I thought wouldn’t like Bettina Ballard. Her name and reputation as American Vogue's fashion editor in Paris, continually crops up in the pages of twentieth-century fashion books: through the people who knew and admired her, such as Edna Woolman Chase and Carmel Snow, or via the quotes in reference titles that confirm her importance to fashion in this period. For those outside of fashion’s inner circle, she appears both impressive and intimidating. The fact that her autobiography, In My Fashion, published in 1960 is ridiculously hard and expensive to find only seems to confirm this impression.
So, once I managed to obtain a copy that wasn’t the same price as a trip to Paris and started reading, I was really surprised. Ballard is modest, she is charming and, gasp, actually likable. She manages to pull off this feat while revealing Paris and its fashions, mannequins and personalities as it really was. This is a true insider’s account of the fashion world in the first half of the twentieth century.
Bettina Ballard directing a shoot, 1951. Via
However, Ballard is at her most relatable when she is still an outsider in Paris, sent over by American Vogue mainly because she can speak French. She succeeds in capturing the period’s hard, brittle glamour, a time that “was not an era of gentle friendships or simple living” and when styles lived or died according to the whims of “the small egocentric group of women”, such as Baba de Faucigny-Lucinge “about whom fashion revolved”. But Ballard isn’t part of this inner circle and is incredibly lonely. She sustains herself through the love of her work and through the fantasy of what Paris could be – the kind of imaginative thinking that underpins the best fashion magazines – sending intimate gossipy notes back to the New York office about who wore what to parties she was never invited to in the first place.
Over time Ballard is accepted, if not welcomed, by these style leaders and she gradually becomes a little more ‘Vogue’ (for, although she confesses her admiration for both Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland at Harper’s, Ballard is Vogue through and through). There’s the episode where she wakes up – after the war has been declared and she’s still in Paris – and the first thing she does is scold her personal maid for cleaning her shoes with the wrong kind of brush. Or there’s when she joins the Red Cross in the World War and drags in the above poor maid to pack her footlocker for her.
Bettina Ballard readies models for a fashion shoot, 1951. Via
Post war, Ballard returns back in Paris as soon as possible and is placed to give wonderful first hand accounts of the likes of Dior, Chanel and Balenciaga and what it’s like to work with some of the world’s most famous photographers, from Irving Penn, whose shoots are “psychological struggles for everyone involved”, to Norman Parkinson, with whom taking pictures is “a delight if neither the editor nor the mannequin was averse to being part of a circus side show”. She also captures the pressure of the couture shows where Ballard has to satisfy her editors, the designers and the photographers. Oh yes, and the mannequins, with their gift for creating their own “terrific dramas”, such as naughty Suzy Parker who burnt “Fiona Walter’s dress with a cigarette when Horst discovered Fiona’s tawny Nefereti beauty and preferred it to Suzy’s redheaded Texas beauty.”
It’s fascinating to read Ballard’s recollections of this period back-to-back with Eric Newby’s. She reminds us again just how dismal things were for poor Britain post-war: “The real enemies of the London couture were the English climate, the rationing that lingered on, and the fact that too little paint was available to freshen the fact of London. The press and buyers, spoiled by the beauty and ample food in Italy and by the well fed arrogance of France and Spain, were depressed and a little embarrassed to find England still struggling out from under the war.” Exactly the kind of insight that makes this book so popular with fashion historians.
I was more enamoured by the accounts of life pre-war as, regardless of how glamorous and glitzy her job became, was Ballard. The final chapter, “An Epitaph to Elegance”, mourns the death of dressing-up as a true art. Women are “better dressed than they have ever been – and certainly better informed about fashion” but, she goes on, “there is no mystery to any of this.” Ballard laments that, “women now ask for nothing better than to be led, bullied, dictated to, and given as little freedom of choice as possible.” This was written in the late 1950s, so I wonder how she’d feel today - when more women have greater access to more fashion than ever before, but it’s ridiculously hard to identify the truly influential and individual style setters. How true these words from her closing paragraph still ring when you think of the breathless reporting surrounding each new fashion season: “with no time to lavish on fashion, no place to store it away with loving regrets … we whirl with speed and change through fashion light years that leave little or no impression of elegance in our lives.”