There’s Something About Millicent

Cherie Burns follows the life and fashion of Standard Oil heiress and muse to many, Millicent Rogers

As a child, Millicent Rogers probably had no idea how much influence she would have on fashion and style in the early 20th century. She was rather sickly, known for being shy, and spent most of her time reading books and trying to avoid falling ill—a rather mundane beginning for the glamorous flapper and woman-about-town that Rogers would later become. She seems to have lived the American Dream: her family was new money (her grandfather was a grocery clerk turned whaler turned American industrialist) and Rogers herself was an heiress it-girl, an American archetype as eternal as the cowboy. She came to represent quintessential American style before people even knew what that was, mixing high-fashion and traditional garments from around the world and wearing denim long before it was considered fashionable to do so. She would have looked right at home in a Ralph Lauren ad from the ’70s.

Cherie Burns’s book is a fairly standard biography—there are randomly dispersed facts chronicling the miniscule details of various parties, mansions, tours of Europe, mentions in Vogue, and all of her lovers and husbands (though all this information is not always presented in an organized fashion). And of course, the book covers all of the designers she wore and influenced–Schiaparelli, Charles James, and Rudolph Valentino, to name a few.

One of the more fascinating parts of the book is about Rogers’s war years, when she hosted events for the USO and other relief groups. At one point she worked for the State Department, which was chronicled in the pages of Vogue, like so much of her life. Rogers had no shortage of love affairs in Washington—while she was there she met both Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. She was really into Brits in uniform at the time. She worked incredibly hard during the war, and her connections and creativity served her well, but because she was an heiress she didn’t get paid (even though she actually didn’t have as much money as people thought).

I was intrigued by Rogers’s decision to move to Taos, New Mexico in the later part of her life, and her involvement in the Native community there. At the end of the ’40s, Rogers was introduced to the American southwest by artist friends and became obsessed with the place, particularly the sartorial culture of the Pueblo Indians. She quickly established herself as what may be called a Native rights advocate, and introduced their traditional jewelry and fashions to the outside world. In 1947 she left her palatial mansions on the coast to lead a simpler life closer to the Pueblo. She died in New Mexico in 1950, when her poor health finally caught up with her.

For me, Searching for Beauty raised a lot of interesting questions about fashion and appropriation, though that is not the book’s intent or something it addresses explicitly. Rogers was well known for appropriating the native dress of many of the countries and places she visited, starting with her European sojourn in her late teens/early twenties and ending with the Pueblo Indians. Rogers was a study in contradictions on this point—on the one hand, she often bought these items from the people who wore them, and understood their significance (she was known for going to the ceremonies of the Taos in proper ceremonial dress), but then she had them sent to European designers like Schiaparelli to be copied. The Millicent Rogers museum, which is made up of Rogers’s fantastic collection of Native American jewelry, art, and textiles, is known for preserving these artifacts. Still, she was one of the first people known to make appropriating clothes from other cultures fashionable, and I couldn’t help but think that Rogers, without intending to, contributed to the mainstreaming of First Nations dress. Did she have a hand in young white people wearing headdresses and major fast fashion corporations making offensive “Navajo” underwear? No one seems to have written a really great book about this, though the internet provides a couple of good options for those who want to know more: Native Appropriations and a Native fashion magazine, Native Max.

photography // Brianne Burnell