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
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.”