Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Tacky Southern Taste?

You don't know how painful it was for me to type that title. Yes, there are Southerners who may be deemed tacky, but on the whole I think we have pretty good taste. And despite the fact that I love "Designing Women", the show did seem to feature a lot of bad interiors courtesy of a group of Southern decorators, only helping to perpetuate this vicious stereotype. One Southerner who had great style and taste, at least to me, was Wallis, Duchess of Windsor. I won't deny that the woman had a really cracked moral compass, and I certainly can't hold her up as a beacon of virtue. But the woman did have style in droves.

Billy Baldwin didn't quite agree and in fact labeled Wallis' decorating as "tacky Southern taste". Now I wonder- do you think Baldwin truly believed this? Or was this sour grapes? I don't know, but I don't really agree with him. Except...for the bedroom at top. This pastel confection was Wallis' bedroom at The Mill, the country home of the Windsors. It's colorful and circus-like with those stripes and harlequin prints. I wouldn't call it Southern, but I'm afraid that I do find it a bit tacky.

So what do you think? Was Wallis' taste flawless and was the bedroom at The Mill simply an aberration? (I've included a few other images of the Windsor's home in Bois de Boulogne for comparison's sake.) Did she warrant the accolades that we have heaped on her? Or, horror of horrors, did she really exhibit tacky Southern taste? Let's discuss.

Wallis bedecked in Schiaparelli. She was no beauty, but that dress was divine.

The library at the Windsors' Paris home in Bois de Boulogne

The boudoir that separated the Windsors' bedrooms, Paris


  1. First, thanks for acknowledging that Baltimore is the south!

    Second, I think that bedroom was a one-off. It's so contrary to what I think of as her taste.

  2. Meg, Baltimore is in the South! And, I think that bedroom was a fluke.

  3. ok , I think she added bold where maybe a little more suttle would have been better. For instance the rug in the 2nd pik.. But the first one is horrible..I like the last picture the best..But this is why I like decorating everyone seems to view things so differently!!

  4. Anonymous9:56 AM

    Thanks for the post. I am old enough to remember the article on the mill which was printed I believe in the November 47 issue of Woman's Home Companion. For years I searched for it and when I finally found it at the library I was dissapointed to say the least. For some reason the entire place was quite tacky in my opinion. The gardens however were wonderful. Perhaps she had professional help with her other abodes. If you have access to the other photos I would love to see them.
    Marion from Kentucky

  5. I often find the interiors of extremely rich Europeans to have elements that I would consider to be of "questionable taste". I don't consider the Windsor style to be Baltimore-based, but rather highest eschelon of European society. I attended the Windsor sale previews at Sotheby's years ago and thought rather a lot of their "stuff" was a bit over the top, verging on garish. Much of the Windsor's look came from Jansen and some of it from Elsie de Wolfe, both of which weren't above a bit of tacky here and there. The Windsors' interiors all look really comfortable to me, lavishly appointed with lots of cocktail and cigarette tables covered with exquisite bibelot and just where you'd want them to be if your life was principally defined by parasitical indolence, as their's were. Still, one must hand it to them -- they really "did it", didn't they?

  6. Anonymous10:30 AM

    I've lived in the four compass points of the country and seen enough of what locals do in their "decorated" homes to declare that Southern Style is not tacky. I think of it as comfortable and elegant, when it's done right. That bedroom is matchy matchy and that's what makes it tacky.

    The best rooms are ones that compliment the features and purpose of living in them. Coordinated rooms are either boring or tacky.

  7. I think the bedroom at The Mill is delicious. Apart from the carpet perhaps. I wonder what else would have worked? The pastels need some anchoring certainly.

    I am British and I think it is time Wallis Simpson was rehabilitated if only for her style and intelligence. It was the neediness of Edward VIII that was the undoing here. I am not sure if she wanted actually to marry him in the circumstances; was probably forced into it.
    We must thank Wallis for taking the poor man off our hands, even if it was a constitutional shock to the system.
    Do the Americans use the expression 'naff'? I have pondered the difference between kitsch and naff. The circus bedroom is verging on kitsch because it is genuinely enthusiastic and eccentric. To my mind 'naff' equals aspirational without any taste.

  8. Wait~didn't John Fowler and Mrs Lancaster contribute a little something to The Mill? A dining room with motifs of painted cornstalks above a diapered trellis?
    That wouldn't count as Tacky. But the drawing room with its tartan and ribbon carpet and drum cocktail tables is another story. Not Boudin's work, surely?

  9. I have to agree. To me the bedroom looks very juvenile, more appropiate for an eight year old girl. I think for the most part the Duchess had beautiful taste, this appears to have been just been a random bad moment. I like your term Circus like. Very fitting.

  10. The bedroom at the mill may just be the kind of aberration that occurs when someone with a very specific taste, which in Wallis's case seems to be tradtional, French, and formal, tries to design outside of their comfort zone...i.e. create a light hearted, fun, modern, bedroom, but doesn't quite have the skills to pull it off. My old boss had that problem. When it came to the tradtional, subtle, monochromatic interiors that she personally loved, she did wonderful, beautiful things...but let her try a colorful contemporary or casual space, and oh brother, cicrus like also usually resulted.

  11. Love the chic vintage look!

    How is this for interior design inspiration...

    We braved the heaps of London snow and headed to Hyde Park to build our first sofa made completely of snow... a snofa!

    Check out the hilarious video we made and be impressed with our interiors and furnishing know how. :D


    Snowy love,

    The mydeco team xxx

  12. I think that bedroom (and the decoration of the Mill in general) was definitely what Baldwin was referring to. On the other hand, perhaps there was some sour grapes involved. Though both were from Baltimore, I don't think she particularly liked him or he her, but to have been part of her sphere would have been a feather in Baldwin's cap. Even more so if she'd commissioned him to decorate something, anything. But, yes, the Mill was a tacky house, very tacky, even comical. (The Duke's marigold-and-dahlia-and-red-hot-pokers gardens were tacky too but filled with so much passion.) Yet no country house should be too serious, and the Mill wasn't.

  13. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Stylish, yes. Tasteful, no.

  14. Jennifer, I think you are brave to pose the question. For me, the bedroom proves her taste was not beyond reproach.

    And I agree with the others, it's not really Southern in my mind. But the South is complex and that's one thing Designing Women captures oh so well! It's Julia, Suzanne and Charlene -- and so much more of course.

  15. Anonymous3:42 PM

    I think The Mill bedroom lacks any sense of being pulled together and is definitely amateurish, but there is something oddly appealing and light-hearted about it to me.

    Although I agree with your "cracked moral compass" remark, I have always felt a sense of pity for Wallis. Her role could not have been an easy one. I've always felt the Duchess must have been under tremendous pressure to live up to being the woman for whom the Duke sacrificed an unbelivable birthright and I think this is evidenced through her obsessions with grooming, clothes, and meticulous entertaining (although I think it's debatable whether it was really a sacrifice for him. But that's another discussion).

    Anyways, I've always chuckled to think that if they had a disagreement the Duke could legitimately have said, "Now, honey, I did give up the British Empire for you..." and so on. He could trot out that trump card and I know that must have been a terrible burden as a wife, whether it was said or unsaid - the implication was always there.

  16. I agree with Aesthete--I always got the distinct impression that there was some kind of bad feeling between the two. Interesting that Baldwin would use that expression, though, as he seemed to pride himself on being a southerner. In addition, he worshipped Ruby Ross Wood who was from Georgia, yes?

  17. Wall is my cousin through our Revolutionary War ancestor, but didn't know her. Her clothing was always good and she accommodated for her looks with lovely clothes and jewels. The Duke did all the needlepoint so that might be the reason there are so many pillows on that couch. But, yes I agree, the interiors are too cluttered. Oh well. Margaret in Atlanta

  18. I'm not going to comment on the room, Toby, AL, Court, MM can do much better. But as for her appearance, she is always so neat looking - she must have been very anal. I think that picture of her is gorgeous. Not a classic beauty by any means, but she def. had a great sense of style. btw I adored the French house they lived in.

  19. There is nothing tacky about that Library!

  20. Perhaps style and good taste didn't come "naturally" to her, but she had good decorators, (and couturiers and jewellers...and plently of good jewels from the duke). But I think she was a good and fast learner, and she knew her principal role in life was to look after the duke and to live up to the reputation they had created for themselves; just as in her own words she knew she wasn't pretty, but she wore the very best and finest clothes, so in her interiors she knew she wasn't quite "there", having been shunned by the Establishment, but she lavished enormous amounts of money to create the "look" that made them feel as though they still resided in a palace.

  21. Anonymous11:45 AM

    The bedroom is a "circus"...the Library is gorgeous!! I am concidering covering a pair of newly aquired french chairs in that fabulous golden yellow!

  22. I sound ridiculous......but here goes anyway!

    I have always........since I was a child.....felt really sorry for the Duchess.......I have always thought she had to be someone she wasn't..she had to play a role!!
    She had to live up to the person the king left the kingship for her!

    Pretty damn smart to wear that suit.......Her face.......did not compete with the suit!

    I actually......find her very attractive......extremely.......however....I am not a man.......and I am a woman who looks for and finds beauty in everything! Trees....landscapes.......you name it......

    I think she is quite beautiful!

    (how on earth could anonymous remember anything in 1947? I was born in 1947! and I am almost 62!)

    In any case; I agree that she was kinda forced..however she picked the place....and she signed up for the job. (She probably didn't know......who of us do? ) the scope of the job......when she signed up!

    I think that bedroom she did when she thought "she could do it!" (I have had more than a few clients like this).....and then......she realized she couldn't! so she hired very good people.......and look at the rest of the pics.....divine......

    A really good thing in life is knowing what you "can't" do........as well as knowing what you "can" do!

    Love the whole post........you are a real smarty!


    ps where in texas are you?

    I have just been hired to to a "speaking engagement"


  23. I know this post is s few years old, but can't help but comment - seeing as I am re-reading "Windsor Style", the Duchess aside and her somewhat strange lifestyle - too controlled, with no read purpose. Anyway, that's just my opinion. She had great style, but had many people guiding her style, so although I think she had some innate sense of style, much of it was learned. Ok enough of that. To the bedroom at the Mill, I love it. I love the MIll altogether - it's just so quirky and a mishmash of things they loved. Just like a country home should be. I do love the bedroom, so whimsical. As for tacky, that not the word I would choose, maybe quickie and a little disconnected, but not tackily. I for one, love the Mill. I also love their house in Paris. So there you have it.

  24. Anonymous6:09 PM

    I don't think she had tacky taste or was Southern in her decorating style at all. She obviously consulted the most talented design people of her day and so she mixed disparate points-of-view. She fully intended to take risks in her quest to make creative choices. Wallis married an ex-King, but she never had royal taste. There is a fine line between trashy and fabulous and every super wonderful room has elements that go beyond status quo. Many times I notice that she was excessive. The pink color of the upholstered chair in her Mill bedroom is such an interesting color choice, but it is put in a busy mix of disparate elements which perhaps do not work together. So there are individual elements in the room, like the antique mantle that are super, but not all colors and choices are magical and the excess kills it. I think Wallis liked color alot. However, what people might frame as tacky was that she sometimes did not know when to stop There is much to learn from her, both positive and negative. Southerner Billy Baldwin's comment was not correct, and anyone who saw his awful leisure suits and ubiquitous plastic Parson's Tables used badly know that he had alot of room to talk. Wallis's taste in interior design was always a creative, effective/ineffective mix of Joan Crawford, kitschy Graceland in Memphis, Tenn., Louis XVI, fine antiques, and store-bought furniture. Wallis created a stage set for the drama of her life. So, her decorating was in some sense a kind of fun illusion. From an aesthetic perspective, she deserves to be venerated because she did not just have an iconic sense of style...she was an example of it.