Monday, 23 January 2012

Last-Year Reads: Model Girl

Jean Dawnay with John French: "To every model at the beginning of her career he is a sort of God"
(via Larkabout)

The glimpse behind the scenes at Ford Models got me searching for a book that told you really what it was like to model in that period. A scour of the further reading section of The Golden Age of Couture lead me to this book: Model Girl by Jean Dawnay. Written in 1956, it's her recollections about working as a model in the early fifties.

As she admits, she was lucky enough to be one of the successful ones. The book opens with her hanging about in Majorca with Grace Kelly, she modelled for Dior, was photographed by the likes of Louise Dahl-Wolfe and John French and after this book was written, like Ms Kelly, even ended up marrying a prince (she's now known as Princess Jean Galitzine and her daughter is 612th in line to the throne according to - who else? - the Daily Mail).

While she has all these fantastic experiences, the tone of the book makes it all seem very matter of fact and she takes pains to emphasise that modelling is a job like any other. There's lots of detail on the day-to-day business of modelling which is interesting in how it differs from today. Each model had to provide their own accessories and jewellery and, most of the time, do their own make-up too. She cites Max Factor's Pan-Stick or Revlon's Touch and Glo as model favourites and it's interesting to see how their tricks - such as putting white theatrical paint on inside rim of the lids next to the eye for wide-eyed look - have now been made into proper cosmetics and entered the mainstream.

For me, the most enjoyable bits were when she encountered those people who now shape our idea of what fashion was in this period: designers, fashion editors and photographers, as well as fellow models such as Barbara Goalen and Susan Abraham. She modelled for a season for Dior, which is a fascinating chapter giving an insight into the hysteria that surrounded his clothes in the 50s. Dior named her 'Caroline' so as not to get her confused with another model and gave her the designs he'd christened things like ""Innocence" and "Angelique". Jean/Caroline laments: "I wanted so much to be sophisticated but obviously M. Dior had a different picture of me"

She loved working for John French who was her favourite photographer - they're pictured together at the top of this post - and, although she doesn't get to model for Richard Avedon, she is extremely impressed when she gets to witness him at work with Dorian Leigh: "He is always several steps ahead in his ideas and sets standards which other photographers learn by and try to attain."

An initially less happy encounter was a session with Louise Dahl-Wolfe. Jean writes: "She was a nightmare to work with - nervous and irritable, which made me feel the same ... I was astounded when, not only did she book me again and again, but all the results were marvellous." This initial stand-off is put down to nerves on both sides.

Her experience in New York is an interesting one. Already having cracked London and Paris, she goes to try her luck and initially fails miserably. She has a brief dealing with Eileen Ford and goes and sees an unimpressed Elizabeth Arden. She eventually gets booked for a job, only to find out it's for nightwear, a no-no in her eyes. The photographer is "staggered, as all the models in New York do lingerie and he'd never heard of such a quaint idea before!" (compare this to the Ford's rules on appropriateness, given to Life magazine only a few years before).

Eventually she realises her error is British modesty and to succeed she has to become her own publicist which yields much better results. However, it's during Jean's time in New York you get the sense that modelling is shifting to become the industry it is today. The models are all much thinner, thanks to a diet she claims is comprised of benzedrine, dexadrine and black coffee, and the photographers are the hardest to work for due to their exacting standards. The result is that the quality of the magazines is the highest, and the "really great American models are the best in the world ... they have a fabulous air of freshness which comes from impeccable grooming down to the last eyelash."

There's no scandal in Model Girl, or startling insights and, on the whole, it is a very unglamorous read for a book whose author ends up marrying a prince. However, it is a good peek behind the couture house doors of this "golden age" for fashion, and worth noting for how things have moved on since it was written.  

And for that I can raise my glass to Ms Dawnay...

(via Glamoursplash)

If anyone has any good recommendations for books about the modelling industry in the 40s or 50s, Paris, New York or London, please let me know. I'd love to hear your tips. 


  1. a little personal history: when jean mentions a perm she received from her friend evelyn barnes, she's talking about my mom...they met when mom and my dad, jazz guitar pioneer george barnes, were hanging out at the home of industrialist sherman fairchild...:)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...