1930s to 1950s: Society Girls and Hollywood Glamour
by Camilla Morton
Throughout history, there has always been a face that inspired, embodied, and influenced unique points in time. From Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, to Cleopatra, the monarch who seduced an empire, its emperor, and inspired Shakespeare. With the emergence of the first designers and photographers, models quickly followed, helping to shape our ideals, culture, and fashion since the earliest days of the industry.
Lets travel back to the Age of Innocence, a time that began with high collars and even higher morals. From the Titanic to the jazz era, The Great Gatsby to Josephine Baker, Marlene Dietrich to Greta Garbo, the boom to the crash, and both World Wars—every era has an image, and every trend its muse. The face of this changing time was one of elegance, grace, and ambition.
When Max Factor first launched his makeup line in the 1920s, only those onstage or onscreen—or of ill repute—wore it. But it wasn’t long before every woman wanted to add a touch of glamour to the grit of her everyday life. Women had just received the right to vote, and that endorsement was followed with a need to challenge societal views of women’s appearances as well. Women like Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein created beauty salon empires with products that were as accessible as they were empowering. Coco Chanel is responsible for putting women in pants. Elsa Schaparelli mixed high society with fashion and art, while Madame Vionnet innovated the bias cut to flatter the figure. These designers revolutionized women’s silhouettes, style, and established women in the front line of the fashion business.
During this period, Anita Colby was the highest paid model, appearing on billboards and in magazines. She earned $50 an hour, modeling as a sideline to selling ads for Harper’s Bazaar. The Society Girl era of modeling really began when Vogue produced its first color cover in 1932. To be the cover girl became the ultimate prize, and modeling began to be seen as a career rather than a side job.
After appearing in the film Cover Girl in 1944, Anita was hired by Hollywood producer David O. Selznick as “feminine director” of Selznick Studios. Her job was to teach his leading ladies—including Ingrid Bergman and Joan Fontaine—poise, beauty, and publicity. Grace Kelly, model turned actress, seamlessly transformed from onscreen star to real-life princess when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. Never before had modeling promised such a “happily ever after” future. Women were now turning to fashion influenced by the silver screen, and the Hollywood Glamour era of modeling emerged.
But the line between actress and model began to blur. Actresses like Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe could smolder onscreen or in the front row, though fashion was craving its own stars. By the time Christian Dior’s New Look line debuted in 1947, fashion had become news and designers wanted their own muses and models to bring their designs to life. The fashion illustrations like those of Erté and Rene Gruau that were popular during the post-WWII years now seemed outdated, as Paris salon shows went from being sketched to photographed, attracting private clients and inviting the press. Photographers Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn at Vogue and Richard Avedon at Harper’s Bazaar were proving to the world that girls were more than just a pretty face. It was their lenses that turned modeling into a business, and model agencies and the model were born.
When Dorian Leigh Parker began modeling in 1944, her father asked her to drop “Parker” from her name, as he did not approve of her profession. Model Carmen Dell’Orefice, who began modeling in 1945, once described Dorian as “so sexy without saying a word.” Dorian went on to land seven Vogue covers in 1946 and would appear on another 50 covers over the next six years. Her “Fire and Ice” campaign for Revlon in 1952 remains iconic today, and she was rumored to be the inspiration for the character Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. When she signed with Eileen Ford’s newly created Ford Model Agency it was on the condition that they also sign her younger sister, Suzy Parker. (Their father’s consent to use his surname is testament to the legitimization modeling had gained as a career.) Dorian opened the door to a sister who would ultimately go on to eclipse her success. Suzy, with a cameo role in Funny Face, became Avedon’s muse, the face of Revlon, and the first model to earn $100,000. This was not only sibling rivalry, this was business.
Despite the successful careers of Dorian and Suzy, the undisputed face of this era was Lisa Fonssagrives. Coined as the first “supermodel,” her iconic spirit and elegance would be the inspiration, decades later, for John Galliano’s Dior haute couture Fall 2008 show. Lisa appeared on the covers of TIME, LIFE, Vanity Fair, as well as Vogue, and went on to marry one of the greatest fashion photographers, Irving Penn, in 1950.
It didn’t take long for the world to become fascinated with fashion; the designers, the drama, the new looks. Avedon was even immortalized in the film Funny Face as Dick Avery (played by Fred Astaire; Audrey Hepburn was his cover girl). His character asks, “What’s wrong with bringing out a girl who has character, spirit, and intelligence?”
The quest had begun.