A New Cafe Society

I’m at what might be termed ‘the third stage’ of life, and while that may mean that I no longer stress over the small stuff, it doesn’t mean that I am complacent and content to let life pass me by. The opposite, in fact, is true – every day is precious to me and I do feel there is a sense of urgency to make sure I ‘see’, ‘learn’, and ‘do’ as much as possible, and ultimately make every day count.

It is for this reason that I decided to honour Halloween because I like that its origins stem from periods of transitions – the time between autumn and winter (for the northern hemisphere) and spring and summer (for we antipodeans), and the oh-so-delicate balance between plenty and paucity, and life and death. For those of us who have been ‘around’ for four or more decades, we truly understand how precarious the scales of these precious commodities can be – and how easily they can be tipped in favour of their opposite.

Over the centuries, Halloween has evolved into a secular, community-based event characterised by child-friendly activities such as trick-or-treating. Some people choose to have parties or bonfires, dress up in costumes and offer their guests sweet treats, and I decided on a variation of this theme – I held a Thermomix party on my back deck.


I invited some friends to drink water from my retro amber glasses and much stronger substances from far more delicate stem wear, and to behold the magnificence of the Thermomix most ably demonstrated by Kristine Celliers. As well as being a demonstrator extraordinaire, Kristine is a trained naturopath, so we got some extra tips for some really healthy alternatives to some old favourite recipes. Some products are destined to become iconic, and just as Thunderbirds Are Go – I can almost guarantee that Thermomixes Are Go too – watch this space for more information as I master the intricacies of this technological marvel.

My new friend – L, but kindred spirit, lent me this most beautiful of books to read: Cafe Society: Socialites, Patrons and Artists by Thierry Coudert, and because good food goes hand-in-hand with good company, I’d thought like to start my own version of a ‘Cafe Society’ – without the snobbery but with all the style, glamour and gentility of yesteryear.


A Bit Of History About The Original ‘Cafe Society’

The original term ‘Cafe Society’ was first a term given to the ‘bright young things’ (and maybe a few ‘older things’ still burning brightly) who gathered in cafes and restaurants beginning in the late 19th century in places like Paris, New York and London. They were not always part of the Establishment but rather people with money and therefore had no need to work, or artists who had attracted the attention of society for being brilliant, witty, or charming.

Cafe Society was made up of sets of people – circles within circles. The main group was the noblesse oblige, also known as the “Windsor Set” after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson). These were people of means who went to each others’ dinners and balls, went yachting and traveling together and basically tried to keep from being bored by throwing parties, gossiping and having weekend stays at each others’ country houses.


A second group was comprised of socialites and society figures who served to set the tone. They weren’t necessarily the ‘big names’ in terms of birth or wealth but they had money and definitely went to the right places, hung out with the right people, and sometimes made good marriages that bettered their station.

A third set was comprised of artists, writers, photographers, magazine editors, and other creative folk who were very talented and caught the eye of the movers and shakers in the scene who often became their patrons, providing them with money, commissions and places to stay. These were people like Cecil Beaton, for a time Truman Capote (before he betrayed his beloved ‘Swans’ –  Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Marella Agnelli, and was ostracised), Jean Cocteau, Noel Coward, etc.


Photo courtesy theredlist.com

The fourth circle was made up of escorts, seducers, Don Juans and gigolos. Contrary to what you might think, it was not a bad thing, necessarily, to be an escort on the cafe scene. What this meant was that you were either the long-term lover of a married man or woman and therefore had your own station in life, or that you were a favoured, platonic friend who received benefits like an apartment or invitations to the right parties. Escorts sometimes started out as someone’s gigolo and then became a trusted adviser and friend. The origins and pedigrees of many of these people were often unknown – they simply came onto the scene, and gave it everything they had.

It was maybe better to be an escort than to be in the fifth circle – fashion icon. These were people with no background or standing whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to be seen in the magazines and at society events. If you want a comparison within today’s world, the Kardashians, et al, would fill this role.

‘Cafe Society’ was the point in history when social classes started to mix and one was more likely to find an eclectic mix of people at parties, but it was also marked by snobbery not often based on wealth. It was the time period from the 1920s to the 1960s, with a group of people often described as chic, romantic, tragic, snobby, cosmopolitan, superficial, louche, and depraved. And say what you will about it – ‘Cafe Society’ was certainly never boring!

Style Is The Best Revenge

If Myrtle (aka Tilly) Dunnage, who hails from the country town of Dungatar, were not a fictional character from the new extraordinary Australian film The Dressmaker, (and also based on the gothic novel by Rosalie Ham) she would be most welcome to join my version of a new ‘Cafe Society’, as would her mother, Molly Dunnage (played with considerable aplomb by Judy Davis). Without spoiling your viewing pleasure, this is a must see movie with a great moral compass. Tilly (played by Kate Winset with an impeccable Australian accent), and Molly, demonstrate how great style always trumps bad (and bullying) behaviour.


Photo courtesy http://www.entertainmentwallpaper.com


2 Comments on A New Cafe Society

  1. Allan Gardiner
    November 2, 2015 at 12:42 pm (2 years ago)

    The cultural theorist Raymond Williams points out that meanings accumulate around a word when it is a site of ideological conflict. The word society is a case in point. The medieval meaning was `companionship’. I guess this led to the meaning similar to `a club’. When Thatcher said society didn’t exist she had in mind the view that human society is based on cooperation rather than greed. `Society’ also once meant the public world of the `well-born’ minority. `Cafe society’, as you say, comes from a time when entry to the elite was opening up to some other types. Status was becoming a matter of fame and new money more than family origin. When an elite is forced to justify its position on the grounds of being morally, spiritually, culturally superior, there is at least a possibility of immanent critique. But the people in our versions of `the society pages’ no longer feel obliged to champion high standards of virtue.

  2. thehipsterette.com.au
    November 2, 2015 at 6:05 pm (2 years ago)

    Interesting comment – I like the idea of medieval meaning of society as ‘companionship’.


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