Monday, 22 April 2013

Last-Year Reads: Model Girl by Charles Castle

Written in 1977, Charles Castle's Model Girl is a fascinating - though dated - survey of the world of modelling, a career which is "the most highly paid and glamorous a young girl can enter". It's the second book called Model Girl I've featured on this site. Jean Dawnay's book was about her experiences modelling in the early 1950s: she's in this book too, as are hundreds more beautiful faces of the time, some still household names, some now long forgotten.

Snobby, at times sexist, Model Girl remains a fascinating read because of the range of its survey, the hundreds of gorgeous pictures included in the book and the people Castle interviewed, including Barbara Goalen and Jean Patchett, Henry Clark and David Bailey. Jerry Hall, who gets the honour of appearing on the book jacket is quoted extensively throughout.

This book whets my appetite for Caroline Evan's The Mechnical Smile, out at the end of the month, a study of the first fashion shows in Europe at the turn of the twentieth-century. Castle offers some fascinating insights into the early days of house model in the couture houses, where the best girls being fought over by the houses. Sumurun, shown above, christened as the less-exotic Vera Ashby, was at Lucile before moving to Norman Hartnell, is described in hyperbolic terms, as an "enchantress of the desert, the word’s most feted mannequin, courted and feted by many men, proposed to by at least a score."

And there are their descendants in the couture houses of the 1950s, like the stunning Welsh model Bronwen Pugh, a house model for Balmain. Though top of her game and well-known in her time, as she was a house model, rather than a photographic model (though is show in the image above), her image and name is less famous today than, say Barbara Goalen. Balmain describes her as: "Very tall and incredibly slim, she walked with long, easy strides, her arms motionless against her sides … In her big, light-coloured eyes there was a complete absence of expression and ignorance of what was happening around her. She had a habit of slightly disarranging her hair as she entered the salon, giving herself a nonchalant air that is a sign of supreme English elegance." She subsequently married Lord Aston of the Cliveden set, and was caught up in the scandal of the Profumo affair, as this Independent article reveals.

The whole book is tinged with a slight sadness about the end of this golden era. Castle says, "Model girls of the seventies became reflected these changes by becoming rather like the aloof models of the fifties, expect they have a harder, tougher look about them ... They need to have strong looks to go with the clothes and the multi-million empires they advertise; to go with the tough times the seventies have brought us." The book harks back to the professionalism of the 1950s model. The photographer Henry Clark also sighs, "These girls in the fifties did their homework. They worked out everything they had to know for their trade. In other words in order to be as beautiful as they could be."

Mingled in with the reminiscences are some telling blanket statements. Remember Castle's stinging dismissal of Marisa Berenson? Poor French girls get it worse ("French girls rarely make good models. They are, moreover, extremely unprofessional … French girls have neither the physical dimensions, nor the right temperament for the job."). There's also slightly condescending career advice and diet, make-up and exercise plans for girls looking to get into the industry.

However, the modelling as a career angle to the book gives the book a more commercial emphasis, rather than simply fawning over the looks of the girls (though there's plenty of that as well). I was interested to learn, for example, that Evelyn Kuhn's contract with Revlon - the first exclusive make-up contract for a model, and negotiated on her behalf by the all-powerful Ford agency, lead to a 37% increase in their sales in the first year.

It's also wonderful at capturing some of the chemistry created when a good model and a good photographer work together. Jean Patchett, shown above photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue, explains how he'd spin a story for each photo shoot: "It’s at the Opera, and I’m looking for this lovely man I’m madly in love with. It’s intermission and I can’t find him. Suddenly, I see him in the distance and I’m trying to catch his eyes over everybody’s heads … At one sitting, we would easily take five hundred pictures for one outfit. He called it chasing a bluebird."

Similarly, it was watching Cecil Beaton and Dorian Leigh at work which inspired Henry Clark to pick up a camera: "It was total magic making them work together. Dorian was wearing a suit – and I was knocked between the eyes. I knew there and then I wanted to be a fashion photographer." Model Girl hints at the lives and careers of hundreds of models and photographers, but - with its wonderful selection of illustrations - itself is a testament to the fact a strong image can remain the most captivating thing of all. Drawn from over 70 years of fashion photography, it shows that despite changing times and faces, a great image is eternally fascinating.

Buy this from Last-Year Girl Books on Etsy

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