Wait For The Moment When: Mae West

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…manifests on screen. Her film debut (she’d been on the New York stage for 20 years) was a supporting role in Night After Night in 1932, a film remembered now only for Mae and the exchange:

“Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”

“Goodness had nothing to do with it dearie!”

The more you think about it the funnier it is; with its lilting scansion it is also poetically simple. Maybe that’s why the line is so frequently garbled and misquoted – as with Marilyn needing 58 takes to recite “where’s that bourbon?” while simultaneously opening a drawer. Less is more. Legendary theatrical turns of a century ago were by modern standards basic, even nugatory, but nonetheless radiated a concentrated energy (Sarah Bernhardt expected nightly to die on stage). Mae undulated an indolent shimmy, yowled suggestive songs, rotated her hips and delivered startling innuendo in that curious voice, part nasal, part mashed potato, that veered between New York brashness and tom cat purr. It was an old music hall persona but brand new to the screen: Hollywood kept Miss West on ice till the talkies arrived. Despite her extraordinary appearance she was also a creature of aurality as her notoriety on the wireless testifies.

Once she appears, you can’t take your eyes off her: the only definition of a true star. Like Garbo – quite unlike, say, Davis, Crawford or Rita Hayworth – she ignores everyone else in the picture: they are laid on merely as feeds and props. Far larger and stranger than life, entirely self-obsessed, Mae loves Mae. While appearing so transparently lubricious and blatantly arousing she is in fact a complete enigma. Presenting nothing but sex, is she in fact sexy?

Entirely the wrong figure and silhouette for her era, she dresses in a parody of the styles of the 1890’s. Her sweeping spangled gowns conceal the 8″ inch heels and soles that, with pompadours and plumes, transform her from petite to Statue of Liberty dimensions. The legs are rarely glimpsed. Never a beauty, Mae was 40 before she filmed, with an odd little face which Cecil Beaton later likened to that of an ape. Was she laughing at herself or was she deadly serious? Was she really a man, as has often been suggested? Was she the experienced voluptuary she implied or a sexually neurotic woman who avoided intimacy, preferring (like Somerset Maugham) “to be touched only by prior arrangement”.

From increasingly bizarre interviews and memoirs over the decades it’s impossible to tell. I always liked the account of one interview where she generated electricity from the nylon carpet to transmit a shock on shaking hands. Why did Billy Wilder have Mae down as his first choice for Norma Desmond? Had he got her number right off?

Yet one of Mae’s most endearing features is that on film she always appears to be enjoying herself: another aspect of the star persona. This is so even in the movie mistakes of her old age, Myra Breckinridge and Sextette, despite microphones hidden in her false hair to feed her dialogue, and with technicians kneeling on the floor propelling her around the set. There is on You Tube a sweet interview with Mae talking to Dick Cavett – her vast bosom is corseted and tightly upholstered in black velvet, and she comes over as a darling and slightly raffish old lady who has spent a jolly life in saloon bars (needless to say, she was in fact strictly teetotal). She looks fun and – as was once said of Swanson – she is fun to think about, too.

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Rochas took Mae at face value when he and Edmond Roudnistka created FEMME towards the end of World War Two. Couturier Marcel Rochas had known West for years as a client: he now designed the flacon as a surreal vision of the celebrated hips. Naturally it feels wonderful to hold. The box was patterned with the black lace panels that Rochas used to create the optical illusion of a slimmer figure. So maybe the sweet and fruity (prunes, but crystallised) chypre has a touch of tongue in cheek. Today – if you can find a bottle – it is still gorgeous and fascinating despite the passage of 70 years; and so, on celluloid, is Mae.

‘Oh, Beulah…’

‘Yes, ma’am?’

‘Peel me a grape.’

MAE WEST 1893 – 1980

I’ve always been a great one for my shoes…

Who can forget poor old Barbie Batchelor in The Jewel in the Crown dumping a huge suitcaseful of shoes on Clarissa Peplow’s bed after having had to leave home in a hurry. An early example of shoe addiction which is now Topic A in the popular fashion world. The once notorious collections of Imelda Marcos and Eva Peron (armadillo ankle-straps with jewelled heels) seem old hat as every girl worth her salt now accumulates her hoard of peep-toes, pumps, flats, ballets, platforms and torturing Louboutin stilettoes: “High heels are pleasure with pain” says Msr L.

So if we follow his hint, which is more of a turn-on, the shoe or the unconfined foot ? I think the average bunion’d fashionista would come down on the side of the Manolos. Both foot and covering can be highly sexualised and are perhaps the best-known of fetishistic objects: we all have access to them. Much etymic energy has been devoted to the question of whether Cinderella wore slippers of glass (verre) or fur (vair), and appropriate psychological and pathological conclusions drawn thereby. Not to mention the detail of her sisters slicing off portions of their own feet to fit the delicate slipper so admired by the Prince. But from my own observation, correct fittings do not seem to be an important aspect of the current shoe frenzy: Mrs Beckham appears to have set a trend for wearing a size or two overlarge, the old Minnie Mouse look. A recherche fetish of its own, something akin to the painful hobble and totter of the bound feet of Imperial China.

The varied symbolism of the foot is as old as man. The Mexican god Tezcatlipoca had the foot eaten by a jaguar replaced by a smoking obsidian mirror through which he dimly observes the world. Jason loses a sandal carrying the goddess Hera across a stream and, half-barefoot, fulfils King Pelias’s foretold doom. Oedipus is exposed with pierced ankles. Norse mythology tells of the Frost Giant’s daughter Skadi allowed to choose a husband from the gods but only on the evidence of their feet. Luck was not with her: the fragrant white feet she picked belonged not to Baldur the Beautiful but to the hoary and disagreeable old sea god Njord. Greek courtesans, who paid especial attention to the perfuming of their feet, stalked in studded sandals which left erotic suggestions, somewhat blurred I should think, in the Athenian dust. An idea illustrated by that long gone 20’s scent, Suivez-Moi Jeune Homme.

The removal of the shoes is the first steps towards intimacy write Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in their classic Dictionary of Symbols. But besides denoting possession, it is paradoxically a sign of humility, subservience to man or the divine: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground”. The first rule of etiquette in the East is never to cross your legs lest you insult your companions by displaying your sole.

“And whosoever shall not receive you…when ye depart out of that house or city shake off the dust of your feet…” Matt 10:14.

The quintessence of sexy shoes,the nude shoe, the flesh-coloured shoe is back in style: first recommended by Marlene Dietrich in her ABC as flattering the length and line of the leg. She was clever with her shoe tactics. People who knew her back-stage told me two stories which I hope are true. She lined up identical shoes in the wings, a pair for each song: if she saw a smut on her beaded champagne slippers as she bowed, she could slip into the next pair under cover of the applause. And a dressing-room habitue remembered that if Marlene became aware of a prying scrutiny of her face she would advise her guest “look out for the shoes! Mind where you’re walking, the floor is covered with my shoes…”

Like a glove the shoe sexualises and transforms a socially acceptable part of the body by veiling and concealing and thus simultaneously calling attention to it. Think of Rita Hayworth’s single glove striptease in Gilda and those Toulouse Lautrec posters of Yvette Guilbert who made long black gloves an integral part of her diseuse act. David Lean uses continual and remarkable shoe (and clothing) imagery throughout his film Madeleine to demonstrate his heroine’s ambiguous morality as a seductress and probable poisoner in 1850’s Glasgow. Awaiting the jury’s decision in her cell, Madeleine slips on a pair of new black shoes, and the camera lingers on her feet as it has at key moments of the movie. Her concealment (maybe even from herself) is complete + the verdict naturally is “Not Proven”.

So what of the scent of the shoe? Apparently the foetid smell of those grotesque trotter-like slippers which encased the Chinese lily-foot was part of their peculiar appeal. But we’re not going down that particular trail – for now. I’m thinking more in terms of a shoe of kid suede so fine it would double for a glove; new and exciting from the boutique in a great rustle of tissue papers and varnished card box, all with stimulating electric scents of their own. A shoe just gently warmed by an exquisitely painted, moistured, powdered and pedicured foot: the warm muskiness of skin and flesh mixing with the peardrop bittersweet of nail polish, animalic soft leather, brushed black suede,a metallic tang of tiny gilt buckle and the dark smooth night of the sole. If this appeals, go smell Gantier’s Cuir Fetiche: it has it all, and more…