|Lillie Langtry photographed by William Downey, 1885.|
The National Archives UK
- Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew
Lillie Langtry's life had rather humble beginnings. She was born in October 1853 to The Very Reverend William Corbet Le Breton and his wife Emilie. Named as Emilie Charlotte but later given the nickname of Lillie, she grew up as a tomboy with her six brothers. She was known not only as a beauty but also intelligent, with views on the topics of the day. Lillie had dreams of escaping her life in Jersey to live amongst London's high society. In 1874 she married the eligible Edward Langtry, the owner of a yacht and they lived in Southampton.
When she arrived in London, her time was plighted by the death of one of her younger brothers who was killed in a riding accident. Lillie was invited to a reception by one of her father's friends and the upper echelons of society were amazed by this natural beauty in their midst. Artists clamoured after her and asked if she would sit for them. She wore a black dress, in stark contrast to the colourful extravaganza of dresses worn by the other ladies. This black gown was probably by Madame Nicolle, who was a dressmaker in St Heliers, Jersey. She wore this evening gown to many social events such as dinners and balls. A Frank Miles postcard of her sold more than the others of theatre actresses and social belles, and this marked her entrance into society.
Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and his 'Marlborough Set' were the it-crowd of the day and Lillies' fame soon caught his attention. He was married, but was commonly known as a philanderer. He invited Lillie and her husband to dinner and arranged for her to sit next to him (away from her husband). The Prince was enamoured by her beauty and intelligence and she became his mistress. Lillie was acknowledged as his official mistress, and Albert Edward was no longer interested in other women. They spent much of their time together, going to various events and she was at the centre of society. She was constantly admired and talked about and had influence on many aspects of culture. Her fortunes unfortunately changed after an apparent argument with the Prince at a dinner party, where she firmly fell out of favour with him. She then realised that her husband's fortune was not as great as she previously thought and he could not afford her lifestyle; Lillie sold many of her belongings as a result. At the suggestion of her friend Sarah Bernhardt, she turned her attentions to acting and became a star of the theatre. Her celebrity held her in good stead, and she regularly played to adoring audiences. Lillie used her on-stage and off-stage fame to endorse cosmetics such as Pears Soap. Throughout her life, Lillie Langtry began to understand the importance of fashion for creating both her public appearance and her stage persona.
Couturiers and costumers dressed her for the stage. Charles Frederick Worth designed outfits for her and she regularly mentioned him in her programs, which wasn't usually done as names weren't commonly seen in it. Lillie was also dressed by Lucile and Doucet. Lillie Langtry had a large jewellery collection and stated in her autobiography The Days I Knew, 'Although I was never inordinately fond of jewellery, I found it useful in enhancing my appearance, particularly on the stage.' At first, she went on stage with a string of pearls and a few rings, but on her American tour Henrietta Labouchere was so shocked and appalled at the starlet's lack of jewellery that it prompted Lillie into action. She had previously found the display of jewels on women to be ostentatious at certain occasions, but her trip to Tiffany & Co in New York changed her views. Her collection grew and when her jewels were stolen she was heartbroken, they included tiaras of diamonds and pearls and a brooch containing the largest ruby in the world.
'Constantly mingling with bejewelled and beautifully clad women, who changed their gowns as a kaleidoscope changes its patterns created in me a growing desire to do likewise,' Lillie Langtry said. She soon had a new outfit for every occasion and her recklessness grew, she even had her negligees lined with ermine, and didn't acknowledge that she was living beyond her means until it was too late. Her aim was to be original and her dresses fit the brief. She once wore a yellow tulle dress with preserved butterflies ensconced in a gold fishnet on the gown. For her presentation to Queen Victoria, she wore an ivory brocade gown garlanded with roses on the court train. She made sure she found three large white ostrich plumes to wear on her head. Her lavish wardrobe was filled with gowns that she wore on-stage and she received many compliments in the press for their help in portraying characters. Nevertheless, she knew that it was extravagant especially as before her fame she had made do with only a few plain dresses. They may have been seen as an unnecessary luxury but when she felt guilty, she may have said to herself that they were vital to her image in the theatre.
In Victorian time, photography was burgeoning and exciting. Carte de Visite were fashionable postcards that many people collected. The Victoria & Albert Museum have a great collection of these in their archive, including many of Lillie Langtry herself. These cards are testament to her love of clothing and how fashion became a transformative prop both in her evolution into an adored celebrity and into her various characters in the theatre. Her fascination with clothing didn't come without a cost, which she was all to aware of and I leave you with her own poignant words:
|Lillie Langtry by Frank Miles|
|Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, 1899.|
|Lillie Langtry by Edward Poynter 1878|
|Lillie Langtry as Rosalind|
|A Jersey Lilly by John Everett Millais 1878|
For the first time in my life, I became intoxicated with the idea of arraying myself as gorgeously as the Queen of Sheba and being accorded unlimited credit by the dressmakers, who enjoyed designing original 'creations' for me. I began to pile up bills at all their establishments, heedless of the day of reckoning that must eventually come.
- Lillie Langtry, The Days I Knew.