When Coco Chanel ran a critical eye over her atelier one morning and declared, “These models look like housemaids on a day off!” she was probably close to the mark. Modelling during the 1920s, in and out of the studio, was not yet a profession considered entirely suitable for girls from smart families. At best it was a juvenile novelty, at worst it was considered shameful or slightly provincial, like “taking to the stage”.
As late as 1947, Barbara Goalen, who was left to raise her children alone after her husband’s death, had wavered between taking in laundry and modelling; the studio won, and she became the British mannequin ne plus ultra of her day. In the US, Mary “Mimsie” Taylor’s well-to-do parents had been appalled by her plea to model dresses for her favourite magazine, but she was suffering from a blood disease and was not expected to survive her teens. Cecil Beaton answered her letters to Vogue and she became an early favourite (she lived to be 93).
When British Vogue was launched in 1916, models were not credited. In fact, they often seemed to shy from view, their faces hidden by wide-brimmed hats, heads tilted away, or in some cases cut off altogether in favour of a fine lace trim. This was, after all, the era in which a correspondent could report – without irony – on the “spectacle of a young woman … actually powdering her nose in the presence of the young man with whom she had just been dancing”.
Models, as we now know them, finally began to see their names on the magazine’s pages in the early 1920s. For the most part, they still had parallel careers: cabaret singers (as Chanel had once been although she kept it quiet) or popular actresses of the day. These were “variety” all-rounders, such as Betty Knox (of the Wilson, Keppel and Betty triple-act) and Lily Wood, famous for her comedy songs.
Many of the great early models fell into the profession by accident. “Lud”, born Ludmila Feodoseyevna, was spotted while delivering a parcel to the Vogue studios (she got the wrong studio and ended up throwing it at the photographer, Horst, in a temper, and became one of his favourite models). Lee Miller stepped off a Manhattan sidewalk only to be pulled back from the path of a speeding car by Condé Nast, owner of Vogue, who thought her looks good enough for his magazine.
Long before models could launch their own nail-varnish lines or bankroll restaurants, they were still clever and adroit. They were also fearless. The Romanov princess Natalie Paley saw most of her family murdered before reaching the west. Toto Koopman, captured as an Allied spy, survived Ravensbrück to become a respected fixture of the Mayfair art world. Even Lud, once described as “a lethally beautiful Medea”, survived her battles. The favourite of both Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel (who loathed each other), she was pulled back and forth between the two of them until one day she upped and left modelling entirely. Later it was heard that she had joined a travelling circus and married the lion tamer.
Fellowes had the air of having just disembarked from a yacht, one observer noted, adding, “which she very likely had”. Rich and soignée, half-French and half-American, the Hon Mrs Reginald Fellowes was considered the best-dressed woman in the world. She had, editor Diana Vreeland said, “the elegance of the damned”.
Born in 1890, as a young woman she was sketched by John Singer Sargent. Her first, brief, marriage to Jean, Prince de Broglie, propelled her into the society pages. Her second, in 1919, to Reginald Fellowes, a financier and cousin of Winston Churchill, propelled her further. “The Hon Mrs Reginald Fellowes is the embodiment of the 20th century in the variety of her interests,” reported Vogue. “She is a noted sportswoman and author. Mrs Fellowes’s first book, published recently, is called Cats in the Isle of Man.”
The partnership of Edward Steichen and Marion Morehouse changed the course of fashion photography. As chief photographer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, Steichen propelled both titles into the age of modernism. And they came no more modern and streamlined than model Marion Morehouse, with her sleek head, attenuated limbs and ramrod back, all accentuated by Steichen’s dramatic lighting. At a stroke, his predecessor Baron de Meyer’s soft-focus aesthetic looked outmoded and trivial. Vogue’s proprietor Condé Nast told Steichen: “Every woman de Meyer photographs looks like a model. You make every model look like a woman.”
According to Steichen, “Miss Morehouse was no more interested in fashion than I was. But when she put on the clothes that were to be photographed, she transformed herself into a woman who would really wear that gown or that riding habit …” That models became so recognisable that they began to fascinate the public is often traced back to Marion Morehouse. And with justification. She was not an actress or a society figure but something new entirely, a dedicated model, and Vogue began to use her name in credit lines.
Morehouse was equipped with a joie de vivre and a keen sense of adventure. When Steichen suggested they do a series of experimental nude photographs, she readily agreed. On learning that she was married, he destroyed the negatives to spare her any future embarrassment.
A granddaughter of Tsar Alexander II, Princess Natalie Paley possessed few relatives who hadn’t been murdered, but was blessed with stunning good looks and the capriciousness of a thoroughbred. In her husband Lucien Lelong’s sculpted creations she became the focus of many of early fashion photography’s greatest moments.
She was a daughter of Alexander II’s eighth son, Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia, and half-sister of Grand Duchess Marie and Grand Duke Dmitri, the latter involved in the murder of Rasputin. Her mother, Olga, was a commoner and her parents’ marriage scandalised the Romanov court. When the Revolution broke out, Grand Duke Paul and his family were placed under house arrest. Eventually, the princess’s brother, Vladimir, a poet, was thrown down a mineshaft with the Tsarina’s sister and finished off with a hand grenade. Six months after that Paley’s father was shot. The remaining family members escaped penniless to Finland (they walked).
Perhaps as a result of her exile Paley felt she never truly belonged anywhere, though she called Paris home. Her marriage to Lelong was one of convenience and each kept their own circle of intimates. Paley’s appearances in Vogue gradually diminished but she never entirely disappeared from fashion circles. For many years she was a public relations consultant to the US couturier Mainbocher. She died in 1981.
Half-Dutch, half-Chinese, Catherina “Toto” Koopman was born in Java and educated in Holland and England. By the 1920s she was in Paris making a living as a showroom model for Chanel and Marcel Rochas. Of those early days she said: “It really was another world. One dressed not to please men but to astound other women.”
As well as modelling, she tried her hand at acting, and had a bit part in Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan (1934). After filming she stayed on in England where she had begun a short-lived romance with Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook, who did everything he could to break it up.
Her war years are still mysterious: she is believed to have worked as a go-between for British intelligence in Italy. Her cosmopolitan looks, multilingualism and contacts in Venetian society would have made her a prized asset. Eventually she was betrayed and, on direct orders from Berlin, sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp. For two years, working in the camp’s kitchens, she displayed great bravery by smuggling out food to the starving inmates and intervened on behalf of prisoners selected for death.
After the war, Toto Koopman returned to London and helped run the Hanover Gallery with her lover Erica Brausen (another wartime heroine). Together they nurtured the career of Francis Bacon, among others, giving him his first one-man show in 1949.
Maxime de la Falaise
As early as 1949, the Comtesse Alain de la Falaise was, according to Vogue, “a prompting spirit in Paris couture”. She was one of the earliest upper class women to sport a cropped gamine hairstyle, while Cecil Beaton said of her:“Her limbs are so exaggeratedly elongated, her nose so small, her eyes so enormous, that she looks like a fashion drawing come to life.”
She was born Maxine Birley to the English society portraitist Sir Oswald Birley and Rhoda Pike, a celebrated Irish beauty. In Paris after the war de la Falaise modelled for Elsa Schiaparelli, whose designs then enjoyed a brief renaissance, and became a stylish vendeuse and ambassador for the label. When it went into decline, she worked for Christian Dior, and also especially for Maison Paquin before it closed its doors in 1956.
After her career in modelling, she kept herself financially afloat (her marriage to Count Alain de la Falaise had been brief and he wasn’t rich) by writing, selling furniture and acting as a muse to Yves Saint Laurent.
‘Vogue Model: The Faces of Fashion’ by Robin Derrick and Robin Muir is published in hardback by Little, Brown on October 7, RRP£45.