The Grandeur of Gatsby
“For spring 2012,
I was inspired by a
romantic kind of nonchalance–
an effortless glamour
that is always timeless.”
From the moment the first wisp of a diaphanous vision in white glided by, the audience fell hush. The fluidity of sheer loveliness left the normally unawed crowd in a kind of swoon. The spell of timelessness was evident. So lifelike was the look and style of the 1920′s and 30′s with its architectural cuts, soft color palettes, and luminous textures that shimmered like the sun dappled waters of long ago, one could almost feel a collective shiver as it made its way across the room like a giant wave smoothing the sands with an audible sigh.
Surely, this was life imitating art and the heroine of the piece that was replicated again and again with each passing young woman striding lean and long limbed down the runway, was none other than the enigmatic Daisy Buchanan.
The year was 1922. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer of some renown, announced his decision to create “something new, something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.”
That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology.
Fifty-two yeas later in 1974, master lifestyle impresario, Ralph Lauren, costumed the big-screen version of The Great Gatsby, starring Mia Farrow (as Daisy Buchanan) and Robert Redford (as the titular Gatsby). The success of Lauren’s artistry and vision was immediate and sweeping. His fashions sparked a craze for fluttery bias-cut tea dresses, cloche hats, tufts of feathers and skirts of satin and kindled a longing for vintage that left us aching for more. The movie’s style became as much a part of the iconography of the Ralph Lauren brand as it was perfectly emblematic of Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age America.
The story of the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby and his love for the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, of lavish parties on Long Island at a time when The New York Times noted “gin was the national drink and sex the national obsession,” is an exquisitely crafted tale of America in the 1920s.
Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings.
The truth was that Jay Gatsby
of West Egg, Long Island,
sprang from his Platonic conception of himself.
He was a son of God… and he must be about
His Father’s business,
the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.
So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby
that a seventeen year old boy
would be likely to invent,
and to this conception
he was faithful to the end.
At the core of the story is the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan.
After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means necessary, and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing.
“Her voice is full of money,”
Gatsby noted admiringly.
His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws impossibly pretentious parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor, Nick Carraway, acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as satisfactorily enriching as the best kind of poem.
Fast-forward nearly 40 years to Spring, 2012, when, after various returns to that time and place, Ralph Lauren’s eye is fixed once again on the gilded mansions of Long Island’s North Shore. His collection is an homage to the world he helped create so indelibly all those years ago in the cinematic version of Gatsby, with a gentle, romantic, yet moneyed look:
Ruffled georgette blouses; slithery, slippery bias-cut dresses; charmeuse wide pants so light and fluid they were like lingerie in trouser form; the cross-body purse wittily reinterpreted as a bag that looked like a fringed silk shawl; and strappy pearl python sandals on metallic high heels that evoked the Chrysler Building at a time when it was still only a twinkle in the eye of its architect, William Van Alen, and not twinkling on the Manhattan skyline.
Like the pale, pale shades of cream and ivory that is classic Lauren, F. Scott Fitzgerald created his heroine, Daisy, in that same ephemeral palette. Beautiful and mesmerizing, Daisy is the apex of sociability. Her privileged upbringing has conditioned her to a particular lifestyle. She enraptures men, especially Gatsby, with her diaphanous nature and sultry voice. She is the object of Gatsby’s desire, for good or ill, and represents women of an elite social class. Not unlike the heavenly creatures that walk the Lauren runway.
Fitzgerald introduces Daisy to us through Nick Caraway, a young man from the Midwest being shown around a Long Island mansion by Tom Buchanan, a polo-playing acquaintance from his college days and Daisy’s husband.
We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space,
fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end.
The windows were ajar and gleaming white
against the fresh grass outside
that seemed to grow
a little way into the house.
A breeze blew through the room,
blew curtains in at one end and out the other
like pale flags,
twisting them up toward the
frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling,
and then rippled
over the wine-colored rug,
making a shadow on it
as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object
in the room was an enormous couch
on which two young women
were buoyed up as though
upon an anchored balloon.
They were both in white,
and their dresses
as if they had just
been blown back in
after a short flight
around the house.
I must have stood
for a few moments listening
to the whip and snap of the curtains
and the groan of a picture on the wall.
Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan
shut the rear windows
and the caught wind
about the room,
and the curtains
and the rugs
and the two young women
to the floor.
I looked back at my cousin,
who began to ask me questions
in her low, thrilling voice.
It was the kind of voice
that the ear follows up and down,
as if each speech
is an arrangement of notes
that will never be played again.
Daisy’s voice brings to mind the image of the Siren. In Greek mythology, the island-dwelling Sirens sang to passing sailors, and their song was so seductive that the sailors would throw themselves into the sea and drown trying to get to them.
Daisy is kind of a modern Siren; when Gatsby stretches his arms out to the green light across the water, we can almost imagine him throwing himself into the Sound to reach her. Her voice speaks of everything he desires – Daisy herself, wealth, social status, true happiness – and its call is irresistible.
Gatsby believed in the green light,
the orgiastic future
that year by year
recedes before us.
It eluded us then,
but that’s no matter–-
tomorrow we will run faster,
stretch out our arms farther….
And one fine morning–
So we beat on,
boats against the current,
borne back ceaselessly
into the past.