Thursday, 2 June 2016

The Imitation Game: Lucie Clayton and the World of Modelling

“A top model is an infinitely valuable commercial asset, more photographed than any film star and more imitated than any woman in history”, wrote Lucie Clayton in her book, The World of Modelling and how to get the London model-girl look. Throughout history, the profession of modelling and the act of imitation have been closely intertwined, exemplified by no one more ably than Lucie Clayton herself. In 1968, when The World of Modelling was published, she was at the height of her fame. Her modelling agency had discovered ‘the face of the 60s’ in Jean Shrimpton and was exporting the desirability of the Swinging London look, and how to imitate it, worldwide.


LIVING MODELS

Forty years earlier, when the school had opened, the very idea of being a model was questionable, let alone aspiring to resemble one. In 1928, fashion modelling was still a very new profession. While the British couturier Charles Frederick Worth was credited with creating the first “living model”, using his wife Marie to display his designs in the 1860s, but it wasn’t until the early twentieth century when Lucile popularised the idea of the fashion parade at her London salon. Lucile also began the practice of selecting only beautiful women to model her clothes, taking them from their working class jobs and recasting them with exotic sounding new names. She created a theatrical, ‘catwalk’-like structure for her models to parade down and show-off her latest lavish, romantic designs.

The practice created such a sensation it was quickly imitated. In 1909 Harrods’ Diamond Jubilee celebrations included a display of “living models”, Selfridges’ introduced regular in-house fashion parades and other department stores swiftly followed suit. By 1924, Whiteley’s was ambitiously promising “the biggest and most attractive mannequin parade ever staged”. Mannequins were modern. In Dorothy Whipple’s 1930 novel High Wages, the opening of a determinedly fashionable women’s clothing shop in a small Lancashire town is – naturally – celebrated with a mannequin parade, “something new for Tidsley”.

However, for their high visibility, these early models had a particularly poor reputation, as I’ve written about in previous posts. And they lacked any real power. As mannequins paraded in stores, their role wasonly a few steps removed from the carefully choreographed steps of theatrical chorus girls, who were, similarly, often costumed by couturiers. “Model” was employed as a useful catchall term, employed to cover up an array of less reputable jobs. But, as Lucile set the precedent for her models to appear in public, to wear the most up-to-date fashions and to become the object of desire for wealthy suitors, they became able to transverse Britain’s strict class stratified society in a way not possible for other working class women.


FROM BLACKPOOL TO HANOVER SQUARE 

Although reported by the press of the time, there are few names of individual models from the industry’s early history that are still familiar today. One exception is Lucie Clayton, although a name now more closely associated with finishing school than fashion modelling. However, Clayton – responsible for finessing the social niceties of generations of women – was a product of the fluid, sometimes unsavoury profession that was modelling in the early 20th century. What’s more,despite her fame for teaching debutantes to curtsey, Clayton’s background was unmistakably working class, arriving at her Hanover Square offices from Blackpool, via Tooting.

Despite her more conventional-sounding name, Lucie Clayton’s business was rooted in performance as much as the likes of Lucile’s models. Born Lucy Sylvia Dorrell in around 1909, she became Clayton in 1926 by deed poll. Working as a mannequin gave her a means to leave Blackpool, first working in northern cities before moving to London. She hit headlines for insuring her long, blond hair for £1000 (or so the story goes: surviving photographs from the 1920s and 30s show her with bobbed, dark hair). Time working in Paris taught her the advantages of deportment and etiquette for social advancement, and she claimed to have become so successful at modelling that she began passing jobs onto her friends.

Her jobs weren’t the only thing she shared. At the same time she changed her name, her fellow occupants of Elmbourne Road, Tooting, also both became a “Clayton”. Although the reasons for this are unrecorded, it was perhaps part of a greater master plan. Two years after the name change, and while still in her teens, the Lucie Clayton Charm School was established. Somewhere along the way “Lucy” also had become “Lucie”.



“YOU CAN NO LONGER TELL A SHOP GIRL FROM A DUCHESS”

Lucie’s business was part mannequin agency, part mannequin-training school. Although it wasn’t the first modelling agency in the world – an honour that goes to John Robert Powers in the United States in 1923 – it was significant that its figurehead was a woman (something unmatched by the States until Eileen Ford established Ford Models with her husband in 1946). The schooling aspect of her business was responding to a real need. In the same year the agency was founded, the “big call on the mannequins” prompted by the popularity of fashion parades meant that, reported The Times, some firms “experienced considerable difficulty in supplying their needs”.

However, the demand for these schools came as much from the public as from businesses needing to fill positions in their mannequin parades. As Lucie demonstrated,modelling was a way a woman could escape the limitations of her background. It offered fame, glamour, and – if the many novels about mannequins were to be believed – the possibility of a glittering marriage. It fitted perfectly with the desire for reinvention to beginning to also be capitalised on by the burgeoning beauty and cosmetic industry (fittingly, Lucie’s husband, Alex Golledge, worked in advertising). In 1933, The Vogue Book of Beauty criticised any woman who regarded her appearance as fixed and unalterable (as, prior to the 1920s, it would have been considered proper to do) because it meant “some vital, shining part of her is extinguished forever”. The 1930s also saw the birth of the makeover feature, a media staple ever since. And, when that pillar of the British clothing establishment Jaeger, re-launched in the decade, their advertising claimed that “thanks to [us] you can no longer tell a shop girl from a Duchess”.


“ONE CANNOT BLAME THE MANNEQUINS. IT IS THEIR BUSINESS”

The boundaries between respectable and unrespectable women in public were becoming increasingly blurred – it could no longer be assumed that a woman in public in make-up was a prostitute – and such advertising helped fuel existing postwar anxiety about appearances and identities. The work of the mannequin only further confused these distinctions. Her job was primarily, in Colette’s words, "to excite covetousness", and – for the first time – upper class women were coveting how their social inferiors dressed and looked. As Caroline Evans describes in Mechanical Smile, her book about the early French and American fashion models, it was mannequins who would be the first to wear the newest fashions, and they would be the ones to establish exactly how it was worn. Even before the First World War, The Times commented on how “it was the mannequins who started the forward movement from below the waist, and it was the same young women who taught the society woman how to shuffle along in very tight skirts. One cannot blame the mannequins. It is their business; but why need a society woman take a mannequin for a model of deportment?”

But the mannequins were frequently blamed, and with charges that were more serious than purely sartorial. Marek Kohn is discussing the ‘dope girls’ of the 1920s in the description of the ‘combination of the marginality and modernity made them the ideal raw material for an awful warning to women as a whole’ but it could have equally been written about models. The silent modernity of the mannequin made them easy targets in contemporary fiction, “They’re a bad lot, those mannequins, and as clever as they’re made,” states Rosemary Gray in her 1932 story His Mannequin Wife, reflecting common attitudes of the period. Other novels cast mannequins as duplicitous liars and cheats, husband stealers and drug smugglers, descriptions that could have been lifted straight from contemporary press reports.

Mannequins may have mixed with high society, but they weren’t yet accepted into it. Although by 1936 the Marquis of Donegall could confidently state that “mannequins of the dress and hat firms are absolutely ‘the thing’ with Mayfair young men”, the vulnerability of the mannequin’s position was illustrated in a case brought by Lady Erroll in 1929. She sued the Daily Express for claiming she had become a mannequin. Awarding Lady Erroll £120 in damages (an amount it would have taken the average model roughly two years to earn), the judge concluded that, while he was not suggesting a mannequin was “not a respectable person or was a person of bad character who could in any way be sneered at or despised”, it was nonetheless defamatory of a woman of Lady Erroll’s “social character and reputation”.

By equipping anyone prepared to pay her fees with the tools to learn the affectations of class and style, Lucie Clayton was attacking such social stratification,although she cleverly avoided positioning herself as such.


ELOQUENT ICONS OF MODERNITY 

While other businesses clearly labelled themselves as “mannequin training schools”, by naming her company the more innocent sounding “charm academy”, Lucie bypassed the tawdry associations conjured up by the word ‘mannequin’. Agency owners in the United States echoed her action in the 1930s and ’40s and, only in the 1950s, when the profession was much more admired, did Lucie Clayton’s school start using the word ‘mannequin’ as part of its name.

If, in the words of Caroline Evans, “mannequins had a powerful symbolic presence. They were eloquent icons of modernity, even in their silence”, Lucie Clayton recognised that this silence kept models as symbols only – it allowed them to remain typecast as improper, villainesses or simply not there. She broke their silence by stripping away some of the myths and mystique that had developed around fashion modelling. She spoke to the press and allowed photographers and news camera into her school – there are several British Pathé films dating from the 1930s to the 1950s taken at the Charm Academy that report on girls exercising, being groomed and trained in the act of modelling. Lucie was skilled at winning headlines for her work. In 1937, for example, she trained eight unemployed girls from Wales as mannequins for free, later touring them as ‘Ambassadresses of Britain’ around the United States.


POLISHING ITS IMAGE: THE BRITISH MANNEQUIN AND PHOTOGRAPHIC MODEL ASSOCIATION 

Lucie’s activities reflected a wider desire to increase industry standards and, in 1938, the British Mannequin and Photographic Model Association was founded. Lucie’s husband, Alex Golledge, was its first secretary. The Association’s objectives were straightforward: to “procure satisfactory wages and conditions of employment” for mannequins and "to promote and protect the welfare and the interests’ of its members, as well as improving ‘the general position and status of mannequins". Over 150 mannequins attended the first meeting, with their demands widely reported in the press. Golledge – the only male on the committee – commented on the costs associated with modelling: the money spent on hairdressing, cosmetics, stockings, dresses and suits and gloves and accessories, at that time provided at the models’ expense, rather than by their employers. Gloria, a model who had become famous as the face of Selfridges, voiced her discontent with the profession, telling a reporter “we have been nobody’s children for too long”. Lucie, meanwhile, set about organising the Mannequin’s Ball to raise money for Guy’s Hospital and awareness of the Union, and ensured it made the front page by inventing a new dance for the occasion, the "Mannequin Glide". Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is how the women they look like they are having fun.

Over time, such endeavours helped raise the reputation of modelling in Britain. According to Lucie Clayton’s The World of Modelling, it was with such continual “polishing of its image” that modelling could be reinvented for a new age. It was no longer the terrain of immoral girls on the make, but a world suitable for respectable young debutantes. The successful model of the 1940s and ’50s was typified by the likes of the unmistakably upper class Barbara Goalen: cool, in control and most definitely a lady. By the 1960s, fashion modelling was the era’s most desirable profession. Working with David Bailey,Jean Shrimpton – Lucie Clayton’s star graduate – changed look of modelling once again. This time it became young and fresh, matching the fun fashions and spirit of the sixties. By 1968, The World of Modelling proclaimed that, unlike their predecessors of the 1920s and ’30s, top models had successfully “swept aside class distinction and broken through international barriers”.

But modelling’s wide appeal risked pulling the profession back to what Clayton and her contemporaries had fought so hard against. By the 1960s, the description “model” was once again being used as a smokescreen for less reputable activities. Agency owner and former mannequin, Cherry Marshall was not alone in criticising the “call-girls, nightclub hostesses and dollies in pin-up magazines” that chose to describe themselves as “model girls”. In fact, Marshall’s agency, Lucie Clayton and five others joined forces to become The Association of London Model Agents in an attempt to maintain standards. There were still many battles to be fought. During the Profumo Affair, for example, the press continually politely referred to both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies as ‘freelance models’, causing Lucie Clayton to wrote to The Times to once more defend her profession’s reputation. Criticising their use of the description, she suggested that, as Ms. Keeler was currently writing her memoirs for a Sunday paper, it was surely only fair that she should from then on be known as "the well-known journalist".

LUCIE CLAYTON: A NOM DE GUERRE 

Except that Lucie was also being deliberately lax with her accuracy. This “Lucie Clayton” wasn’t exactly who she said she was either. In 1950, Lucie had sold her agency, her school and her name to a businessman Leslie Kark, and, from then on, his wife Evelyn would appear, be photographed, and write books, all under the name Lucie Clayton. It was her who had written to The Times, continuing the efforts of her predecessor. Describing her own battles fought within the modelling industry, Kark admitted that Lucie Clayton was “appropriately” a nom de guerre.


Lucie Clayton’s name still belongs to the Kark family, who have kept the business moving along with the times, just as it had responded to the desires of the 1920s. In the 1960s,classes at the Lucie Clayton school included how to prepare for TV appearances; in the 1980s, the syllabus included an introduction to the Stock Exchange. In the 21st century, when the emphasis is on models to be ‘natural’ untrained beauties, the modelling element has gone entirely from Lucie Clayton, but the business still caters to today’s needs. It has become part of a business school, while part of their original premises has been converted into an exclusive property development.

The story of the "real" Lucie Clayton slipped from view entirely, her death date unknown, perhaps appropriately for an industry that places no value on the old. The modelling industry continues, pedalling youth, the new and the latest fantasies of beauty, itself – like Lucie Clayton – a testament to the power of reinvention.

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