It may very well have been fashionable society girl and Pont Street resident Lillie Langtry, way back in 1882, who first popularised the Little Black Dress (LBD).
When she was introduced to London society by Lord Raneleigh at a well-to-do reception, she wore a simple black dress, worn with no jewellery, and captured the attention of prominent artists Frank Miles, who couldn’t help but sketch her striking feature several times that night. Sir John Everett Millais, the famous Pre-Raphaellite artist and Chelsea resident, was also enthralled with her wit, charm and beauty, and eventually painted her portrait.
Millias’ portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy and Lille became very popular at all the right dinner tables, eventually reaching the notice of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), who craftily arranged to be seated at her side at a dinner party given in 1887, when she was 34, while Lillie’s husband was seated at the other end of the table. Yes, the prince liked the ladies. More to the point: never underestimate the power of a LBD.
Though the Prince was married to Princess Alexandra and had six children, he became infatuated with Lillie and they began an affair. She was presented to the Prince’s mother, Queen Victoria, and had a civil relationship with the Princess. The Prince let Lillie design a house, the Red House in Bournemouth, as their love nest.
Their affair came to a close in 1880, either because Lillie misbehaved at a party, or because French actress Sarah Bernhardt arrived in London in 1879 and eclipsed Lillie, rumours vary.
Lillie, saucy minx that she was, also had affairs with Prince Louis of Battenberg, while she was involved with Arthur Clarence Jones, an old friend. In June 1880, she became pregnant. Her husband was not the father; she led Prince Louis to believe that he was. When the prince told his parents, they had him assigned to a warship. Given some money by the Prince of Wales, Langtry retired to Paris with Arthur Jones. On March 8, 1881, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Jeanne Marie.
Without Royal favour, the Langtry budget got rather tight and, short of money, Lillie decided to pursue an acting career at the suggestion of her friend, Oscar Wilde. The Prince of Wales supported her and she became very famous, eventually moving to 21 Pont Street in 1882 – now the Cadogan Hotel – and touring America as an actress.
The Cadogan Hotel, Sloane Street
Even after she sold the house in 1885 and it was absorbed into the hotel, she would stay in her old bedroom. In fact, she was so attached to the rooms that her ghost is said to haunt her old living quarters.
The Cadogan Hotel was acquired this year and is about to go through a £26m rejuvenation under new owners Belmond. So, before the scaffolding goes up for the next two years, pop in for a glass of wine or a cup of tea and see if you can catch a glimpse of Lillie’s phantom.
And, should you be in the market for an equally spellbinding Little Black Dress, we recommend Versace for dresses sexy enough to stop any prince in his tracks.