By Michele Leight
"I have not prepared a
speech" said Marc Jacobs at the press preview of "The
Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion," at The Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York on May 4th, 2009. He continued to say "The
Met means a lot to me, because I used to come here often as a
child," emotions that many New Yorkers can identify with.
Anna Wintour was the usual
media magnet, wearing a pretty spring- like dress in greens and
yellows, and sportingly posed amidst the clickety- clicking of
expensive cameras without interrupting her own private conversation
The show is sponsored by Marc
Jacobs, with additional support from Condé Nast, and will
be on view from May 6 to August 9, 2009. Marc Jacobs is also the
chair of the "party of the year" Gala Benefit, with
co-chairs Justin Timberlake, supermodel Kate Moss and Anna Wintour.
For the Costume Institute's
annual Party the information stand in the Great Hall was tranformed
and a zebra-striped rug surrounded it and went up the grand staircase.
The show is a blockbuster with
many spectacular and dramatic exhibits. Scattered throughout are
hundreds of fashion magazine covers. Both the exhibits and the
magazine covers, however, are not illustrated in the handsome
catalogue by Harold Koda and Koble Yohannan, which contains numerous
essays and many glamorous photographs of some of the most famous
models of the past half-century or so.
Designers featured in this
show include Armani, (see The
City Review article)
Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, (see The City Review article), Courreges, Christian Dior, John
Galliano for Christian Dior (see The
City Review article),
Rudi Gernreich, Halston, Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis, Charles
James, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Helmut Lang, Ralph Lauren, Prada,
Paco Rabanne, Yves Saint Laurent, Giorgio di Sant'Angelo and Gianni
I admired this show professionally,
but was also charmed by it for subjective reasons. I confess to
ripping out my favorite fashion plates of Twiggy from Vogue
and Harpers Bazaar and plastering them all over my bedroom
wall as a child, including the famous one by Bert Stern in which
she wears a midriff-baring dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent
encrusted with beads and paillettes that appears in the catalog
accompanying the show, and as an influential "photograph."
An iconic photograph of Jean
Shrimpton by David Bailey (1963) must have come as quite a shock
to the fashion establishment, with her enormous, heavily (false)
lashed eyes, big beautiful hair, border-line playgirl sexiness
and "snob-less" sophistication. "Jean Shrimpton,
with her storklike legs, establishedthe fashionable standard.
Shrimpton's face, witgh her large, widely spaced eyes and full
lips, p;rojected a prty pfrehness rather than the knowing sophistication
of her predesseccors. When she first appeared in New york publications,
the "sphrimg,' as she was nicknamed was dresed garments th
retaineed the ladylike detials of the previous decad4e, while
intrudcing a new freedom of form and movement. Increasingly, deignes
once buttressed gy the support of boned under/bodieces were cut
to hange from the shoudlders. Shrijmpton, likke many top models
was woas often posed in readytowear outfits withlittle deisgn
catalogue maintained, "a German aristocrat with a dramatic
and compelling biography, was unusually tall for a fashion model.
She became, especially with the support of Eileen Ford and American
Vogue's editor inchief Diana Vreeland,a ubiquitous editorial
presence in the 1960s. Veruschka's distinctive features and lanky,
doubled-jointed body extended the possibliity of the fantasy imagery
that became increasingly prevalent in the mid- to late 1960s."
"Youthquake" of the
Sixties began with Jean Shrimpton, Verushka, Peggy Moffitt and
progressed to the more youthful Twiggy photographed by Bert Stern,
dressed in a famous Bernard and Francois Baschel's metallic dress.
These models wore iconic outfits designed by Paco Rabanne, Andre
Courreges and America's Rudi Gernrich - and a personal favorite
"Mondrian Dress" by Yves Saint Laurent. I owned a pair
of white boots with cutouts, gladiator sandals and several futuristic
A- Line dresses that ended way above my knees. All I wanted was
to look like those ladies, I poured over every fashion magazine
I could get my hands on. It was exciting and they were hugely
I met with no opposition from
my parents, although I think my mother regretted the demise of
the rosebuds and lace, which did not go with Twiggy.
Images of sophisticated Jean
Shrimpton remained on my wall of fashion icons as well, but as
an adolescent I could relate far more to Twiggy's pouty, baby
face, and her edginess. She looked sweet, innocent, but there
was an independent air about her that was compelling. I soon had
a hair cut exactly like hers. The flowing tresses that went with
the rosebuds were gone too. It was the "Youthquake"
The catalogue accompanying
the show highlights Twiggy's importance to fashion:
"Twiggy's adolescent physique
was the perfect frame for the androgynous styles that began to
emerge in the 1960s. The trend was manifested in a number of templates:
sweet A-line dresses with collars and neckties, suits and dresses
that took their details from military uniforms, or, in the case
of Yves Saint Laurent, and explicit transposition of the male
tuxedo to women. Simultaneously, under the rubric of 'unisex,'
designs that were minimalistic, including Nehru suits and space-agey
jumpsuits, were proposed by designers such as Pierre Cardin and
Andre Courreges, and, most famously in the U.S.A., by Rudi Gernreich."
Through brilliant marketing,
Twiggy's boyfriend and agent Justin de Villeneuve helped launch
her not just as a model, but as a cultural commodity - she did
become the face of my generation certainly. Twiggy had her name
in lights - which was nice - right alongside the famous designers
whose clothes she modeled, and the photographers that immortalized
them. Everyone knew who she was. She was not just another good-looking
clothes peg upon which clothes hung.
"Considered by many to
be the quintessential, iconic model of the mid-twentieth century...,
Lisa Fonssagrives, Kohle Yohannan writes in the catalogue, "was
a Swedish-born natural blonde with impossibly high cheekbones
and a cool, penetrating look of well-born entitlement. Maintaining
her faultlessly disciplined ballet dancer's physique throughout
her life, Fonssagrives enjoyed remarkable success and an unusually
long career - working from the late 1930s to the 1950s. The first
fashion model ever to be honored by a cover story in Life
by the early 1950s, she had achieved international renown. Her
creative collaboration and marriage to Vogue photographer
Irving Penn produced some of the most important fashion photographs
of the twentieth century.
"By the late 1940s, Fonssagrives
was joined at the top of her profession by Dorian Leigh - the
elder of the stunningly beautiful Parker sisters from Texas, who,
together and separately, sent ripples through the fashion world....Standing
a mere five foot four inches, with pale skin and electric blue
eyes, Dorian Leigh (whose father forbade her to use the family
name for fear her profession would shame them) wielded such mastery
of presence and photoghenic dynamism that irving Penn once observed
'She seems to sense the coming click of the camera; her expression
builds until she and the camera come alive together.'...Later
becoming a successful model agent in New York, Dorian Leigh Parker
went on to establish the first legal model agency in Paris in
"Success seemed to run
in the Parker family. Russet-haried, green-eyed, and standing
five feet ten, Dorian's younger sistre, Suzy Parker (who by the
early 1950s was allowed to use the family name on the laurels
of her older sister's success), was as unusual for her coloring
as she was for her height....Eventually becoming one of Richard
Avedon's favorite models and later appearing in several Hollywood
films , Parker was one of the first fashion models of the twentieth
century to become a household name - achieving star status usually
afforded only to Hollywood actresses."
The show begins with "The
Golden Age of Haute Couture," featuring models Dorian Leigh,
Suzy Parker, Sunny Harnett, styled and photographed by legendary
photographers Cecil Beaton in elaborate floor length satin gowns,
or Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, sublimely contrived by Irving Penn.
In the opinion of many fashion
historians (who are entitled to their nostalgia), this was the
last curtain call of the grand era of Grace Kelly elegance, of
sculpted hats, pinched waistlines, flawless make up, and sharp
stiletto heels. It was the era of Dior's "New Look,"
and of Suzy Parker's chiseled perfection in the Vivien Leigh,
Deborah Kerr mold. There was little or no comfort involved, it
was all about presentation.
"With the exhibition and
this book," Thomas P. Campbell, the recently appointed new
director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote in is foreword
to the catalogue, "The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion,
The Costume Institute addresses the subject of fashion obliquely,
through the personalities and careers of women whose profession
it is to present clothes to their best advantage on the runway,
in photographs, and more recently in videos. The truly great models,
through their gestures, their poses, and the line of the bodies
not only project the designer's intentions to the high-fashion
world, but also provide inspiration for them."
In his preface, Harold Koda,
the curator in charge of The Costume Institute, provides the following
"For much of the twentieth
century, fashion publications tended to rely on attractive, and
often easily identifiable, women from the worlds of society, theater,
and film. The phenomenon of non-professional beauties represented
in Vogue or Harper's Bazaar has continued with the
influence of socialites on the public yielding increasingly to
the more pronounced impact of the pop celebrity. We no longer
have a phenomenon analogous to the appearance of privileged beauties
like Nancy Cunard, Mrs. Harrison Williams, Millicent Rogers, Jacqueline
de Ribes, and Pauline de Rothschild, whose personal styles were
followed and studied obsessively by women with any aspirations
to modishness. In the past, fashion magaiznes had featured the
latest styles on actresses of stage and screen, from the Gish
and Talmadge sisters in the 1920s to Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren,
Barbra Streisand and Cher in the 1950s and 1960s. But the current
presence of pop stars on the covers of high-fashion journals,
together with extensive pictorial features, in which they are
more the major focus than the designs they sport, is unprecedented.
Perhaps, regrettably, the cult of pop celebrity has to some extent
superseded the "Best Dressed" society woman as a fashionable
icon. This phenomenon extends to the synergy of global brands
represented by the exclusive commercial contracts of Jennifer
Lopez, Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder, and Madonna."
Mr. Koda argues that "unlike
Hollywood character actor who morph chameleon-like from role to
role, the women in his book are transformed for each new photograph,
but are never subsumed by the process." "What is unique
about them is their ability to assert their identities (despite
the former intentions of the photographer) rather than be reduced
to abstracted principles of feminity," according to Mr. Koda,
who also noted that "An extraodinarily large percentage of
the clothes worn by these women are not coincident with what are
considered by costume historians to be the most influential designs
of the second half of the twentieth century."
"In the period of Dior's
New Look," Mr. Koda maintains, " the professional model
emerged as a celebrated personality with a distinctive identity.
Dorian Leigh and Lisa Fonssagrives in the 1940s were joined in
the 1950s by Jean Patchett, Dovima, Sunny Harnett and Suzy Parker.
Considered by fashion historians as the golden age of haute couture,
these decades were characterized by Parisian fashions advancing
a soignée artifice that was rather reactionary in the remodeling
of the female form through the imposition of structured bras,
merry widows, corselets, hip pads, and stiffened crinolines. The
liberation of women's bodies of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s was
subverted by the move toward a suppression of a woman's waist
and the explicit expression of her breasts and hips. Although
the prewar preference for a modern sleekness prevailed, the women
represented in the memorable images of Richard Avedon and Irving
Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Lillian Bassman do not conform to
our contemporary notion of aerobicized fitness. Instead, their
postures, with back and shoulders hunched forward and buttocks
tucked in, often suggest, in the persistence of the early twentieth-century
debutante slouch, an enervated lassitude. By contrast, the 196s
introduced a youthful liberation of the body. The move toward
a new ideal, seen in the transitional figure of Jean Shrimpton
achieves a decided paradigmatic shift by the end of the decade
with the phenomenon of Twiggy."
This heady concoction of idealized
feminine beauty is epitomized by Richard Avedon's famous photograph
of Dovima with pachederms, illustrated here, which opens the show
- being fashionable was extremely high maintenance back then,
from the pristine white gloves to the straight seam on the silk
stocking, nothing, not a curl or a wisp of hair was out of place.
Blond bombshell Hollywood glamour
is captured in the photograph above by Richard Avedon of Sunny
Hartnett in Madame Gres sleek, one shouldered, pleated jersey
evening gown, stealing the show amidst the gaming tables of the
Casino at Le Touquet - this photo was for the September 1954 issue
of Harpers Bazaar. The dress is as body conscious and sexy as
it is possible to be, but its foundations are classical. Greek
goddesses have worn such gowns, and they are still worn at benefits,
balls and power brokers soirées today. The casually untidy
gold lame bow is an especially elegant touch. (See The City Review article).
"Snobbery has gone out
of fashion," (exhibition catalogue) said Mary Quant, whose
shop on Kings Road in London was another favorite haunt of mine.
The fish net stockings would not have passed muster with Balenciaga
or Norell, but they were an instant mood elevator for a young
student with very little money to spare.
Confident, comfortable, stylish
American athleticism was the focus of the '70s, with supermodels
like Lisa Taylor and Jerry Hall dominating magazine covers, and
marrying high profile men like Mick Jagger. Their lifestyles became
part of the fashion scene, not just the clothes they modeled.
On the European front, Yves
Saint Laurent's love affair with the light and landscape of Morrocco
spilled over into his creative life in some of the most luscious
"haute bohemian" fashions of all time, draped on ethnic
beauties like Mounia and Kirat. An intuitive genius, and one of
the brightest stars in the fashion firmament, Saint Laurent "tweaked"
the timeless kaftan, a unisex staple in Algeria, where he was
born, and turned it into a fashion icon It is a look that persists
across the world today, and it will never go out of style. This
was one of his quieter strokes of genius, others are now fashion
The glamorous "trinity"
of supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington
defined the 80s, spear-heading "branding" at the top
fashion houses seeking to garner a more global appeal - and market.
Part actress, part supermodel, these sophisticated ladies exuded
class without snobbery, effortless glamour, projecting different
personas depending on the idea or product their client/fashion
house was marketing.
Linda Evangelista snagged the
cover of the exhibition catalog in a photograph taken by Steven
Meisel for Dolce and Gabanna's "Love" collection, Spring/Summer
1991. She is shown applying lipstick with the confidence, sexiness
and glamour of Ava Gardner, but she is thoroughly modern.
There is a wonderful photograph
by Peter Lindberg of Naomi Campbell, who passed away in 2009,
in a dalmation jersey print dress with a trio of exquisite dalmations.
These ladies still are the grand dames of the most iconic fashion
Kate Moss entered the space
of the "trinity" from the 1990's, and she still represents
the young across the world today: little adornment, body conscious,
grungier, stylish, informal - and above all comfortable. She exudes
Twiggy's independent spirit, a keen sense of marching to her own
drummer, reminiscent of the passing of the fashion torch from
Jean Shrimpton to Twiggy in 60's.
This is "rebel chic,"
and yet it is the clothes that supersede the model, who is perhaps
chosen as the mascot because she is androgynous, "every-woman."
If there is one thing this
show does is illustrate visually how minimalism - Prada, Donna
Karan, Helmut Lang - dominates the fashion world today. It is
definitely the clothes that wear the women. That would be hard
to imagine with Linda Evangelista, Twiggy or Sunny Hartnett.