Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Last-Year Girl: Jean Shrimpton

"The most beautiful of all the models I have known was Jean Shrimpton. To walk down the King's Road, Chelsea with Shrimpton was like walking through the rye. Strong men just keeled over right and left as she strode up the street ... Shrimpton herself seemed to have no awareness of her extraordinary looks", Mary Quant

"She’s the unicorn, the rare, almost mythical thing", Cecil Beaton

Where do you start with a face as famous as Jean Shrimpton’s? It could be her relationship with David Bailey, which brought a fresh new look into fashion photography, or there’s the pictures of her simply sizzling with Terence Stamp. There’s the 1990 Jean Shrimpton biography, only written, she told the Guardian in 2011, because she needed money to renovate the roof of the hotel she now owns, the Abbey Hotel in Penzance.

There’s been plenty of mythologising about her contribution to fashion but look at any Jean Shrimpton photos and she still appears every bit as gorgeous and modern as she would have done in the 1960s. Ask me, or the girl next to me, who we wouldn’t mind looking like and the Shrimp will feature pretty highly. No wonder, coming after the groomed hauteur of Dorian Leigh and Barbara Goalen and the like, her looks seemed like a breath of fresh air. And this became her selling point. Her adverts for Tricel, reproduced in Vogue throughout 1964, are peppered with slogans like "look wonderful in your own way" and "girls are looking like girls again", while Harper’s Bazaar, September 1965, boldly proclaims: "This woman is you" (I wish!). David Bailey himself expresses it well in Model Girl, where he’s quoted as saying: "I think the thing about Jean was that she wasn’t the stiff, dummy-kind of posed shop-window mannequin. She was somebody you felt you could have touched, almost … Jean’s look was what every girl wanted to look like."

Jean Shrimpton shot by David Bailey in New York, 1962, via

It was through her relationship with David Bailey in the 1960s that her stunning looks became something other than simply pretty. For Bailey, she was one part of a wider vision, "actually the caricature of what I wanted to make girls look like." Kennedy Fraser, typically eloquently, describes how their imagery "suggested links to anti-establishment elements that had not yet infiltrated the elite precincts of couture". As a famous couple who were clearly having sex with each other, and an unmarried couple at that (well, to each other, Bailey was married to someone else), they chipped away at both the image of the mannequin and what was deemed appropriate behaviour for young ladies of the period.

After Bailey, Shrimpton famously dated the actor Terence Stamp. While together they seem the most dazzling couple (I remember staring at this photo of them reproduced in Ready, Steady, Go for hours in admiration of their beauty), it wasn’t a happy relationship. She describes it in harsh terms in her biography: "In London, my life with him was empty: I was bored, and we must have been exceedingly boring to others … We were so vain that we continued to dress ourselves up and go out to be looked at.” And not just boring, but destructive too. On finding out about Shrimpton’s role in the Privilege film, Stamp was quoted in the national press as saying, "Jean announcing she was playing a lead in a film would be like me announcing that I’m going to perform a rather complicated brain surgery tomorrow." In contrast to her relationship with Bailey, who remains a friend, Shrimpton cut all contact with Stamp after their break-up. In an interview with the Evening Standard magazine from only last month, he’s quoted as calling her the love of this life, “and I kind of knew it at the time, but I was driven. It was my fault. She didn’t leave me for no reason. She left me because she saw I was a lunatic. I wasn’t ready for a twin-soul relationship."

Strangely, considering the showy nature of her relationship with Stamp, Shrimpton genuinely seems to hate attention (even taking her knitting with her on nights out) and is now much happier with a life out of the spotlight. In her own words she’s “waifish, coltish and cack-handed” and it was Bailey who had to teach her how to wear clothes. He agrees. “In terms of personal style, Jean didn’t have any. She just dressed in any old rags. Most of the time she looked like a bag lady.” This is the girl who turned up to American Vogue in leather gear and her belongings in a plastic bag, after all.

She wasn’t mad on beauty products either, despite receiving £70,000, a small fortune in 1967, from Yardley to promote their ranges in the States over three years, their attempt to cash in on swinging London. In her personal appearances, she would apparently get into trouble for telling teenagers to leave their skin or hair well alone, rather than handing them a bottle of Yardley’s latest product.

It was another awkward personal appearance which is credited to Shrimpton starting a worldwide trend: the mini. Asked to promote Orlon fabrics at the Melbourne Cup, she found herself with not quite enough fabric to make a proper length dress. “Oh, it doesn’t matter”, she apparently told her dressmaker. "Make them a bit shorter – no one’s going to notice." But, in then conservative Australia, when worn with no gloves, tights and hats to a prestigious event, society and the press certainly noticed and the image of her in her simple white outfit was flashed across the world. While perhaps she didn’t invent the look– she says that "in Britain, hemlines were beginning to creep up" anyway – it certainly took the mini to the masses.

Shrimpton being styled by hairstylist Alexandre, as reproduced in Radical Rags. Bailey has said of the Shrimp's US magazine appearances "what they did to Jean was amazing: they tried to turn her into a kind of doll – stiff hair, too much make-up, over-production."

If in person, she was never quite the supermodel people expected her to be, behind the camera she was a pro, working with the best and for the best, achieving her self-professed "career pinnacle" of shooting with both Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Avedon took these pictures of Shrimpton being primped and preened at the couture shows for American Vogue in the mid-1960s. She recounts how Steve McQueen marvelled at her skill during their photo shoot together: "'You just turn it on and off'. I shrugged. 'It’s just my job'."

With her husband, Michael, and her hotel, Jean Shrimpton today does finally seem to feel secure, happy and settled. “Modelling was a strange career for me” she states in her autobiography. “Looking back, I realise that I was never really comfortable with the fame that came with it.” While her beauty is still admired and the iconic images she created with David Bailey, according to Kennedy Fraser, lie "deep within each follower of fashion", she is happier with an existence outside the world of fashion. More so than ever it seems. In the Guardian interview, she says "Fashion is full of dark, troubled people," she says. "Only the shrewd survive – Andy Warhol, for example, and David Bailey." Of course.

Want to know more? You can buy a copy of Jean Shrimpton's 1964 guide to the fashion industry, The Truth About Modelling from my Etsy book store. I'm also selling a copy of her autobiography, published in 1990. 

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