Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Last-Year Reads: The Cat-Walk By Cherry Marshall


As a model in the 1940s, turned model agency owner in the 1950s, Cherry Marshall’s autobiography The Cat-Walk gives a unique insight in the changes in modelling and the fashion industry in Britain over this period. This was a time where models were “expensively dressed by hook or by crook, aloof, disdainful, never without immaculate gloves and hat, she projected an image of a wealthy woman of the world, looking more like thirty than twenty-one.” And, although she made her name at the time when models were at their most aloof, I liked Cherry (real name Irene) a lot, especially as she was fired from one job for smiling too much. She seems very open and forward looking, and refreshing honest about her triumphs and mistakes.

Cherry Marshall as Miss Susan Small, reproduced in The Cat-Walk by Cherry Marshall

Marshall was almost bullied into modelling by another model, Seignon. It was a way a woman could earn money in the post-War period without taking jobs from the boys, and Marshall could supplement the income of her husband, the poet Emanuel Litvinoff, and support her small family. With her fabulously tiny 22-inch waist, she had the figure wanted by fashion house of the period, and worked as a house model for Wallace before moving to Susan Small, a company which specialised in copies of garments smuggled over from Paris. She became so associated with the company, she did publicity tours and adverts under the name of “Miss Susan Small”.

Cherry Marshall modelling, reproduced in The Cat-Walk by Cherry Marshall

It was this period of her life I found the most interesting. As a model, she was supplied with clothes and expected to uphold the reputation of the mannequin at all times. She writes, “You couldn’t appear anywhere without having the new look, not if you were a bona fide model, and no matter how hard you were you got yourself at least one dress or suit or coat.” So she swept through the streets of 1940s Britain looking glamorous while her husband come to look shabbier and shabbier in his only suit. Although she looks glam, the book makes it clear that the modelling profession, is very much work and not very well paid work at that. Marshall’s family is living in a mould-ridden basement in Hampstead and she has to borrow a neighbour’s flat to do an “at home” feature for Women’s Own. Make-up for models was the not-so-luxurious combination of Max Factor pan-stick, supplemented by boot polish mascara and face masks improvised from table salt and cold cream.

Cherry Marshall, dressed in The New Look, reproduced in The Cat-Walk by Cherry Marshall

Although she notes the associated guilt at the extravagance of wearing such styles at a time of world-wide austerity, I think Marshall’s description captures the excitement of Dior’s New Look better than hundreds of other descriptions I’ve read: “Our silk stockings were in pewter grey and our shoes high heeled and deliciously tarty and when we swept along we allowed ourselves the naughtiness of flaunting our hips.”

Marshall is also wonderfully frank about her fellow models. Barbara Goalen and her “too long and thin” nose didn’t do too well in her first job alongside Marshall, but “burst on the fashion world like a meteorite a couple of years later, with a magnificent new nose.” Jean Dawnay “wasn’t all that special” while, at a later date, Bronwyn Pugh (so loved by Charles Castle) couldn’t find any work when working for Marshall’s agency.

Reproduced in The Cat-Walk by Cherry Marshall

As her modelling work was beginning to dry up, Marshall moved into fashion PR, before being approached to take over an existing model agency. She did this with considerable style and energy, introducing things like model charts into her business and organising grooming and deportment classes. And she had a considerable knack for self-promotion, not to mention gumption, including organising a show of British fashions in the then USSR in 1956. This image shows a couple of the immaculately groomed models, poised outside GUM in Moscow, one of the images of the trip that was relayed internationally. She also, more hilariously, organised a Spanish extravaganza to showcase the work of Vidal Sassoon, despite his protests, simply because his name sounded Spanish.


Her classes weren’t only for models but also for hostesses and actresses and those who could benefit from a bit of model poise. She even took a class inside Holloway Prison. Marshall recounts the chilling story of Ruth Ellis, who attended one of her classes but couldn’t wear swimsuits for one show as she was covered with bruises from her abusive relationship. Ellis’s name is now much better known as being the last woman to be hanged in Britain, for killing her lover.


Many happier stories crossed her books too. Though not mentioned in the book, Grace Coddington attended her school, as did Paulene Stone, shown here in a photograph by John French, modelling the simple gingham outfit that catapulted Biba into business.


And, although she missed out on Jean Shrimpton, spotting her the day she signed up to rival Lucie Clayton’s school, she did claim Pattie Boyd as one of her girls. She was “clean, fresh and bubbly and we all loved her.” Despite Norman Parkinson describing Boyd as looking like a rabbit, Marshall preferred to think of her as a “new contemporary girl … fantastic in all the way-out clothes of her generation.” But, even with Pattie on board, Marshall freely admits to being out-of-step with the shifts of the sixties, and (in her eyes), the increasingly untidy, ungroomed and unprofessional models. Judging a competition alongside Mary Quant, she describes criticising a model dressed in a scruffy, badly stained dress. Quant – much closer to the mood of the time – simply stated “But at least she’s got a bit of individuality. I don’t see anything wrong with a little healthy grub myself.”

Cherry Marshall on Houseparty. She's on the left, via

Marshall began appearing regularly on the talk show Houseparty, something along the lines of today’s Loose Women, dispensing her advice to the nation’s women. By her own admission, she became frequently removed from the world of fashion, where she felt models who wanted to work were forced to “dance, gyrate, look sexy and generally perform in a way the old-style model would have refused to do”. And I see her point. She mourns the loss of the elusive quality of “style” from the 1970s modelling industry.

In 1976, she decided to quit and closed down the agency completely, rather than passing on her name. I admire her decision but it has meant she’s something of a footnote in history, and perhaps not given her due for her contribution to the modelling industry. She published this book two years later, and died in 2006. I enjoyed spending time with this fearless and frank woman: though I did keep thinking how I would probably hate her dissecting my personal appearance, and especially my walk! I'd certainly benefit from some of her deportment classes, even though I've got no real desire to appear as groomed and aloof as a 1950s mannequin.

Buy this from Last-Year Girl Books on Etsy

2 comments:

  1. Another great review! I really loved reading about Cherry and the state of modeling in Britain in the 50s and 60s.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, that means a lot to me.

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