I first came across Sumurun in Brigid Keenan’s 1978 The Women we wanted to look like. Here was a model, a household name according to Keenan, but I’d never heard of her before. She also appears in Charles Castle’s Model Girl described in breathless language as: "enchantress of the desert, the word’s most feted mannequin, courted and feted by many men, proposed to by at least a score."
So, as Molyneux’s star mannequin she was fascinating enough, but it was obvious from Keenan’s piece that – never mind wanting to look like – she was the women we wanted to be like. “I haven’t minded growing old,” she told The Sunday Times. “I can’t bear people who look back all the time – it is the most old-making thing there is. To live in the past is ridiculous.”
I thought of Sumurun when the recent stories about the mistreatment of models emerged at Paris Fashion Week. Sadly, “sadistic and cruel” treatment of models seems to be the historic norm, but it was a comment from the model Edie Campbell that really stood out:
“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” she said. “I have – by luck and by good management – made it to the top 1% who manage to have a voice and agency over their own careers. [But] I have witnessed a lot of upsetting things.”
Like Campbell, Sumurun made it to that precious 1%. Also, like Campbell, she was prepared to use her position to speak out.
The birth of Sumurun
As you’ve probably guessed, Sumurun was not her real name. The woman who was to become this “enchantress of the desert” was born in England as Vera Ashby. Well educated, she was pushed into finding a profession after her father’s antiques business failed.
She faced the limited choices available to women in that era. Vera had attempted being a chorus girl but disheartened with the experience, decided to try her luck as a mannequin at the London branch of Lucile. This was a much better fit, and she swiftly won the approval of the designer Edward Molyneux, then at the helm of the branch. Continuing the tradition in modelling that Lucile herself established, he renamed her ‘Sumurun’, a name conjuring up images of sensuous, exotic beauty.
However, Molyneux’s attempts to move the house forward didn’t sit well with the more stuck-in-the-past Lucile, and he was fired. Molyneux simply moved to Paris and opened his own house on the Rue Royale taking his two favourite mannequins – Hebe and Sumurun – with him.
Molyneux 1923, via
Sumurun in Paris
Molyneux’s new venture was an immediate success, and it’s interesting to see how Sumurun is featured in the publicity. One New Zealand newspaper described Molyneux’s October 1920 display as the “greatest success of the kind ever known in Paris”, also noting that “Sumurun, scored a tremendous success, and after the exhibition, crowds waited outside the Molyneux salons to watch the departure of the famous beauty, much as if she had been a world-renowned prima donna.”
She also featured in a later report, written by the photographer Baron Adolph for Harper’s Bazar, which introduced her to an American audience, along with the latest Parisian creations. “My fancy decks them all in glittering brocades, in diamante, in endless ropes of pearls,” he wrote in the January 1923 issue. “Hebe, Sumurun, Ginette, Gaby – in fact, all of the most famous Paris mannequins. They float before me, a whirl of beauty and a confused vision of magnificence.”
The two mannequins Molyneux had brought with him from Lucile, Hebe and Sumurun, were two different types of women. Hebe was “an English girl with a melting complexion”, the perfect foil to Sumurun’s “oriental excitement’” Molyneux was continuing Lucile’s practice of picking out different types of women to highlight different aspects of clothes. There’s a Jean Rhys short story, 'Mannequin', which echoes this. Listing the girls inside a French fashion house, there’s: “Babette, the gamine, the traditional blond enfant : Mona, tall and darkly beautiful, the femme fatale, the wearer of sumptuous evening gowns. Georgette was the garconne...” I can't help but imagine Sumurun as the Mona type.
Molyneux’s forte was stunningly simple clothes that suited the thrust of the new decade. His designs were elegant, modern and “absolutely right”, perfect for clients that included period-defining woman such as Helena Rubintstein and Wallis Simpson. But amongst the refined blues and blacks that became Molyneux’s preferred colour scheme, there were more extravagant numbers. There were luxurious tea gowns patterned with Japanese blossoms to be worn with turbans and pearls, and tabard-like shift dresses that shone with the embellishments of metallic threads, silver beading and rhinestones. Irises, flamingos and coral fishes enlivened simple chemises, the kind of designs that would only be enhanced by Sumurun’s dark beauty. The finales of his fashion shows were known for being particularly spectacular. For one, Vera was rigged up with electricity. At the precisely right moment, the jewels in her turban and earrings lit up. Cue the rapturous applause.
“Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins”
Thanks to a surviving British Pathé newsreel we get to see Sumurun in action. “Capt. Molyneux and his bevy of beautiful mannequins” made an appearance at the Daily Express Women’s Exhibition, held at London’s Olympia in 1923. On offer to visitors were a wide range of entertainments, from dancing to fencing but also fashion shows, featuring displays from big names such as Worth and Molyneux. Sumurun later recalled how a group of women had travelled especially from Bath to see her. Looking at the clip, one of the most noticeable things is the easy, natural rapport that obviously exists between her and Molyneux.
Behind the scenes
However, things weren’t so glamorous. A mannequin’s meagre wage would be further decreased by the necessity of purchasing stockings, shoes and accessories to accompany the ensembles modelled (remember the list given to a new model in Noel Streatfeild’s Clothes Pegs?). Sumurun’s memories of her earlier years in Paris were punctuated by less-than-glamorous meals of “sausages and mashed”. “Imagine wearing thirty guinea gowns and furs all day long and going back to a tiny bed-sitting room and cooking two sausages over a gas ring,” she recalled. “If that’s romance, I have heaps of it! And so have all the other mannequins I’ve ever known!”
How do we know all this detail about Sumurun’s career and life? It’s because in 1930, a five-part serialisation of her life story ran in the People newspaper and she used her position as the 1% (to go back to that Edie Campbell quote) to emphasise the poor conditions facing models (and this is at a time when modelling has an even sketchier reputation than it does today). Sumurun/Vera asks her interviewer what he thinks of mannequins. “I know what you are thinking”, she says, before he has chance to respond, “You think we are an empty-headed crowd of girls turning our good luck to easy, business advantage and probably ‘no better than we ought to be’”. Sometimes Vera is sarcastic, she is always self-aware (“we talked about men mostly”, she remarks about topics of conversations amongst models. “You can’t expect mannequins to discuss the theory of relativity now can you?”). She tells her audience, “A mannequin has to work – and work really hard – to be any good at her job”.
Molyneux, 1926, via
More significantly, she criticise those who perpetuate the poor position of mannequins within society. If “some of them become what people call ‘gold diggers;” she demands, “How can you blame them?” Vera was acutely aware that, despite their glamorous reputation, for the majority of mannequins “all that their gold digging amounts to is just a few jolly lunches and parties and perhaps now and again a handbag or a box of gloves or a bouquet or a big box of chocolates.” Modelling was, in her words “a blind alley profession for girls”, something that ended when the model is no longer deemed young and attractive enough to show the clothes. Even today, it’s still rare to see a high fashion model in her thirties or forties. Vera managed a relatively long career as a model, making appearances into her early thirties.
“Sumurun the Famous International Model”
Such was Sumurun’s fame, that she was able to successfully work freelance in the second half of the 1920s. An advertisement for Baroque of Bond Street boasted of having secured the services of “Sumurun’, one of the most beautiful mannequins”, while Barker’s, the department store, promoted a display featuring “Sumurun the Famous International Model”. Again, it reminds me of Edie Campbell’s quote about being lucky enough to have agency over your own career.
She moved back to London permanently in 1937 and became a vendeuse (“Madame Vera”) in Norman Hartnell’s salon, at a point when his star was on the ascendant. In fact, she boasted, she was given responsibility for dressing the Queen. And there she worked until her retirement in 1968.
Vera as Sumurun was lucky and canny enough to take advantage of the opportunities offered by modelling – going from “sausages and mashed” to the Queen – without it letting the industry take advantage of her: she was, like Edie Campbell, the fortunate 1%. How women’s lives have shifted over the last 90 plus years. It seems utterly crazy that, somehow, the modelling industry doesn’t seem to have done the same.