Monday, 28 April 2014

Monday Detail: The Collar

1. The Collar
"Shop Girl", Kensington, London, 1906. Photographed by Edward Linley Sambourne. Via

“Jane took a pride and joy in her collars; and Lily ironed them secretly and carefully for her.”

Jane is the heroine of Dorothy Whipple’s High Wages. This novel was published in 1930, but set around the First World War, making Jane another interpretation of that well-known early twentieth century type: the shop girl. But unlike many of her fictional counterparts, Jane is going to work hard, rather than relying on her looks to capture a fictional husband. Surviving on a low wage, Jane knows it is details such as collars that matter.

Her later, real life successor is the 23-year-old typist from Liverpool, quoted in Catherine Horwood's Keeping Up Appearances, who in 1939 has also learnt that the collar is a quick fix for smart and economical dressing. She says, “it's always a source of amusement to me to watch the reaction of the men in the office if I wear an old dress coupled with a white collar. They don't notice the dress - the collar does the trick! Give me a white collar!”

Types of collar, Harper's Bazar, 1872. Via

But the collar isn’t just the concern of the younger working woman too: just think of Nora Ephron meeting with her female peers and discovering they’re all wearing more age-friendly turtlenecks or Mandarin collars, as she notes in the piece that her book the name I Feel Bad About My Neck. On Women’s Hour last week Celia Birtwell was praising the collar as a pretty detail for the older woman’s daily uniform.

Christian Dior was well aware of the transformative affair of a good collar. He counselled: “If you want to look young you will choose a crisp material too - like piqué. If you want to look sweet you will select a fine piece of lace.”

Collar styles, as illustrated in Christian Dior's Little Dictionary of Fashion

Collars, as a fashion accessory, are back perhaps because it’s such an easy way to add a touch of prettiness to a basic T-shirt or sweater (again, nothing new: my Practical Home Knitting book – written at the height of Make Do and Mend – advises: “wear little pique collars with the classic jerseys and transform them into the smartest French models.”). I wrote about a selection for Domestic Sluttery here – I especially love the Cleo Ferrin Mercury trapeze design. What’s more, the dickey seems to be making a mini comeback too, under a variety of different names: take a look at Mr Start, or this one from Cos. Perhaps tellingly the rationale given to them this time around is about not adding bulk to your figure, rather than reasons of economy.

Deciding on what collar to wear is not without its potential pitfall. Dior cautions in the Little Dictionary of Fashion: “The famous 'little white collar' is, of course, very nice and youthful; but don't use it too much because it may sometimes look cheap.” And he continues with a golden rule – one that Jane already obediently obeys – “never wear a white collar twice - it must be spotless.”

Who knew a simple collar could carry so many different connotations? As Janey Ironside wrote in her Fashion Alphabet (and quoted in this blog post about the Peter Pan collar), “Only hats, when they are in fashion, can do as much to help a woman or to kill her looks.”

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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Last-Year Girl: Bettina Graziani

Bettina presenting a hat by Legnoux, January 1954.

Bettina’s lively elfin features make her one of the most recognisable faces of the post-war era of fashion. At one time her name was equally well known - so much so that Shell picked ‘Bettina’ as the password for their first computer. Like all the best models, she helped create the image of a new, modern kind of glamour, first for Jacques Fath and later for Givenchy. And through her relationship Aly Khan, she also put the activities of the fashion model into the mainstream gossip pages.

Bettina was born Simone Micheline in 1925 in Normandy and, like many other young French women, moved to Paris for work. She became a model after approaching Jacques Costet with some of her fashion sketches. He instead saw her potential as a mannequin. But her ascent through the fashion world took a bit of a detour when, in 1947, she met her first husband Gilbert ‘Beno’ Graziani and moved to the south of France to run a small café for a season.

Bettina in 1952 for Picture Post 

When that didn’t work out (like the marriage eventually didn’t too, although she kept Beno’s surname throughout her career), the couple returned to Paris and she became a mannequin at Lucien Lelong. Bettina was bored at Lelong. In her 1963 autobiography, Bettina, she describes the models there. While Praline “was very gay and very lovely”, the other girls, “remain as colourless in my memory as the house itself”. She must have wondered what would have happened if she’d taken up the offer from Dior, whom she met in the corridor at Lelong and had invited her to work for his new house.

Instead Bettina decamped to the charismatic couturier Jacques Fath who, in this petite 5’4” red-haired and freckled model, spotted the modern woman he wanted to embody his creations. He was responsible for giving her the name Bettina and for cutting her hair short. For her first collection for the house, she had no less then thirty ensembles created for her.

Jacques Fath in the studio with Bettina. Photograph by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, via

Bettina was very happy at Fath – she later tells Interview magazine it was the highlight of her varied career. Even so, she remembers some of the stresses of a couture house, the traumas of the fitting room, where “everyone would keep bursting into tears. The forewoman would cry if she thought she had muffed a dress, the mannequins would weep when a dress destined for them was given to another girl, and the second-in-command in the workroom would arrive in floods of tears because a dress had a mark on it.” Then there was the rude customers, who “make personal remarks out loud as a girl goes by … No single flaw escapes them.”

Fath’s gift for publicity also benefitted Bettina, as the couturier pushed her to the fore. Bettina explained to Interview magazine, “At the time, Fath was interested in conveying an American spirit and a brand new attitude. He wanted to communicate a modern image to the media; it was very important to him. So, I became the face of Fath.” And it worked. Not only in making Bettina the fresh face of Fath (one fashion journalist wrote, “Dior may have his New Look, but Fath has Bettina”), but also in business terms. At the time of Fath’s death in 1954, the takings of his house were second only to Dior.

On the cover of Picture Post, 1951. Photograph by John French. 

Bettina was one of the few to become a photographic model as well as a house model, or as she describes it, a “cover-girl”, at a time when “being a cover-girl was something new in France.” Another Bettina, Bettina Ballard - editor for American Vogue in Paris - wrote of her skills: “The photographers loved to work with her because she listened, was never irritating, never difficult, and she had a way of posting that was stylized without being weird.”  Her abilities took her to New York, where she was represented by the Ford model agency. Life profiled her and her friend and fellow model, Sophie Malga, for a feature called “French Models Thrive in US” in their 24 July 1950 issue. The magazine notes the duo had quickly “established themselves in the top group of most sought-after models in New York”.

Life reported the fairytale, but there was some adapting to do. Bettina found the American system “very strange”. Bettina explained, “A New York cover-girl’s life is utterly different form that of her Paris counterpart, for improvisation is out of the question in New York and so is the good-humoured, free-and-easy attitude to work we had experienced in Paris. Every moment was counted and no one ever dared to be even five minutes late.” (Judged by this different standard, it perhaps explains why Charles Castle criticises the lack of professionalism of French models).

However, Bettina adapted herself to life in the States and, according to Vogue, became "popular not only with the editors and photographers but with every man who ever dreamt of meeting a French mannequin". Although she turned down a film contract, Bettina lived for two months in Hollywood with her lover, the American screenwriter Peter Viertel, where her social circles included the likes of Bogart and Bacall, Garbo, Elizabeth Taylor and Hemingway. However, it was her subsequent relationship with Aly Khan that was more serious.

The Bettina blouse, as seen in Life, via

The intensity of this relationship, and its tragic end when he is killed in a car crash, means Bettina unfortunately skims over her work with Givenchy in her autobiography (although this happens prior to her relationship with Khan). She helped shape Givenchy’s debut collection in 1952, as a model and a muse, but also with responsibilities encompassing the roles of PR agent and house directrice. Bettina believed a mannequin could inspire a couturier: “her role is not an entirely passive one … She may, by some gesture, some movement, some stance she adopts, give him an idea, either for some detail or even for an entirely new dress.” The first Givenchy collections, Vogue later writes, “channelled Bettina’s personal style, sending her out barefoot in cotton separates, revolutionizing the couture at that time.” The collection included relaxed styles of luxurious separates, including the elaborate blouse that came to become known as the “Bettina blouse”. By 1954 Bettina was so famous that she was asked to put her name to a line of sweaters.

Bettina with Aly Khan, 1957

Many models of the time balanced modelling with married life. Louise at Fath was a typical example: “the most respectable bourgeois life awaited her when she got home in the form of a husband, a little girl and the kitchen chores.” But, at the request of Khan, and to the grief of the fashion industry, Bettina gave up working in 1955. Her autobiography suggests there were many aspects of the relationship that were demanding and difficult but, by her own account, Bettina was very happy with her new life, until the accident that took Khan’s life. Her book concludes with the belief that “to love and understand a man is the only way to fulfil one’s destiny harmoniously.”

Bettina at the opening of an exhibition, 1973 

Bettina eventually returned to the world of fashion in various ways. In 1967, aged 42, she modelled for one season for Chanel. In 1972 she became director of haute couture for Emanuel Ungaro. She was also instrumental in supporting the career of Alaia – who she names as one of her favourite designers of all time. Her contributions were marked by award of the medal of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, where Frédéric Mitterrand told her, “You became the emblem of a certain French idea of fashion.”

Like so many of the models who have made their mark on fashion, Bettina stands out because she was different. As she told Vogue in 2009, “I had a different style ... because I can’t say I was the most beautiful. It’s not a question of beauty. You have to have a personality.”

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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Last-Year Reads: Something Wholesale by Eric Newby

Eric Newby’s Something Wholesale takes us into a long gone world. It’s his memoir of working in his family’s wholesale business in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War It was published in 1962 and, even then, Newby notes he is writing about a ‘commercial venture of a sort that is now extinct’.

I discovered this book in a couple of ways. Liz Tregenza recommended it to me on Twitter after I’d finished In The Mink – it’s the business side to Anne Scott-James’ more glamorous, though often no less ridiculous, world. I also went to Peter Carty’s travel writing workshop who suggests this book on his blog, as Newby is far better known as a travel writer. You can imagine how his observance of detail and sense of the absurd translate into excellent commentary. And, for the benefit of this book, you don’t really get more absurd – or possibly comic/tragic – than a family company falling apart, ill equipped to cope with the rapidly changing world of fashion.

Lane & Newby sell ready-to-wear women’s fashions mantles, gowns and costumes to department stores and madam shops. The staff are a motley crew of eccentrics, led by Newby’s father, a man who would much rather be out rowing on the river. There’s the inscrutable Mr Wilkins who governs the mantle department and has a taste for saucy seaside postcards, a line in innuendo and careful eye on his expenses and Lola, the exotic in-house mannequin, who is actually called Topper and comes from Muswell Hill. Out of the showroom, you meet the squabbling external tailors and seamstresses, and the various demands of the buyers who have to be kept sated with a steady stream of tea and biscuits, Dundee cake and gin and tonics.

British Vogue, September 1946, via

The clothes are depressing too, constrained by rationing and patriotic intentions. At this time, high fashion, according to Newby, “had become petrified in a cast that was a vague copy of military uniform. Ordinary clothes were even more ordinary than usual.” Reading his descriptions, there’s nothing sold by Lane & Newby that you’d ever want to buy.

Something Wholesale is marvellous at capturing the immediate post-war mood. Newby conjures up a damp and dark Britain, where even “evening dresses, like the gatherings at which they were intended to be worn, were dispirited.” But it was difficult to be optimistic when day-to-day living was still a struggle. Visitors from outside the capital visit Lane & Newby armed with farm produce, “a reminder that London in 1946 was still a beleaguered fortress.”

At the edges of the story, you glimpse the government efforts to lift business out of its doldrums. This was when The Ambassador magazine were urging businesses to “Export or Die!”, and that phrase is used as the title for one of the chapters. (Lane & Newby succeed in getting on an export list but, somewhat typically, to little success.) Less ambitious attempts to squeeze some enjoyment from life seem to routinely fail: Newby and his wife Wanda ‘enjoy’ a particularly disastrous trip to a dreary Dungeness. 

See magazine, 1948, via

And then Dior launches his Spring 1947 collection. In Britain, the clothing industry greets this ‘New Look’ with “scepticism and plain derision”. Newby is excited by the collection but doesn’t believe the impact will last. The reaction of British manufacturers, “half-throttled by clothes rationing and frightened by the storm of conflicting emotions which Dior’s collections had released” is to play safe and produce for Autumn “what they had been making for the last seven years with a slightly longer skirt.” But, despite not capturing the manufacturers imagination, it has charmed the public. The result is a collapsing market, as customers simply cannot buy what they want. Well, with a few notable exceptions. In London, the “air of illicit romance” attached to a Dior dress was “speedily recognized by the street-walkers of Curzon Street and Bond Street and apart from a few grande dames and a handful of model girls they were the only citizens seen abroad in the new fashion.”

Vogue, March 1948, via

But it’s not the New Look that destroys Lane & Newby: it’s tax, which has been blithely ignored by Newby’s father. They’re forced to downsize, to much less impressive premises and don’t really recover. Department stores start removing the ‘Lane & Newby’ label from garments because of its old-fashioned reputation, as new brands spring up, more suited to the times, with names “redolent of candle-light and high living”.

Despite his self-depreciation, Newby enjoyed an impressive fashion career after leaving the family firm. He worked for Worth Paquin, then John Lewis where he was central buyer of ‘model gowns’ for the partnership. He attended the early Sala Bianca shows in Italy (back in the spotlight due to the Glamour of Italian Fashion exhibition), where British buyers took a back seat, literally, to the American, and later also German and Japanese buyers. He even covered the Italian collections for the Observer newspaper under a pseudonym. 

John Lewis fashion show, 1950, via

Newby eventually became the travel editor for that paper, which is where he made his (actual) name as a writer. Despite this switch in career, he never quite left fashion behind. One of the things that makes Something Wholesale so enjoyable is that while Newby is prepared to laugh at the ridiculousness of some aspects of the fashion business, he is also clearly very fond of it. In a later epilogue to the book, he is taken to the couture shows by Vogue, where he admires the collections: “With such high standards, anyone who condemned a couture collection in Paris January 1985 in its entirety was a fool”. Newby defends the worth of fashion, not only from a business angle as an industry that employs thousands, but also as craftsmanship and art. He returns to his memory of the seamstresses, working at Lane & Newby and “the concentration which they gave to their work gave to them too kind a beauty which they would not have had if they had been typists or shop assistants”. Fashion, he understands, is a business that can bring beauty and romance into the world, even from the most unlikely circumstances.

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Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Coathangers from Hell: the tricky business of what to call models

I've just come back from a week at my parents. My stays there are always characterised by some binge reality TV watching, and this time I got to catch up on the latest series of Naomi Campbell's fashion modelling competition. That it's a programme about modelling is not referred to in the show's title – instead it’s simply called The Face. The avoidance of the word ‘model’ is nothing new: there have been frequent attempts to supplant or reinvent the description ‘model’, and its French equivalent ‘mannequin’, at times when the modelling industry has wanted to improve its image. But how much difference can simply changing a name ever make?

Caroline Evans' brilliant The Mechanical Smile explains how the history of the term 'mannequin' goes back to the late eighteenth century, when the French press wanted to describe a new phenomenon: the women employed within fashion houses to display clothes. They christened them les demoiselles de magasin–mannequins, or sometimes les demoiselles-mannequins. Aside from being the word for the wax dummies previously used to exhibit clothes, mannequin was also slang for an empty-headed, insignificant or contemptible person. It was, of course, this shortened version that stuck.

Mannequins outside Lucile Ltd, Paris, early 20th century, via

In North America, ‘model’ was used instead, a description also conflating the women and inanimate objects. In fashion houses, the ‘modele’ was the prototype of each design, which would then be worn by a ‘model’. The word carried additional implications. Speaking to an American audience in 1895, the French singer Yvette Guilbert, a former mannequin, explained: ‘we look upon mannequin and model as different things. The first means to try on dresses before customers, but a model in France is a girl who shows her figure before everybody, especially sculptors and painters.’

As Guilbert suggests, modelling had a particularly unsavoury reputation in its early years. Until mid twentieth century, society’s perception of actresses, artist’s models and mannequins was fairly indistinguishable. Betty Trask’s 1933 romantic novel, Mannequin, features Flip whom, ‘in the modern, mysterious manner … appeared … to have been painter’s model, not to mention mannequin, cabaret dancer, dancing instructor … all apparently pretty nearly simultaneously.’ Flip is fairly upstanding but, during this period, it was common for women without money or respectable employment to state ‘model’ as their occupation.

Norman Hartnell and his models, 1930, via

Models held a particular fascination in Britain in the 1920s and 30s. Other examples of romantic fiction published during this period included A Mannequin’s Romance, A Mannequin’s Marriage and A Mannequin’s Mistake. All have a plot centred on the heroine defending her honour, proving she’s not like her mannequin counterparts. Their reputation perhaps explains why the first British agency, Lucie Clayton’s Charm Academy, founded in 1928, avoids both the word ‘mannequin’ and ‘model’ entirely, or why Annabel of Noel Streatfeild's Clothes Pegs was so eager to describe herself as a 'model' instead.

Given its associations, it’s unsurprising that in the 1930s and 40s, when modelling became a business in its own right, the industry leaders attempted to (in modern terminology) rebrand. When John Robert Powers moved his modelling agency – the world’s first – from West 46th Street, in the heart of New York’s Theaterland, to upmarket Park Avenue, he abandoned the word ‘models’ in favour of ‘long-stemmed American beauties’. Clyde Matthews, his contemporary, used the virginal ‘Matthews Madonnas’ instead, while another agent, Harry Conover, created ‘cover girls’, a description that lives on through the cosmetics line he licensed under that name. In her biography Bronwen Pugh - Balmain's catwalk star of the 1950s - describes herself as a 'model girl' because of the 'tawdry undertone' implied by the word 'model'.

Paul Poiret and his mannequins, via

If model and mannequin could be derogatory, nicknames – such as ‘clothes-pegs’ or ‘clothes horses’ – were even worse. Employed to display the vision of a fashion designer or photographer, models cease to be seen as individual women. Designer Poiret commanded, ‘do not talk to the models, they do not exist,’ while the 1940s photographer Victor Keppel simply stated: ‘I regard a model as a tool, not a human being.’ This attitude continues: a 1990s Daily Mail article (who else?) described the model as ‘a coathanger from hell’.

‘Model’ as a description also remains: there is no real equivalent, unless the woman is at the very top of her profession. The word ‘supermodel’ was used as early as 1943 when agency owner Clyde Matthews predicted a glorious future for the industry: ‘The model will be … not just an attractive doll, but a living, speaking, acting, charming woman of international society … She will be a super-model’. Today, modelling has legitimacy and social currency undreamt of seventy or a hundred years ago. Supermodels are expected to be not only living and speaking but also instantly accessible on social media, to have their own businesses and, yes, TV shows, such as The Face.

Yet many distasteful aspects of the modelling industry remain, not least because it promotes a specific beauty ideal. The need for models to be ‘clothes hangers’ and its responsibility for promoting eating disorders is rightly frequently scrutinized. Grubbier aspects of the industry are well publicized: last month, the musician Chris Brown, infamous for assaulting his girlfriend Rihanna, announced he was starting his own model agency, while the fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s alleged abuse of young models has been fashion's worst kept secret for several years.

From these depressing examples, it’s obvious why the modelling industry may again want to attempt to rebrand. ‘Anti-Agency’, a new London agency recruiting on ‘personality, rather than portfolio or measurements’, is being heralded as the possible future for modelling. But, back in the 1940s, Clyde Matthews was suggesting something very similar. As its history shows, it is the wider industry that needs to change. Most importantly, the women who do the work should not be insulted, overlooked or deliberately ignored – whether we call them models or mannequins or something else entirely.

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