Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Last-Year Girl: Bettina Graziani

Bettina presenting a hat by Legnoux, January 1954.

Bettina’s lively elfin face is one of the most recognisable 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 wants 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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Monday, 31 March 2014

The Symbols of Charm

Charm has been in the news recently - Stephen Bayley has written an eBook about it, and is diligently doing the rounds plugging it. A couple of weeks ago he claimed in a radio interview that charm was 'essentially a male attribute'. Oh Stephen! Somehow his book research appears to have entirely bypassed the huge feminine charm industry that existed in the first half of the twentieth century: both the charm schools and the advice on charm dispensed in books such as The Powers Girls (although some of the advice Bayley dispenses in this Esquire article could have come straight out of a mid-century modelling manual). It's an interesting topic to discuss: we are suspicious of charm these days - think of politicians going on charm offensives and shudder. We've come a long way since  Lilly Daché (my personal charm guru) proclaimed that describing a woman as charming is the 'highest compliment' you can give.

Charm was also the subject under discussion in an advertorial I found, pasted into an edition of Anita Colby's Beauty Book I sold through my Etsy shop. It was by John Robert Powers written to promote his range of Powers Model Hosiery. There's a nice circularity in that Anita Colby was herself a Powers model before heading over to Hollywood. Her own book offers not just a beauty course, but a beauty and charm course.

I've repeated the full advice below (or, if you have great eyesight, you can see from the images above), so we can all - men and women - relearn the secrets of charm. Powers Model Hoisery was launched in 1930 and existed all the way up to 1986. Looking at the typography, I think this advice must date from the 1950s, and shows that charm was not only a desirable quality, it was seen as a powerful tool in appealing to the aspirational woman and to sell tights, if not a lifestyle.

I've just finished reading a 1940s guide by Powers' contemporary Clyde Matthews who echoes much of this advice, arguing that in a relatively young and classless America, charm is the way for a woman to rise to the top of both her profession and society. Perhaps this is my British bias speaking, but today I think part of the reason why we can be so distrustful of charming people is the suspicion that they're using it to hide something. That said, writing this mid-way through a marathon TV session of The Face, I wish the contestants would pay attention to Power's points about personality and voice as they do seem to do on their hair, face and dress. Sometimes you really only notice charm when it's missing.


Symbols of Charm by John Robert Powers

What is it that makes a man's eyes light up when a woman walks by? Is it her face? Her figure? Her hair? The way she walks? The way her lips move in a soft smile, or the warm eagerness in her eyes? Is it the quality of voice when she speaks?

Charm is all of these ... and more!

Small things go to make up charm, which in itself is a mighty big and important thing. Certainly you know a woman (probably more than one) whose figure is not perfect, whose face is not truly beautiful, yet by her personal magnetism she overshadows those with mere physical beauty. This woman understand and has confidence in herself, thus she is able to develop both physical and mental attributes to her advantage.

YOU can be this kind of woman ... one whose charm is evident in all the small ways that count. Let me tell you what I consider the ten most expressive ways. Practise these, and you'll be the woman who attracts every man's admiring glances.

- The way you walk ... graceful carriage is one of woman's most subtle charms.
- The way you sit ... grace in repose is the outward manifestation of poise.
- The way you figure ... a lovely figure requires proper diet to adjust weight, and exercise to adjust contours.
- The way you dress ... know the lines and colors most flattering to face and figure.
- The way you make up ... I call it "make down" - which means accenting, not exaggerating, your natural good looks.
- The way you groom ... gleaming hair, manicured nails, neatly pressed clothes, hose that fit slim and sleek - such things add to a lovely appearance as their opposites detract.
- The way you smile ... the brightness of your expression reveals your friendliness, says you're a person worth knowing.
- The way you act ... good manners are always in good taste.
- The way you think ... turn your thoughts outward, as well as inward, to broaden your interests and thus develop your mind.
- The way you speak ... a well-modulated voice and unaffected manner are essential.

You see, charm is both an inner and outer glow - one prompts and furthers the other. There is no such thing as an unattractive woman, only the woman who does make the most of herself by cultivating the ways I've mentioned. Strive for perfection in each, to achieve that alluring quality, CHARM!

be a Charmer ...

Charm more than beauty, is the secret of a woman's attractiveness. Not all of the Powers Girls are really beautiful, any more than all are blondes, or redheads, or brunettes. But each and every one of them has charm - derived from making the most of her good points and the least of others. Observe their ways ... practice their ways... to become a more charming person yourself. Concentrate on
- your grace
- your fact
- your hair
- your dress
- your grooming
- your personality
- your voice
and I guarantee that compliments will come your way!

- Grace in motion, grace in repose - these are qualities to strive for. When you walk, glide, rolling your weight from the heel to the ball of each foot. Toes, straight ahead. Pace, the length of your foot. Gait, easy and rhythmic. When sitting, relax. (But don't droop - there's a difference!) When standing, show off your most attractive view: front foot pointed forward, back foot at an angle, hips turned slightly, one hand in front, one in back at the thighline. Disassociate yourself - always! - from nervous, erratic motion. As tension decreases, beauty grows.

- Face and fortune are synonymous only with those who care for their skin. Cleanse your face in the morning, at night, and before applying fresh make-up. Give skin the benefit of cosmetic stimulants, lubricants. Use a powder base for smoothness, colour, protection from dirt and grime ... apply it with sweeping upstrokes. Conceal undereye circles with a lighter foundation, soften sharp contours with a darker shade. Rouge high on the cheekbone, blending up toward the eye, down toward the jaw. Accent your eyes. Draw a perfect lipline with deft brush strokes. And remember cosmetics give a lift to your looks ... a smile gives a lift to your spirits!

- Hair responds with a gleam to brush, shampoo and pincurl care. Your brush count: one hundred strokes a day. Your shampoo schedule: once a week for normal or dry hair, twice as often if oily. Have your locks shaped professionally for the style your prefer - one that accentuates your best features. If you do the shaping, trim when your hair is damp. Investigate wave-sets, tints and rinses, permaments, hair conditioners ... experiment until you find the very best for you.

- Dress your type, your height and weight, your age, your colouring, the occasion - you'll be smartly dressed! Simply cut, simply adorned clothes are always appropriate, whether you're sophisticated or demure. You should know that vertical lines add upward inches, horizontals add outward pounds .. that cool colours are the most flattering if your skin has blue undertones,warm shades if its undertones are pink or ochre. Avoid equally: the melange of accessory shades, the matching of more than three unless you are working out a monotone costume.

- Grooming adds important touches to your bandbox look. 'Set' power with a damp cotton ball pressed lightly over the skin. Smooth hands frequently with lotion. Keep legs free of fuzz ... sheathe them in nylons to improve their form. Touch-up your polish between manicures. Renew perfumes every three or four hours, as you renew lipstick and powder. Maintain your daily grooming plan more easily by setting a weekly time for shampoo, manicure, pedicure, skin care, wardrobe check and repairs.

- Personality must measure up to appearance if you are to be a real charmer. Evaluate yourself: your self-control, cooperativeness, dependability, sense of humor, humility, tactfulness, gentleness. These traits exist is every well-adjusted, confident woman who enjoys life and living. Develop them until the rest of the world can see in your what you see in yourself.

- Voice your beauty - it should be heard as well as seen, for your voice is a picture of the inner you. Listen to yourself speak: do you sound breathy, harsh, shrill, monotonous? Correct these faults - you can! Enliven your conversation with new topics, new phrases, new ideas. Broaden your interests to become a more interesting person. Listen ungrudgingly as others speak and respect their opinions ... but don't be afraid to offer your own - politely of course!

There you have it - a five-minute lesson in charm that, once learned and constantly practiced, will enable you to develop your potentials of attractiveness. May that be fully realised!  


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Monday, 10 February 2014

Last-Year Reads: Her Brilliant Career by Rachel Cooke

At the start of the year I vowed to keep up my reading and try and read fifty books this year. I’ve been reasonably successful so far (well, more than at updating this blog anyway), and I’m keeping track of my progress here. One I wanted to write about in more detail, however, was Rachel Cooke’s Her Brilliant Career.

Her Brilliant Career sets out to challenge the repressed housewife cliché that often goes hand-in-hand with our perception of the fifties. Sandwiched between the relative freedoms offered to women in the Second World War and the Youthquake of the sixties, picture that poor fifties woman, chained to her kitchen sink, albeit in a beautiful full-skirted Dior-inspired number. Cooke’s challenge comes in the form of the biographies of ten different women, selected for being “revolutionaries and taste makers”.

Jacket of Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd. Via

This approach gives a vivid sense of the patchwork of life in Britain in the fifties and it’s far more invigorating that you might expect. I remember when I interview the textile designer Pat Albeck for Oh Comely magazine a couple of years ago and she described this period as an amazing and inspiring time, when “people were on a crusade to make life more lovely.” You get something of a sense of that possibility here but that also, with no set examples to follow, each woman had to forge their own, often wayward, path to success. There’s the image of Rose Heilborn sat at her books, carefully and deliberately working her way towards achieving her ambition of being Britain’s first female high court judge. Or Patience Gray – who was once more famous for her recipes than Elizabeth David’s in Britain – whose success came about after an instinctively-governed series of adventures and misadventures.

All the women, with the possible exception of Heilbron, make no attempt to mask their passions, whether it’s as explicit as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes’s bestselling book A Land, a surprisingly sensual exploration of Britain’s archaeology and geology, or the more relatable pleasure Margery Fish discovered when cultivating her garden at East Lambrook.

This approach also makes it apparent that the path of a “successful” woman is never as straightforward as it might appear. Filmmaker Muriel Box survived on a diet of sausage rolls and biscuits with cardboard to patch out her shoes to be able to make her strike for independence. Though more well known than Box today, Alison Smithson’s stark architectural work, designed in partnership with her husband Peter, faced criticism on a national level and they spent long periods with no commissions at all. Today, when we are surrounded by stories by people who have “made it” by the age of 30, or snapshot reports of success, it’s wonderfully refreshing to be able to see the long view.

The book is bursting at the seams with anecdote and additional information. Cooke clearly had a tough choice in whittling it down to her ten women. Lengthy footnotes expand on the culture of the time, and introduce a whole new cast of characters. Ginette Spanier, another extraordinary woman, for example is mentioned only in slightly more than passing as the lover of Nancy Spain (who helped her write It Isn't All Mink). Then there’s the timeline of key events in the fifties, a list of brilliant novels by women from the decades, and an endnote devoted exclusively to fashion in the period.

This approach to fashion is one of my few criticisms of the book. Of course picking ten women is going to be problematic, and there are notable professions excluded. Where are the scientists? There aren’t really any journalists either, except Joan Werner Laurie – a magazine editor whose achievements get slightly overlooked by her complex living arrangements with Sheila van Damm and Nancy Spain - and Patience Gray - better known for her books than her journalism. That’s slightly understandable, as it’s Cooke’s own profession, and perhaps she wanted to bypass any accusations of naval gazing, but it was one of the first professions where women could really rise to the top – look at Anne Scott-James for example (she does get mentioned in both the introduction and the fashion section).

Madge Garland, photographed by Man Ray, 1927. Via

Fashion though … Cooke writes in the introduction “I didn’t want to get too hung up on fashion”. It’s a shame, because she’s missed some great stories. Her brief survey of fashion is very much fashion by couture headline – impact of the New Look, the sack dress etc – and she writes, “actresses and models, as ever, were hugely influential.” Well, not really. The fifties saw the rise of the first named celebrity models in the UK, such as Barbara Goalen. That was something fresh for that period. And, if one of the criteria for being selected for the book is being a tastemaker, what about people such as Madge Garland or Janey Ironside, the first professors of fashion at the Royal College of Art, both remarkable women in their own right and responsible for bringing subsequent generations of women designers into the world (in the fifties including Gina Fratini)? And on that note, what about Mary Quant, whose Bazaar boutique opened mid decade? Her experience of the fifties was something different yet again.

Last year I had the idea that Madge Garland was deserving of a biography. It’s no surprise someone had already beaten me to it – she’s one of the subjects in Lisa Cohen’s All We Know, next on my reading list. Once I’ve read that I’ll let you know if she does stand up as worthy of inclusion with the other extraordinary lives Cooke has highlighted. Because, my fashion grumble aside, these are fascinating lives, wonderfully told and I finished reading Her Brilliant Career feeling encouraged and inspired and, yes as per Cooke’s aim in writing this book, my perception of women’s lives in the fifties having subtly shifted.

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Monday, 27 January 2014

Last-Year Buys: Alice's Pig, Miss Patina and VV Vintage

Not just a chance to look at my overflowing bookcase, here are a few of the things that have found their way into my wardrobe so far this year/month. (You wouldn't be able to guess I'm trying to cut down on how much stuff I accumulate, would you?)

While I managed to resist most of the sales this year, I had to take a peek at VV Vintage's £30 sale. This top barely scrapes into my definition of vintage being, I'm guessing, early 90s at the very earliest. But I was seemingly unable to pass on its combination of denim, embroidery all topped off with a velvet collar, which are all the things I seem to be liking at the moment.

I discovered Brixton-based Alice's Pig through a post by Sian on Domestic Sluttery, and found myself buying the entire combination above - Clara Bow does Burns Night as I described it on Saturday (in case you have any doubt, that's definitely a good thing).

And, after I wrote about them for Domestic Sluttery, Miss Patina were kind enough to send me their Hampton dress. It is beautiful in the flesh, and I'm definitely planning on accessorising with book and glasses, a la the model above. They're also a south London-based company and one of the things I love best about working for Domestic Sluttery is being able to support and promote these independent brands. Go and explore them for yourself - there's lots more pretty things to look at.

Have you made any good new clothing discoveries recently?

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Friday, 17 January 2014

Last-Week Links: 17 January 2014

Good evening, how has your week been? Have you been stocking up on check shirts and excellent knitwear? My last post suggested we should all dress like a sub-deb for Spring 2014 and - appropriately - the Teenage blog did an entire feature on these pre-the-age-of-teen tribes, again thanks to the Life archive. It was in the Teenage book I first heard the term sub-deb, and they feature in the Teenage film too (its full UK release is 24 Jan). Read the piece to find more about the JILTS, JERKS and SWARMI (and to plan your spring wardrobe, obviously).

Sometimes I think this weekly post should be called Last-Week's Life, because there's always a couple of great posts out there based around their archive. Such as their collection of photographs of Gypsy Rose Lee - this picture of her dates to 1949. The whole collection is evocative of what life was like on a travelling carnival at that time. Honey Kennedy also featured Life's fab 1940s pictures of ornate perfume bottles - it's that bamboo shop fitting in the final picture that really makes me marvel.

Do you ever read Port? It's quite a smart men's magazine but their newsletter always contains something interesting. This week's had a glimpse behind the scenes at historic wallpaper company Cole & Son, and an insight into the pattern above, taken from the Carven Menswear autumn/winter 2014 collection: tattoos and street art as glimpsed in the photography of Brassai apparently.

Shortlist have said these are the 25 most stylish men in literature. Do you agree? Although Ignatius J. Reilly is probably one of the most memorably dressed book characters, I don't think he can count - even with 'hipster' logic.

If you watched the drama about the Great Train Robbery over Christmas, you'll remember the controversy that surrounded the posters appealing to the public for their help. Such is the notoriety of this particular case, this poster is going up for auction with a £5000-£6000 estimate. Not quite 2.6 million, but a lot less risky.

[Obligatory Girls link:] masses of press, you'll have seen it all - from Vogue to the Sunday Times. I've not seen a single episode of the new season but still I enjoyed a glimpse into the show's wardrobe (though we probably don't need to see this yellow mesh vest ever again).

I signed off last week's Last-Week's Links hoping for some 1940s fashions in the current stage adaptation of Strangers On a Train. Instead, the costumes seemed to have been drawn from every decade from the 1920s to the 50s. It was so strange, I felt like it must be deliberate - I just couldn't work out why and it became a huge distraction for me. Oh well, there's my theatrical review over. I'm going to see American Hustle this weekend - this time, I'm pretty sure that means I'm going to see some full-on seventies style. Fun.

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