Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Death of a model

Dorian Leigh has died at the age of 91.

She was born in San Antonio, Texas, the plainest of four Parker sisters, her features too pronounced for the preference for plucked brows and rococo lips that prevailed through the 1930s. She married at college and had two children before her divorce in 1937. Her parents took her and the children back into their home in Queens, New York City, and her chemist father encouraged her in education. She studied calculus at New York University and went on an engineers' training programme. She worked first as a draughtsman for the navy and then on wings for the eastern aircraft division of General Motors, but quit, she claimed, because her suggested design improvements were rejected.

She then took a job as an advertising copywriter in New York. In need of extra money, she went to a model agency run by Harry Conover, who recognised her face as suddenly suited to the times. Leigh's age - 27 - was problematic, so he instructed her to tell Diana Vreeland, fashion editor at Harper's Bazaar, that she was 19. Vreeland ordered Leigh to leave the eyebrows alone and report back the next day to model a hat for the photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe, leading to her appearance on the cover for June. The movie Cover Girl, a montage of newsstand displays starring Rita Hayworth, was the fashion fantasy of 1944, and Leigh - the Parker was dropped out of courtesy to her family - was the sophisticated edition of Hayworth.

Leigh's real career as the zeitgeist began the next year. Charles Revson had added matching lipsticks to his Revlon nail enamels in 1940, and soon US wartime prosperity, which increased the purchasing power of working women, allowed him to advertise his lips and nails combos in full colour. For 1945's Poison Apple campaign, "the most tempting colour since Eve winked at Adam", Revlon hired Leigh as the face that lost paradise. She became the Revlon fantasy dame, starring regularly in its promotions, including the 1952 campaign for Fire and Ice, a Madison Avenue legend. Avedon shot her in faux-Balenciaga scarlet cape, and a dress with its front spangled with silver rhinestones. The questions on the spread suggested Leigh's unconventional character ("Do you sometimes feel that other women resent you?" "Do sables excite you, even on other women?") A senior advertising executive who hated it said Leigh looked like "a little tootsie whom the Aga Khan spotted on the Riviera". But Vogue thought her classy, and ran it big. Leigh had introduced sister Suzy to the Eileen and Jerry Ford agency, and she succeeded Leigh as Revlon goddess.

People were more interesting in the olden days.


Deja Pseu said...

And models were allowed to look like women, instead of androgynous 'droids.

This also makes me think of Hedy Lamarr, who was the co-inventor of a torpedo guidance system during WWII.

Toby Wollin said...

deja - Hedy Lamarr's "frequency hopping" technology is the basis for all security systems on today's wifi. Under the hair was an amazing brain.

greying pixie said...

I think this also describes a time when everyone had more dignity and modesty. I heard on the radio a short time ago the memoires of a British Dior model from the 1950s who spoke of how privileged and lucky she felt to be working at that time, and how lucky she felt to have been attractive enough to have such work. Her humility was so touching, and a far cry from the slovenly, brattish behaviour of certain top models today.

The autobiography of 1950s model, Cherry Marshall, called 'The Catwalk' is a really description of the modelling business in 1940s and 50s Britain.

Duchesse said...

If I could even dream of looking like "a little tootsie the Aga Khan spotted on the Riviera" plus calculus skills. I loved her distinctive,almost sharp features.
Maybe it was beginning at 27-plus instead of today's norm of early teens that gave her such deep allure.

Bet she was still remarkable at 91.

Dysthymiac said...

That looks like a Richard Avedon photo.
In those days, models did not have 10 stylists creating their look for them.
The only recent model to come anywhere near the old-time standard of Dorian Leigh, is Linda Evangelista.

Anonymous said...

Most of the models of that era, the Americans being the notable exception, were from the high middle-super upper classes. So much of this 'grace and charm' of old is really a class issue because these girls were pukka from the start. Twiggy was the 1st working-class girl to really make it, but that upper class model tradition still lingers even now, esp. in couture houses. From Twiggy's generation alone, Marisa Berenson, Jane Birkin, and Pattie Boyd (to name a few) carried it on.