imaginary news stories.

Beaton’s sister Baba
Beaton’s sister Baba in costume for the Great London Pageant of Lovers, 1927. Image: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s

There were paper-chases across public transport, scavenger parties intent on stealing policemen’s helmets, and games of follow-my-leader across Selfridges, in pursuit of a chap in a scarlet cape. Pranks abounded. Lady Eleanor masqueraded as a Russian princess, fluttering her mascaraed lashes.

And then there were the parties. Evelyn Waugh, fellow social outsider and Beaton’s sworn enemy, catalogued these excesses in Vile Bodies, his bestseller of 1930. ‘Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris.’

Even if one merely considers the bashes held at Claridge’s, the list appears endless. As archivist Kate Hudson explains: ‘Any excuse to dress up was met with giddy enthusiasm – hence all the charity fundraisers held in Claridge’s new ballroom. There were so many high points – the Porcelain Ball, for example, where a ballet of living “porcelain” figures emerged from a golden door representing historic pieces of china. Each ticket had a key attached, eight of which opened golden cabinets containing sets of china that winning guests could claim.

Baba and her sister Nancy
Baba and her sister Nancy, 1926. Both were leading lights among the BYTs. Image: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s

‘There was the Romance of History Ball, at which Baby Jungman came dressed as the heroine of a Sir Walter Scott novel. And the Shawl Ball, at which a galaxy of society beauties donned the world’s most exquisite wraps. All of these spectacles garnered pages of press reports. The BYTs were in a sort of perpetual motion between private homes, hotels and bars.’

The older generation was horrified. Barbara Cartland remembered novelist Winifred Graham writing: ‘She [the flapper] is a vapid pleasure-loving nymph. There is no comparison between these travesties of womanhood, painted and dyed and awaiting their cocktails, and their mothers.’ Moralists labelled the girls unfeminine, the boys effeminate, both parties over-sexed. As one character thunders in Vile Bodies: ‘I don’t understand them and I don’t want to. They had a chance after the war that no generation has ever had. There was a whole civilisation to be saved and remade – and all they seem to do is to play the fool.’

As Muir remarks: ‘The BYTs fascinate us because they mark the first 20th-century youth movement. Like all such movements, the participants exist as a reaction against the stifling conformity of those who have gone before. In this case, it was a response to pre-Great War manners: the inflexibility of dress codes, the rigid orthodoxy of sexual relationships, and the strict rules and regulations that oversaw social interaction.’

Paula Gellibrand of Cecil Beaton's Bright Young Things
Aristocratic BYT Paula Gellibrand, Marquesa de Casa Maury, 1928. Image: The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/ Sotheby’s

Many have seen their frenetic merrymaking as the expression of some sort of survivors’ guilt following the slaughter of the First World War. Ringleader Stephen Tennant’s eldest brother Edward was one of the 300,000 lost at the Somme, aged a mere 19. And there is something of this obsessive frenzy in Beaton’s declaration: ‘We must move on. We must miss nothing. We daren’t risk more than an hour or two of sleep, in case something happens while we aren’t there.’ Compare party girl Agatha Runcible in Waugh’s Vile Bodies, driven to madness by the idea that she and her friends are ‘all driving round and round in a motor race and none of us could stop’.

We may be kinder to the BYTs than their elders because of our knowledge of what was to come. For it is difficult not to see the horrors of the Great Depression and Second World War looming over these dazzling creatures, dancing into the abyss.

Beaton traded his wigs and gauzes to become a distinguished war photographer. His Ascot 2000 icon, Blossom Freeman-Thomas, became Mrs Frederick Miles and a gifted aircraft designer. As the Second World War approached, her technical skills found her producing training aircraft for the RAF. Beaton’s frozen emblem of the future had created her own destiny, not as a decorative racecourse mannequin, but a vital contributor in the fight against fascism. These Bright Young Things, at least, shone their brilliance elsewhere.

Cecil Beaton’s Bright Young Things is at the National Portrait Gallery, London from 12 March to 7 June 2020, (npg.org.uk), then tours to Sheffield and Cheltenham. Claridge’s Bright Young Things Experience offers exhibition tickets, a copy of Cecil Beaton’s Cocktail Book (in collaboration with the NPGnpg) plus access to its BYT dressing-up box; from £1,200 per suite, see bit.ly/3aamVRT.