Unless I’ve missed something, there will be no parade through London today to celebrate the 100th birthday of couturier and socialite Bunny Roger. The small fact of him having died in 1997 is, of course, a factor, but had he lingered like that other old queen, the Queen Mother, I expect we would be waiting in vain for massed Horseguards and Wombles to trudge solemnly past his abode while he waved airily and flashed his pearly greens. But considering what Bunny wore to his 70th (above), and imagining by some metric of camp inflation what he might have donned for his centenary, we have ample reason to regret his departure.
Born Neil Munro Roger, “Bunny” was the son of a self-made man, but no fan of the man he made; father and son never saw eye to eye. How, then, to explain Bunny’s venturesome wardrobe choices, many of which reflected the era which ended just as he was born? It was as if he were rewriting his family history, remaking his own creation myth but erasing the Edwardian magnate father.
Bunny made light of the rift, as he did with most things in his life, taking psychodrama and fashioning it into the florid costume piece of his preference. After active duty in the Second World War, which he acquitted with notable bravery, he commented “Now I’ve shot so many Nazis, Daddy will have to buy me a sable coat.” This is the same war, incidentally, in which he claimed to have advanced into battle with a rolled copy of Vogue.
Bunny had started out early in his chosen metier of frocks, setting up as a couturier in 1937, and finally ending up at Fortnum & Mason where he stayed until his retirement in 1973. Although successful in dressing upper class women, the exquisitely-tailored self which he presented to the world was his greatest and most influential work.
British interior designer and society fixture Nicky Haslam, whose commitment to the treadmill of mingling and finger food rivals even Bunny’s, became a friend of the eminence mauve while still at Eton. In his memoirs Redeeming Features, Haslam describes how his school friends would “gasp at his square-shouldered suits, the corsetlike waistcoats over exaggeratedly skirted jackets and narrowest drainpipe trousers, cut to accentuate his twenty-six-inch waist.”
It wasn’t just cut but colour as well which distinguished Bunny as one of the best-dressed men of his age. His blazers were ablaze, as if a City gentleman had turned his wardrobe inside out rather than shamefully secreting his peacock tendencies in his jacket lining.
Clearly Bunny needed no special occasion to dress up, but perhaps sensing others did he became one of the great hosts of his age. His parties were generally themed, none more notoriously than his Fetish party which would bring the Daily Mail out in a righteous huff if it happened today let alone when it actually occurred: 1956.
Another event was based on Sunset Boulevard, with Bunny photographed by Angus McBean as Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond (in what must represent a perfect storm of camp, Swanson saw the photos and commented “he was far more beautiful than I ever was”).
But a strange tension arises when you examine photos of Bunny Roger. It’s as if he has internalised his hated father; he looks at once like the man he is and the type of person who would disdain the type of person he is. Major-general and major queen in the same wasp-waisted body. Haslam claims to have witnessed a kilted Bunny charging manfully up Highland slopes, pausing at the summit to adjust his makeup using a compact hidden in his sporran; ready, no doubt, for his close-up.
In later life Bunny retreated more and more to his Scottish estate Dundonell. He remained as outsize a presence as ever, it was the parties that got small. He concentrated on decorating (favouring Gothic Revival) and his art collection. And in this rarefied environment it seems the outer and inner selves were reconciled. “His legendary parties, his houses, his dandified approach and outré taste were but a soufflé,” claims Haslam. “They masked an encyclopaedic mind, a sense of history, passionate loyalty, deep patriotism, and the most patrician of values.”