Style / January 2016

Heure d'Ici et Heure d'Ailleurs: A Tribute to the Jet Set

A certain Cholly Knickerbocker came up with the moniker for an impossibly glamorous and unimaginably affluent social group no longer constrained by mere geographical boundaries and plodding voyage by sea. The sky…

A certain Cholly Knickerbocker came up with the moniker for an impossibly glamorous and unimaginably affluent social group no longer constrained by mere geographical boundaries and plodding voyage by sea. The sky was - literally - the limit and the world their oyster. Who were the habitués of this rarefied milieu? The men were dashing playboys with a penchant for fast cars and even more finely tuned women, a heady mix of deracinated European aristocrats, shipping tycoons, auto scions, oil magnates and new-world industrial barons. The women? Oh, the women were beyond sublime. Truman Capote christened them his 'swans', an inner circle of muses - of legendary icons of style and arbiters of taste - women like Babe Paley, Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Lee Radziwill, Gloria Guinness, Jacqueline de Ribes and Marella Agnelli, whose breathtaking beauty is immortalised in images by photographers like Slim Aarons, Cecil Beaton and Richard Avedon. This larger-than-life lifestyle is played out on an international stage and scale in a world made smaller by the advent of jet travel, their spectacular hijinks breathlessly chronicled by paparazzi - itself a phenomenon of the era, the word an eponym originating from Federico Fellini's 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita (based - surprise, surprise - on this high-octane successor to comparatively sedate café society).

The term we are speaking of refers to the postwar social elite, the 'jet set', in the original sense as coined by the syndicated columnist for Hearst, Igor 'Cholly' Cassini - son of impoverished Italian and Russian nobility, brother of Oleg the fashion designer (and official couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy when she was First Lady), and tsar of 1950s society gossip. We are referring to a very specific era - 1956 to 1973 to be exact, as posited by Nick Foulkes in the spectacular Swans: Legends of the Jet Society.

'You talk like Marlene Dietrich And you dance like Zizi Jenmaire Your clothes are all made by Balmain And there's diamonds and pearls in your hair, yes there are' Peter Sarstedt could well have penned and sung the anthem of the era in 1969 with Where Do You Go To (My Lovely). This freewheeling era of the free-roaming elite may have been catapulted into high gear thanks to a brand-new mode of transport - jet passenger service - but it was equally characterized by other social mores and fabulous feats of consumption, most dazzling of which included the astonishing jewellery.

As Maria Callas is quoted as quipping about Aristotle Onassis in Peter Evans' Nemesis, his 'total understanding of women came out of a Van Cleef & Arpels catalogue'.

The jeweller du jour in this halcyon epoch was indubitably the venerable house of Van Cleef & Arpels, with flagships not only in the fashion capitals of Paris and New York, but outposts lining the white-sand-dotted and azure-water-splashed seasonal migratory itineraries of the rich and the beautiful, from Cannes and Caracas to Deauville and Monte Carlo.

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Joycelyn Shu