- Words by Mr Colin McDowell
Mr Bunny Roger was a man of contradictions. He had all the grandeur of the scion of a long line of aristocratic privilege yet his father Sir Alexander Roger's working-class childhood was so poor that he frequently went barefoot. But Sir Alexander did not remain poor for long. A gifted entrepreneur and businessman, he became very rich and was knighted in 1917 for his contribution to the war effort. He fathered three sons, Alan, Neil and Alexander, none of whom had any interest in following in their father's footsteps. The least likely to do so was Neil, always known as Bunny, a nickname that was bestowed when he was a child because his nanny used to call him her little bunny, and which was with him until death.
A vividly unique man even in a family as unusual as his, Mr Roger showed an interest in personal display and glamour very early in life and was fully encouraged by his family, including his rather stern and down-to-earth father and his starchy, snobby mother. It might have been imagined that their son's rather feminine interests as a child would be anathema to them, but far from it. For a reward for making the school team, his parents bought him a doll's house, which joined the fairy costume that he had received for his sixth birthday with a promise of a fairy wand to follow.
Mr Roger in a Hardy Amies studio portrait, 1953. Courtesy Hardy Amies Archive
Mr Roger went to Oxford, but with no thought of serious study. Affected and effeminate, he was celebrated as a "beauty" at a time when class, style and even intellectual probity were frequently linked with outrageously homosexual posings, of which Mr Roger must have been quite advanced even in a climate described by Mr Evelyn Waugh as dominated by "lesbian tarts and joyboys". Almost inevitably, with hindsight, Mr Roger was sent down from Balliol accused of usual practices, but he left with no sense of shame and continued to follow his own inclinations. The family was so phenomenally wealthy and the parents remarkably indifferent to the behaviour of their sons that such a check in his education and future job prospects - if, as seems unlikely, he had ever given them a thought - meant that leaving Oxford under a cloud had no effect at all on Mr Roger's lifestyle. There was no problem with money, no cutting off without a penny for bringing shame on the Roger name. His hedonistic lifestyle worried neither his brothers nor his parents, who travelled constantly, renting grand houses for their stays in the United Kingdom, and taking a totally laissez-faire attitude to their sons. It would be true to say that Mr Roger and his siblings lived their lives doing whatsoever they wished, untrammelled by any lack of funds. As a family friend once said, "Everything was charged to Fortnums".
In 1937 Mr Rogers opened a dress establishment with the encouragement of his friend Sir Hardy Amies and a cheque from his father for a thousand pounds. In no time, he had a very "Bunny" clientele from the upper classes and the theatre world, including Ms Vivien Leigh and Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent. Unfortunately, it closed at the beginning of WWII when Mr Roger went off to war - perhaps the most unlikely episode in a life already entirely unlikely. Mr Roger proved a great success in the army (after, one imagines, the initial shock had calmed down) and became famed for his bravery in action, not least, perhaps, in his claim to go into battle heavily rouged, with a mauve chiffon scarf wrapped seductively around his helmet and brandishing a copy of the latest Vogue. But it is not surprising. Under the exterior calm, Mr Roger had the two things the army needs in a soldier under fire - confidence and guts. Describing Anzio, he said, "There were pieces of people flying past my nose and I thought, 'this is perfectly awful but not as bad as being at school'."
He claimed to go into battle heavily rouged, with a mauve chiffon scarf wrapped seductively around his helmet, brandishing a copy of the latest Vogue
After the war, Mr Roger returned to London and worked with Sir Hardy in an ad hoc role involving an almost ceaseless social round, for which he was always immaculately dressed in clothes of such sartorial perfection that they were the epitome of Savile Row tailoring. Virtually everything was made for him by the firm Watson, Fagerstrom & Hughes, which apparently didn't turn a hair at his colourful choice of suitings, such as apple green checks, mustard velvet, rose green jersey and deep purple wool alongside the Highland dress which he wore with immaculate attention to every detail. He actually owned five kilts at the time of his death in 1997, all in the correct tartans, but he looked even more amazing at his birthday parties in the slinky evening dresses he designed for himself in homage to Ms Marlene Dietrich. He worshipped her ambiguous androgyny and matched her waist size right up to the day he died. In the 1960s it was 29", and 20 years later it had gone up by only two inches.
A man of contradictions, indeed, but truly a man for all seasons who would have been at home in virtually any period and society from the 15th century to today, Mr Roger lived his life courageously and consistently. There is a story that, although probably apocryphal, sums up his sang-froid. As Mr Roger got out of a taxi one day and powdered his nose, his driver said, "Watch out, you've dropped your diamond necklace." Mr Roger replied haughtily, "Diamonds? With tweeds? Never." Despite all, he had a larger influence on how men dressed than might have been imagined. He was one of the leading lights of the neo-Edwardian movement in the 1950s, an attempt to bring back into fashion the precise tailoring of the turn of the century. It largely failed, but it gave rise to a pastiche version on the backs of the teddy boys, and their influence on how men viewed clothes had a huge impact. Mr Roger, although a terrible snob, would have liked that. He never forgot the life his father suffered when young. When Sir Cecil Beaton was photographing him in the West End once, he asked him to step off the pavement into the gutter. Quick as a flash, Mr Roger retorted, "Not on your life! We've spent two generations getting out of the gutter!" That was so Bunny Roger, a man who knew who, what and why he was - and who lived up to all three queries throughout his vividly original life.