Obituary: Bunny Roger
Clive Fisher Tuesday 29 April 1997
Erstwhile couturier, wit, dandy, landowner, and social ornament, Bunny Roger was what obituary in its obliquer days styled a lifelong bachelor and what gossip columnists knew as a flamboyant homosexual.
Not that the phraseology of old Fleet Street would have distressed him: he was nothing if not implacably conservative and as the last of a kind he could scarcely expect new labels. Equally, the Queen's English (like anything else remotely royal) deserved veneration and there was one term he always resisted: "You can't call queer men 'gay'. Apart from anything else, they're all so miserable. The Greeks were more accurate when they called the Furies the 'Kindly Ones'."
Yet Bunny himself - so styled from infancy when his nanny imagined a likeness - was far from morose. As the second of Sir Alexander and Lady Roger's three sons he determined precociously to wrest parental attention from his better-placed siblings and all his life he retained a showman's resilience, an enthusiast's energy and a conviction that life is what one makes it.
His father was a City tycoon, self-made, Aberdonian, a magnate in international telecommunications, while his mother, also Scotch, was an extravagant beauty whose portrait by William Acton later surveyed Roger's drawing- room. What they can have been thinking when they gave their six-year-old middle son a fairy's costume of filmy skirts and butterfly wings, with the promise of a wand to further his caperings, it is hard to imagine; but the Rogers were a happy family and by the early Thirties, the Depression notwithstanding, they were also a wealthy one, and lived in opulence at Ewhurst Park in Hampshire as tenants of the Duke of Wellington.
Following a miserable schooling at Loretto outside Edinburgh, Roger read History at Balliol under F. F. Urquhart. "The Sligger's" celebrated Alpine reading parties failed to entice, and Roger instead joined Ouds (thereby meeting his lifelong friend Terence Rattigan) and danced the Charleston with any compliant Rugby Blue.
After a year, determined on a career designing clothes, he left Balliol for drawing classes at the Ruskin. Rouge and hair dye enlivened his prettiness and soon he passed as an unthreatening sweetheart among the virgin, girl- shy undergraduates. Osbert Lancaster presented him with a pekinese puppy; others pressed more unequivocal suits; but the authorities were watching and Roger was summoned before a donnish tribunal, accused of corrupting homosexual activities and banished from Oxford.
America he found disappointing and disenchantment was compounded when in Hollywood he was likened to the young George Arliss and not the next Marlene Dietrich. He crossed Hitler's Germany in one of his father's Rolls- Royces to visit a cousin in Poland. He frequented London parties (although stories that he and his brothers attended a Chelsea Arts Club ball as the Bronte sisters were apocryphal). He befriended and patronised the young Edward Burra. As an assistant in the studio at Waring and Gillow he helped furnish King Zog's palaces; later, at Fortnum's tailoring, he learnt about costing and cutting.
Finally, with encouragement and advice from Edward Molyneux and Victor Stiebel and pounds 1,000 backing from his father, he opened his own dress- making establishment, Neil Roger, in Great Newport Street in 1937. The showroom was decorated in Regency Gothic and for his first collection Roger invited everyone mentioned in the current Tatler and disguised his boldness by scrawling across each invitation the fictitious assurance, "Mary asked me to send you this". He numbered among his clients the Lygon sisters, Vivien Leigh and Princess Marina.
During the Second World War, conspicuously rouged in the Rifle Brigade, he saw active service in Italy and North Africa and after being demobbed he set up a new establishment in Bruton Mews before being invited to run the couture department at Fortnum's. Presently, with his friend Hardy Amies financially precarious, he invested a generous sum in the House of Amies and for a while operated from there. His investment was handsomely vindicated when Debenhams acquired his holding and he retired in 1973.
Besides, party-giving, which happily combined Roger's passions for dancing and dressing up, had long constituted a second vocation. With his younger brother Sandy he had moved in 1946 to Walton Street and their large house, with its basement murals depicting a Highland Garden of Eden, soon became a celebrated, if louche, nocturnal destination. Their 1952 Quo Vadis? party, with no address supplied on the invitation, saw Bunny Roger scantily clad for slavery. The year 1953 marked the Coronation Ball, with its host bejewelled as Queen Alexandra, and 1956 the notorious Fetish Party, which provoked full-page dismay in the People. In their day these extravaganzas were outrageous; and even at the Diamond, Amethyst and Flame Balls, given to celebrate his 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays, Roger outshone and outdanced his guests from the worlds of theatre and fashion.
He dispensed sedater hospitality at Dundonnell, the estate in Wester Ross he shared with his brothers. A phenomenon of energy, even in his eighties, he interrupted his constant cooking, talking and card-playing to show guests the famous Chinese gardens created by his brother Alan or to don yet another astonishing suit. He was, after all, a Savile Row institution and his 150 suits catered, albeit theatrically, for every contingency.
He invented the tight-cut Capri trousers while on holiday on the island in 1949 and by the Fifties he was sponsoring a neo-Edwardian silhouette - four-button jackets with generous shoulders and mean waists, lapelled waistcoats, high-cut trousers - for plain, checked and striped suits. Accessories, whether a high-crowned bowler or ruby cuff-links, were indispensable; and even in his eighties the final effect, with Roger's eight-stone frame and white, much-lifted face turned vain singularity to artistry.
All dandies need an audience but Bunny Roger inspired what almost amounted to a following - partly because by word and deed he never stopped entertaining; partly because we are all nostalgic for style. Most crucially, however, he was true: beneath his mauve mannerisms he was stalwart, frank, dependable and undeceived; to onlookers a passing peacock, to intimates a life enhancer and exemplary friend.
Neil Munroe ("Bunny") Roger, couturier: born London 9 June 1911; died London 27 April 1997.
Neil Munro Roger was born 9 June 1911 in London to Sir Alexander Roger and Helen Stuart Clark, both from Scotland. He read History at Balliol College, Oxford, though only for a year; then studied drawing at The Ruskin. However, he was expelled for his homosexual activities.
In 1937, Roger established his dressmakers, Neil Roger, in Great Newport Street, London. One of his clients was Vivien Leigh.
He served in Italy and North Africa in the Rifle Brigade in World War II. Roger was a war hero known for his courage under fire. A story that may be apocryphal has him replying to a sergeant's question regarding approaching Germans, "When in doubt, powder heavily."
Following the war, he was invited to run the couture department at Fortnum & Mason. He invested in the House of Amies, and his stake was later acquired by Debenhams in 1973.
He is credited with inventing Capri pants in 1949, while vacationing at Capri in Italy.
Roger was a clotheshorse who bought up to fifteen bespoke suits a year and four pairs of bespoke shoes or boots to go with each suit; each suit was said to have cost around £2,000. He favored a neo-Edwardian look: four-buttoned jackets with broad shoulders, narrow waists, and long skirts. He favoured narrow trousers and a high-crowned bowler hat. He was particularly fond of spectator shoes and ruby cufflinks.
Roger was known for the lavish and outrageous parties that he held throughout his life. These events were often themed, as in the Diamond, Amethyst, and Flame Balls held to celebrate his 60th, 70th, and 80th birthdays, respectively.
Family Values: At home with Bunny, Sandy and Alan
Aesthetes, socialites and flamboyant bachelors, the Roger brothers collected art and fashion to assist their biggest production - themselves. Now their props are up for auction. By John Windsor
John Windsor Saturday 24 January 1998
Even as a teenager, the late "Bunny" Roger - knew a thing or two about peroxide. During
the course of a board meeting of the family telecommunications business, to which he had been summoned by his father, the granite-hard, self-made Scottish tycoon Sir Alexander Roger, in the forlorn hope that he would take an interest, Bunny's hair was seen to change colour from brown to blond. Board members were incensed. Sir Alexander was apoplectic. Bunny was cock-a-hoop.
Christened Neil Munroe Roger, Bunny was the most eccentric of three bachelor brothers whose furniture, antiques, artworks and clothes from two mansions - Dundonnell, on Loch Broom, Scotland, and in Addison Road, Holland Park, London - are being auctioned by Sotheby's in a bumper 1,600-lot, three- day sale, next Wednesday to Friday. It is expected to raise pounds 1.5m - a reminder of an era when money could buy the luxury of behaving as one pleased.
The exotic mauve catsuit with egret feather headdress that Bunny wore at his "Amethyst" 70th birthday ball in 1981, and the sequinned "Ball of Fire" costume in which, a decade later, he emerged through fire and smoke to the applause of 400 guests, are each estimated at pounds 300-pounds 500 in the sale - just two lots among his exquisitely tailored suits, collectables and camp accoutrements that are the remains of a life seemingly dedicated to a stylish re-enactment of the Oedipus myth.
Bunny, who founded the Neil Roger fashion house in 1937, invested in Hardy Amies and sold out lucratively to Debenhams in 1973, died of cancer last year, aged 86, having partied until a week before entering hospital. He still weighed a trim eight stone and had a waist measurement that, he said, was the same as Princess Diana's.
His father, whom he despised, was spared the Amethyst outrage, having died in 1961. But he was still hale enough to explode with anger when, in 1956, the People newspaper carried an expose with pictures of Bunny's New Year fetish party at his London home, at which men wearing leather bondage gear and high heels led women on the end of chains.
Lady Roger attempted to soothe Sir Alexander by marvelling that a man could spend an entire night in high heels. Whereas her husband had had no shoes at all as a boy in Rhynie, Aberdeenshire, where he sang for pennies, Helen, Lady Roger, was the daughter of a mayor of Leith in Lothian, where, presumably, shoe fetishism is less uncommon.
"The boys" - Sandy, the youngest, Alan, the eldest, and Bunny in the middle - clung to their mother, and to each other, throughout their lives. She was a stunning beauty and a matriarchal dominatrix of mythic scale. She collected papier mache furniture and turned her sons into aesthetes. It is to her that their queenliness - particularly Bunny's - must be attributed, though some credit should be given to the vigorous regime of Loretto School, Edinburgh, which Sir Alexander thought would turn his boys into men.
Sir Alex did not always get his way. When Bunny asked for a doll's house as a reward for being selected for Loretto's junior sports team, he got it. At the age of six, for reasons that one cannot begin to fathom, his mother and father had given him a fairy costume with diaphanous skirts and butterfly wings. As parents, they were a transvestite's dream.
All three boys went to Oxford. During the vacations they invited exotic friends to lavish parties at the big country houses that their parents rented. One house had 14 servants. Both parents had the partying habit - they were indefatigable socialites while on business trips abroad.
Bunny, by then an established roue, was sent down from Oxford, where he was known as a "beauty", after being accused of homosexual practices. He later mixed with Terence Rattigan and Freddie Ashton's set, derided by Evelyn Waugh as "lesbian tarts and joyboys". During a memorable summer holiday in Toulon, attended by the artist Edward Burra and the playboy-photographer Brian Howard, Bunny refused to sunbathe so that he could mince magically down the Rade like a white Greek god.
The brothers' aestheticism took different directions. Both Bunny and Alan - who died three months after him - collected the work of Burra and other contemporary artists. But Alan, who served with MI5 in Teheran and Hong Kong during the war, before being posted to Hong Kong after the defeat of the Japanese to deal with re-settlement problems, acquired an enviable collection of Chinese ceramics, textiles and scroll paintings, which he commissioned. He also championed the now-famous studio potters, the Viennese Lucie Rie and the German Hans Coper, wartime refugees working in London. They made him garden pots for the bonsai trees he popularised in Britain and for his meticulously tended horticulture.
Sandy, the youngest brother, who alone shouldered the burdens of the family business and was the first to die, 18 years ago, turned his late father's office overlooking the Thames at the Temple into what was compared to the citadel of a South American dictator.
It was Lady Roger's dressmaking account at Fortnum's, together with a grudging pounds 1,000 from Sir Alex, that launched Bunny as a couturier. He draped his clients, who included Vivien Leigh, Princess Marina and the Lygon sisters, in the sort of flowing gowns worn by his heroine, Marlene Dietrich (he once plucked his eyebrows to resemble hers). Neil Roger gowns were both sexy and tasteful. He developed an acute sense of colour, and a feeling for the weight and fall of particular fabrics.
But his own taste, both in dress and home furnishings, was a camp send- up of masculinity. During the war, serving with the Rifle Brigade in Italy and North Africa, he claimed to have advanced through enemy lines wearing a chiffon scarf and brandishing a copy of Vogue. It was a joke that he enacted, in one way or another, throughout his life. His suits - he bought up to 15 a year, costing pounds 2,000 each - were of macho military cut for day wear: padded shoulders, fitted waists and narrow trousers without turn-ups. His overcoats sometimes had two tapering rows of buttons, Hussar- style, emphasising the slim waist. But, crowned with a carnation, Watson, Fargerstrom and Hughes's tailoring achieved a pernickety dilettantism that was unmistakably feminine. In the evenings, he wore suits made of gay brocatelles, silk velvets and satins. At louche parties at Dundonnell, kilts were obligatory and Bunny revelled in the male/female double-take.
Among the Regency and Victorian architect-designed Gothic furniture from Addison Road is a pair of pine hall chairs with backs carved as a bull and a goat, symbols of rampant male sexuality - and a set of 12 ebonised chairs covered in cowhide by Elizabeth Eaton: rural rawhide transformed into closet camp.
The pictures in the sale are evidence of an intimate involvement with contemporary art and artists. There are two still lifes by Eliot Hodgkin (1905-1987), whose work was bought cheaply by a small coterie of connoisseurs before the art market latched on to it. His Six Quinces is estimated at pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000, his Eight Pheasants' Eggs in Two Punnets, pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000. Hodgkin's meticulous photo-realism would have appealed to Bunny. But then, so would the broad, macho brushstrokes of Josef Herman (b1911), who gained fame by painting burly Welsh miners. Herman's Road to the Mountains is estimated pounds 800-pounds 1,200. Alan Roger supported the young Scottish artists William Maclean and James Hawkins.
That twilight world where the genders play tricks upon each another was a constant source of amusement for Bunny. When a taxi driver spotted him powdering his nose as he got out of his taxi and quipped, "You've dropped your diamond necklace, love!", Bunny retorted, quick as a flash: "Diamonds with tweeds? Never!"
The Roger Collection, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 28-30 January, 10.30am-2.30pm daily at Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-293 5000)
Neo - Edwardian Street fashion
It is sometimes inaccurately written that the Teddy Boy style and phenomenon appeared in Britain during the mid 1950s as a rebellious side effect to the introduction of American Rock'n'Roll music. The Teddy Boy predates this and was a uniquely British phenomenon.
The subculture started in London in the early 1950s, and rapidly spread across the UK, then becoming strongly associated with rock and roll. Originally known as Cosh Boys, the name Teddy Boy was coined when a 1953 Daily Express newspaper headline shortened Edwardian to Teddy.
Wealthy young men, especially Guards officers, adopted the style of the Edwardian era. The Edwardian era had been just over 40 years earlier, and their grandparents, if not their parents, wore the style the first time around. The original Edwardian revival was far more historically accurate in terms of replicating the original Edwardian era style than the later Teddy Boy style. It featured tapered trousers, long jackets that bear a similarity to post-war American zoot suits and fancy waist coats.
There are differing accounts of where the Teddy Boy style actually started and the ensuing pattern of geographical expansion. Some writers[who?] maintain that the first Teds emerged in the East End and in North London, around Tottenham and Highbury, and from there they spread southwards, to Streatham, Battersea and Purley, and westwards, to Shepherd's Bush and Fulham, and then down to the seaside towns, and up into the Midlands until, by 1956, they had taken root all over Britain.There is however now more evidence to support the view that the working class Edwardian style and fashion actually started around the country at about the same time. Part of the reason that South London is seen as the birthplace of the working class Edwardian style is because the popular press of the day reported the emergence of the style. However, there are many reports of the style being adopted in other parts of the country in the early 1950s with young men wearing tighter than normal trousers, long jackets, 'brothel creeper' shoes and sporting Tony Curtis hairstyles.
In 1953, the major newspapers reported on the sweeping trend in men's fashion across all the towns of Britain, towards what was termed the New Edwardian look. However the working class Edwardian style had been on the street since at least 1951, because the style had been created on the street by the street and by working class teenagers and not by Saville Row or fashion designers such as Hardy Amies.
Although there had been youth groups with their own dress codes called scuttlers in 19th century Manchester and Liverpool, Teddy Boys were the first youth group in Britain to differentiate themselves as teenagers, helping create a youth market. The US film Blackboard Jungle marked a watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown in Elephant and Castle, south London in 1956, the teenage Teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the cinema's aisles. After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown.
Some Teds formed gangs and gained notoriety following violent clashes with rival gangs which were often exaggerated by the popular press. The most notable were the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, in which Teddy Boys were present in large numbers and were implicated in attacks on the West Indian community.The violent lifestyle was sensationalised in the pulp novel Teddy Boy by Ernest Ryman, first published in the UK in 1958.