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Lafayette L1426
Neg. Date: 03-07-1897

copyright V&A

Mrs William (Willie) Dodge James, later Mrs John Chaytor Brinton (d 1929), née Evelyn Elizabeth Forbes.

Mrs James led a life typical of the super-rich in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. The colossal house parties, complete with private orchestra, which she gave at her enormous property in Sussex were often attended by Edward VII, both as Prince of Wales and later as King.

Referred to by The New York Times as “one of the great London beauties,” she appeared to have no fear of convention, and, in 1896, was reported to have bicycled through the night with twenty-three of her house guests to watch the sun rise over the Downs. One of the male guests had to offer his jacket to stop her from freezing, as, it was noted, she was wearing “next to nothing”.

Appreciated by King Edward until his last days, Mrs James was on good terms with other important women friends of his life – Daisy, Countess of Warwick and Daisy, Princess of Pless – with whom Mrs. James had acted as the Ugly Sisters in a performance of Cinderella for the King and Queen during a house party in 1904 at the Duke of Devonshire’s residence, Chatsworth House. In her autobiography, Daisy recalls Queen Alexandra trying to slip unnoticed into a back seat to watch the rehearsals.

In this image, made in the photographer’s tent during the Devonshire House Ball of 1897, Mrs James’s costume as “Archduchess Elizabeth, Court of Maria Theresa” appears to be modelled on Vigée le Brun’s 1785 portrait of Marie Antoinette à la rose. This might be an indication that Mrs James had to improvise a new name for herself and join a different quadrille upon discovering that the Countess of Warwick had already baptised herself Marie Antoinette.

The costume, made by Maison Lucile of Hanover Square, is of stiff silver tissue, over an underdress of antique cerise taffeta. The long pointed corsage is trimmed with point lace entwined with roses in pale pink which also appear over the entire gown. Her bodice is studded with diamond broaches of various motifs including a large sun-burst broach. She wears a six-row pearl choker as well as long strands of gradated pearls and nestling in a bed of silk roses in her hair is a diamond spray in the form of ostrich feathers of the Prince of Wales’s crest.

There will be bridge and booze ‘till after three
And, after that, a lot of them will grope
Along the corridors in robes de nuit,
pyjamas, or some other kind of dope.
A sturdy matron will be sent to cope
With Lord ---, who isn’t quite the thing,
And give his wife the leisure to elope,
And Mrs. James will entertain the King!

Hilaire Belloc