Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Best Dressed Woman in Town: Mrs. Harrison Williams

"What do I care if Mrs. Harrison Williams
is the best-dressed woman in town?”
-Cole Porter, “Ridin’ High,” from Red, Hot & Blue (1936)

Cole Porter sang about her; Beaton photographed her; rich men made a habit of wanting to marry her, and she spent most of the 1930s at the top, or close to it, of any “best dressed woman” list. Who was Mrs. Harrison Williams?
Mrs. Williams, née Strader – Mona to her friends – was born in Lexington, Kentucky, around 1899-ish. The two-time divorcé married Harrison Williams, a somewhat mysterious figure usually referred to as a “utilities magnate,” in 1926. In 1933, and again in 1934, Mrs. H. W., topped the Paris dressmakers’ annual list of the “World’s Best Dressed Women.” Famous for her furs and jewels and somewhat eccentric fashion sense, “her selection in best-dressed lists is not due to the quantities of clothes she buys – although her purchases are enormous – but due to the authentic individuality she lends to the garments she acquires.”
The electing dressmakers of 1934 estimated that the best-dressed ladies spent an average of $50,000 a year to maintain their smartness. But, “not only were wealth, charm, and beauty. . . essential to placing on the list, but vivacity, poise, personality, brains, and ‘it’ (in addition to the $50,000).” Ernest Dryden, a “noted Viennese designer” who numbered Mrs. H.W. among his clients, asserted that in her case, the $50,000 was not necessary. "Mrs. Williams is the best-dressed woman because she has a- a what you call ‘knack’ for wearing them, She has inherent good taste. She is educated in their selection and their appropriateness. If she spent only $1000 a year for clothes, she would still be one of the world’s best dressed women.”
Mrs. Williams, however, never had to put this theory to the test, as she had the perfect accessory to go with the "world's best-dressed woman" label - a husband who was one of the world’s richest men. The 1937 best-dressed list, in which Mona Williams was toppled from her #1 posish by two duchesses (Windsor and Kent) and a princess, the estimated expenditure ranged from $20,000 to $100,000!! But, before you choke, note this includes every article of wearing apparel – furs, underwear, accessories, and small jewelry purchases, as well as the large expense of beauty treatments, hairdressing, and massage. Still choking? So are we. Golly, sitting here in our $2.98 Hooverettes, we’re staggered today by Dryden’s $1000 figure, nevermind $100,000!
Dorothy Dale wrote a series of profiles on the American women on Paris’ best-dressed list in 1938. Mona later acquired the title of Countess Bismarck when she married Count Edward Bismarck after the death of Harrison Williams in 1954. She herself died in 1983. More about her can be found in this history from the Mona Bismarck Foundation (which she founded) in Paris.
In June 1936, a horrifying incident occurred: Mrs. Harrison Williams, Mrs. Harry Cray, and Mrs. Raymond Guest appeared at the wedding of steel heiress Barbara Phipps and Stuart Janney, Jr. – one of THE social events of the season – wearing identical white and blue print frocks!!
So, how can the rest of us mere mortals be well-dressed without spending a fortune (or rather, several fortunes) on clothes? Mr. Dryden offered these suggestions in 1935, which he called the "10 Commandments of Fashion":

1. Avoid fripperies
2. Invest only in fabrics of good quality
3. Dress to suit yourself, not your best friend
4. Shun “noisy” clothes
5. Don’t be a slave to fashion edicts
6. Don’t worry about the price tag
7. Don’t try to be “the last word.” It is better to wear a good model labeled “yesterday” than a poor one labeled “tomorrow.”
8. Don’t strive for a large wardrobe. Correct, not frequent, changes are important.
9. Avoid cheap looking accessories. If you must add something to your costume, add a touch of color.
10. Don’t try to be different.
A number of gowns once owned by Mrs. Williams and others of her “best-dressed” set from 1935-1940 were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2002-03. Some images of them can be seen here.

Sources included:
Dorothy Dale. “Untitled She Lives Better Than Any Princess,” April 10, 1938.
United Press. "Mrs. Harrison Williams Re-elected As World’s Best Dressed Woman,” December 12, 1934.
United Press.“Wallis Windsor ‘Best Dressed’ Stylists Aver,” June 30, 1934.
United Press. “Mrs. Harrison Williams Heads Paris List of Best Dressed Women,” December 12, 1934.
Ursula Petrie.“Oh! Dear, Dear! What a Shock for International Society’s Best-Dressed Woman,” Salt Lake City Tribune, August 23, 1936.

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