June 18, 1911 – Neil Munro “Bunny” Roger:
Throughout history there have always been queens, but few compared to Bunny Roger. Roger was glib, quick-witted, fearless and a dandy to end all dandies. He was a war hero, yet his 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 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 at Oxford, but the university finally expelled him for his indiscrete gayness.
Restless, he traveled first to the USA, and later, drove across Nazi Germany in one of his father’s Rolls-Royces to visit a cousin. He became well known on the London party scene and made acquaintances who helped him find jobs, first as an assistant at the furnituremaker Waring & Gillow, and then in the tailoring department of Fortnum & Mason, the upscale department store that was established in 1707 and still is in business today.
Undaunted, he established his own fashion house in London at just 26 years old. Among his first clients was Vivien Leigh.
When World War II broke out, Roger went in Italy and North Africa as a member of the Royal Rifle Brigade. He was noted for his bravery and courage under fire, even though he wore 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 magazine while issuing the command: ”When in doubt, powder heavily”. Perhaps meaning gun powder, but maybe not.
After the war, he returned to his dressmaking studio in London, but closed it down after being invited back to at Fortnum & Mason to run the couture department. He also invested in the House of Hardy Amies when it was owned by Bunny’s buddy, Hardy Amies (1909 – 2003), a discreetly gay English fashion designer, and a Royal Warrant holder as designer to the Queen, and who designed the entire wardrobe for Stanley Kubrick‘s landmark 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Roger’s money revived House of Hardy Amies, and it was eventually sold to Debenhams‘ department store, which gave him enough to retire in absolute comfort and pursue his favorite activities: partying, socializing, and buying clothes.
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 cufflinks.
His footwear collection was extraordinarily vast. For each of his suits he had four pairs of shoes or boots made, 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 at his 80th birthday party, where he wore a catsuit made of scarlet sequins with a cape of orange organza, and casually greeted his 400 guests from behind a wall of fire to the applause of all. His parties were covered by pearl-clutching double page spreads in the newspapers, including a New Year’s Eve Fetish Ball where half the guests were stiff-collared upper-class, while others wore rubber.
Roger loathed his wealthy father, who did not live long enough to witness the mauve catsuit, but he was angry in 1956 when a newspaper carried photos of that 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 plucked his eyebrows to look like Marlene Dietrich, whom he adored. When he visited Hollywood, he was disappointed and disenchanted that he was compared to the young actor 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 grand home 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 their estate in Scotland.
All extravagant queens like an audience, but Roger inspired a following, probably because he never stopped entertaining or because people are always nostalgic for style.
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 perfect 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.“