June 18, 1911 – Bunny Roger:
I dreamed I was a dreamgirl
running up and down
running up and down
I dreamed I kept composure
I dreamed I held my own
I did not speak and
when I did it was not empty
I welcomed the air on my teeth
and the pang in my lower intestines
I climbed the concrete staircase
I watched in silence from twelve steps away
Throughout history there have always been queens, but few compare to Bunny Roger. Roger was glib, quick-witted, fearless and a dandy to end all dandies. He was a war hero, yet Roger’s most famous contribution to our culture was his invention of Capri pants in 1949.
Roger lived his life courageously and consistently. Here is a story I like: Roger got out of a taxi one day and powdered his nose, when his driver said: “Watch out, you’ve dropped your diamond necklace”. Roger replied:
“Diamonds? With tweeds? Never.”
He had a large influence on how men dressed, a leader of the neo-Edwardian movement in the 1950s, which was an attempt to bring back into fashion the precise tailoring of the turn of the century. He influenced the Teddy Boys (Google it) in a big way.
When Cecil Beaton photographed him, he asked Roger to step off the pavement into the gutter. Roger’s retort:
“Not on your life! We’ve spent two generations getting out of the gutter!“
Roger was a man who knew who, what and why he existed. His was a vividly original life.
Born Neil Munroe Roger in London, Bunny was the most eccentric of three life-long “bachelor” brothers, and certainly the most interesting.
I can’t figure out how he had the time to be a hero in World War II, when he was being a full-time fop and establishing himself as an important fashion designer. He died 22 years ago this week, just a few days before his 86th birthday. He was partying until right before entering the hospital for cancer treatment. He bragged at the time that he had a waist size the same as that of Princess Diana.
Roger was the son of a self-made Scottish telecommunications tycoon. As a youth, he taunted his conservative father by bleaching his hair and wearing rouge. He studied History and Art at Oxford, but the university finally expelled him for his indiscrete gayness. Undaunted, he established his own fashion house in London at 26-years-old. Among his first clients was Vivien Leigh.
Five years later, Roger was in Italy and North Africa in the Rifle Brigade. He was noted for his bravery and courage under fire, even though he exhibited a quirk or two, such as wearing chiffon scarves into battle. He dragged a wounded fellow officer from a burning building that had been bombed. Roger once claimed to have advanced onto a battlefield brandishing a rolled-up copy of Vogue while issuing the command: ”When in doubt, powder heavily”. Perhaps meaning gun powder. Or not.
After the war, he was invited to run the couture department at Fortnum & Mason, an upscale department store that was established in 1707, and he was quite successful at it. He spent tens of thousands of English pounds every year on his own wardrobe. Roger’s signature look was a high-crowned bowler hat paired with extraordinary shoes that he polished himself using homemade stains concocted from beeswax and natural dyes. He customized his footwear, adding red laces to compliment his ruby cuff-links.
His footwear collection was extraordinarily vast. For each of his suits he had four pairs of shoes or boots made, in order to maximize the number of looks for each trouser/jacket combination. He owned over 150 Savile Row suits, so it was not a small shoe collection. Roger had several pairs of the same shoe made when he found a favorite style. He was a great fan of Whisky Cordovan leather, the palest shade of cordovan, notoriously difficult to obtain due to the difficulty in tanning to such a light hue.
Roger hosted lavish, outrageous parties. These soirees were usually themed, as in the Diamond, Amethyst and Flame Balls held to celebrate his own 60th, 70th, and 80th birthdays. He wore an exotic mauve catsuit with egret feather headdress at his “Amethyst” 70th birthday ball in 1981 and he followed that with a sequined “Ball of Fire” costume a decade later, which he wore as he emerged through flames and smoke to the applause of his 400 guests. For day-to-day wear, he favored jackets in lilac, yellow and pink. Roger knew how to stand out in a crowd.
Roger despised his wealthy father, who did not live long enough to witness the mauve catsuit, but he exploded with anger in 1956 when a newspaper carried photos of Roger’s New Year fetish party where the men were wearing leather bondage gear and high heels led by women tethered with chains. His father seemed to have had no sense of humor at all, although when Roger was a teenager, had asked for a doll’s house as a reward for being selected for a sports team, and his father gave it to him. When he was six-years-old his mother gave him a fairy costume with diaphanous skirts and butterfly wings. When he got a little older, Roger would pluck his eyebrows to look like Marlene Dietrich, whom he adored. When he visited America, he was disappointed and disenchanted that he was compared to young George Arliss and not Dietrich.
In his later years his face was what he described as ”much-lifted”.
After his success as a couturier, Roger used his wealth to furnish his mansion with elaborate Gothic furniture, carved with bull and goat motifs, symbols of rampant male sexuality. He bought 12 ebonized chairs and covered them in cowhide. He had his butch moments, it appears.
He lived with his gay brothers at Dundonnell, their estate in Scotland.
All extravagant queens like an audience, but Roger inspired a following, partly because he never stopped entertaining; partly because people are always nostalgic for style. He was true to himself and beneath the mauve mannerisms he was frank, dependable and undeceived.
There was an old-timey euphemism for his type of queer: ”A little light in the loafers”. Well, Roger loved to dance and by all accounts, he was a little light in his size-seven loafers. From his London Times obituary:
“Bunny 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.“