Christian Dior, Winter 2012 | Hotel Gulbenkian, 51 Avenue d'Iéna, Paris 75016
You had to be there.
There, in these instance, wasn’t necessarily in one of the gilt-chair-packed rooms in a Belle Époque mansion deep in the 16th arrondissement. There was anywhere with a computer screen and a Twitter feed, wired into the livestream for Raf Simons’ tensely anticipated debut at Dior.
The anticipation wasn’t solely triggered by Simons’ triptych of midcentury-inspired collections at Jil Sander (a sequence of shows which saw one of the decade’s most precise menswear voices progress from stripped minimalism to achingly nostalgic romance), but because of the size of the leap he was about to make; from Italian ready-to-wear into the heart of French couture, and into a spotlight previously occupied by Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré and John Galliano.
It would be a leap, too, into the footprints of Christian Dior himself - an elusive character long lost in the shadows, outshone and defined by a single collection: February 1947 - Corolla.
‘The girl friends say I must have a look at a man called Christian Dior, no one ever heard of him before but there is something called “The New Look” which he has invented. Apparently Mrs. Snow of Harper’s Bazaar, who is here, says this man Dior has saved the French fashion industry … ’
Susan May Patten, 15th February 1947
I wasn’t in either of the theres; while the audience swirled up the mansion’s elaborate staircase, and while people on lunch breaks squinted at laptops, I was trapped in a drawn-out site meeting in a stuffy London attic. But on my Blackberry - lodged under papers on the edge of the table - I was able to read as the show unfolded in a series of crescendoes and shrieks and excited, breathless pauses. And long, long before I’d heard anything about the clothes, I knew that there were flowers. Tens of thousands or a million, depending on who was telling it; electric blue delphiniums and golden laburnums, flocks of white orchids and a mixed-up pink sea of peonies, roses and dahlias, carpeting every available surface and flooding each room with intoxicating colour and fragrance.
'It’s very good, what little Christian is doing … ’
Elisabeth, Comtesse Greffulhe, 12th February 1947
Now, a month after the show (and long after those sheets of fresh flowers were ripped from the walls and thrown out), it’s still the memory of that mass of seething, brilliant colour that lingers.
When Dior unveiled the Corolla collection, the flowers were the models themselves - encased in spectacular fabric petals and cinched into stem-fine waists. And that provocative, extravagant, greedy silhouette was what Paris, and Europe, and the rest of the ration-booked postwar world meant when they used the word 'fashion’ for years afterwards. With Simons’ debut, by contrast, there was an overwhelming sense of absence, as though the severe black lines - softened with intimate detailing and implausibly opulent textures - were sliced out in definition against those surreal, funeral-parlour flower walls. The erotic control-and-release sequencing of Dior’s 1947 shape are replaced with something altogether leaner and more abstract - startling, lurid blooms for Simons new incarnation as couturier.
'We were witness to a revolution in fashion, and to a revolution in showing fashion as well.’
Bettina Ballard, 1960
NEW. Dior seemed almost abashed by the word, and scrambled to disassociate himself from its’ connotations of radicalism. He traced his exaggerated shapes back to pre-war designers like Molyneux, and to a notion of femininity as something magnificently decorative and intensely pretty. It was a notion that matched his own unthreatening, gentle identity - but which betrayed nothing of the man whose family lost their wealth in the 1929 crash, who had his early ambitions towards music diverted by illness and circumstance, and who, down at his luck, turned to illustration - designing dresses for officers’ wives at Lelong while his sister (a Resistance fighter) languished in a concentration camp. All that was tucked away; and instead, as the unassuming 'saviour’ of couture, backed by the wealthy textile magnate Marcel Boussac, Dior played the role of accidental superstar to perfection. Chanel castigated him for upholstering women - and in ways he did, neutralising them under the same layers of exquisite anaesthetic he applied to himself.
'Christian Dior is going to change the whole fashion look, he’s making huge pleated skirts.’
Christian Bérard, 1946
Dior’s story is as much the story of the sensation which engulfed him (wittingly or otherwise) as it is of his reactionary/revolutionary silhouettes; of the ambition of a talented yet inexperienced designer and a powerful business tycoon who caused a storm by rifling the couture houses of Paris - Patou, Lelong, Molyneux - for their most skilled staff; and most of all of the desperate hunger amongst audiences on both sides of the Atlantic for something - anything - new.
Simons has, to give credit where it’s due, created something new out of the old, with bodices hovering weirdly low on the breast and hip, stretching and flattening the abdomen into the outlines of a warped new elegance. It was new enough, at least, for a new audience; an audience ravening for sensation, and looking for something to resurrect their faith in one of fashon’s most tenderly cherished fairytales. And it was something that might, at last, drown out the scars of John Galliano’s spectacular fall - filling the vacant space with the overwhelming smell and sight of a house full of roses.
Floral Tributes at Christian Dior’s Funeral | Loomis Dean, 1957
Mary Poppins, Swallows & Amazons, The Railway Children, A Traveller in Time: the first half of the twentieth century was, and remains, a golden age in children’s literature. Decades later, these books have become part of Britishness itself - stories passed between generations, rubbed soft with affection. Always a ‘Once upon a time’ at the start, always a 'happily ever after’ to end - but what came in between was rarely as simple as it seemed.
From as far back as I can remember, I knew exactly what a children’s author should look like. Their pictures were printed inside the dust jackets of every book we carted home from the Kerry County Library; motherly women with mild expressions and sensible tweeds, sat stiffly at tidy writing desks and squinting anxiously away from the camera. They had names like Enid and Elisabeth and Alison, and they lived in houses called Old Thatch or Hemmingford Grey (brick-and-timber houses that always had climbing flowers and white-painted gates), and they wrote with a kind of uniform, comfortingly bossy predictability - so that even when there wasn’t a picture or author’s note to be found, you felt certain you knew who you were dealing with. And you knew that you were safe.
Unless you stumbled across Beverley Nichols. On the outside, his books - The Tree That Sat Down, The Stream That Stood Still and The Magic Mountain - looked just as innocuously enchanting as all the others, with tiny figures wandering round washed-out watercolour landscapes. And inside there were all the familiar ingredients; wise grandmothers and wicked witches, talking animals and handsome princes. But the Nichols stories were different; designed, the publishers cautioned, 'to be enjoyed by children of nine years and older’ (a warning guaranteed to attract a curious six-year-old like me.) At the end of each story, the villains were inevitably - if half-heartedly - dispatched; but they came back, again and again, devising nastier and deadlier plans each time - and revelling in being not just bad, but brutal. Nichols’ heroes and heroines weren’t just in mild spots of bother; if they weren’t being turned into fish or viciously beaten, they were being tricked onto booby-trapped planes or lured to the edge of towering cliffs. And they were forever barely escaping poison, in one form or another - toad-spit, snake venom, ground-up vulture’s claws. Reading them over today, it’s startling how much sheer physical pain there is - how his characters bruise and bleed and choke; how, forced underwater, they struggle for breath, or have their skin worn raw from chains. It was the kind of dark children-in-peril story that would become commonplace, decades later, among more bloodthirsty writers like Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket. It wasn’t what you expected, though, from someone called Beverley, who lived in a place called Merry Hall - another house with climbing flowers and white-painted gates. But then Beverley Nichols wasn’t your average children’s author. There was no benevolent, reassuring lady gazing out from the back of these books - because, unlike most of the genre’s other writers at the time, Nichols was a man.
Make that a middle-aged man: Beverley Nichols was 47 when his first children’s story, The Tree That Sat Down, was published, and in his fifties by the time the last volume in the trilogy appeared. Three decades earlier, he had exploded onto the London literary scene as a dazzlingly handsome Oxford student; he was a local celebrity before he’d even graduated, and a global one from the moment he published his autobiography (called 25, but written - with characteristic impatience - at the age of 24). Witty, elegant and unfailingly entertaining, he became a darling of the social circuit and was hailed as one of the brightest of the Bright Young Things. And for the next decade he sped around the world, mingling with presidents, film stars, and royalty, and dashing off a dizzying variety of prose - screenplays, revues, novels and endless newspaper pieces - all of which were calculated to maximise his public profile. He specialised in unpredictability; turning from courtroom reporting to religion, and from crime fiction to celebrity interviews - and then, just when everyone least expected it, retiring to the countryside and reinventing himself as a best-selling garden writer. But there was, it turned out, a monster in the shadows - the narrative of a controlling, monstrously alcoholic Edwardian father, whom Nichols tried to kill three times (once with ground-up painkillers, once with a lawnmower, and finally with a mix of sleeping pills and alcohol.) Their relationship was a horror story which he gleefully transformed into a parlour anecdote, the detail growing more crowd-pleasingly gory with every telling.
That dark, hardly-hidden side of Nichols’ life seeped into everything he wrote; it even bloomed like a slow stain under the surface of his sweetly-wrapped children’s stories. His villains got off on casual violence and intricately-plotted revenge, and spent their lives concealing their evil intentions under perfume clouds of flattery and charm. (One of the books’ most regular, and most dangerous, forms of entrapment was a particularly modern one: Advertising.) And, in truth, the villains always seemed to be having a much better time of it than the heroes. Miss Smith, the 400-year old crone who stalked through each of his books, was a spectacularly-concocted blend of sociopath and painted glamour-puss: a vision of absolute loveliness - once she’d stuck her fake nose on, added fluttering eyelashes and a blonde wig, and tossed on the latest fashions. His contemporaries enjoyed the gleeful kick of malice, included just for grown-ups; the scarcely-veiled allusions to London’s social scene, the notion of witches shopping at Woolworths’ and living behind net curtains in Hampstead Garden Suburb, the ageing hostesses fancy-dressed as simpering Beaton ingénues.
Reviewing one of Nichols’ first novels, The Spectator sniffed; “He wishes to gain reputation. He wishes to have written books.” And writing children’s novels was simply another short-lived means to 'gain reputation’. He had no particular affection for children; his nieces would remember him as distant at best, and oblivious at worst (although he deigned to include them in a dedication once, signed ’from their Wicked Uncle’ ). And in the decades that followed, the one-time literary golden boy would abandon childrens’ literature, and change tack again - writing a series of increasingly bitter, increasingly controversial titles. That series culminated in Father Figure, the sensationalist narrative of his relationship with the parent he loathed, and of his farcically doomed attempts to polish him off (a book which appeared a year after Miss Smith made her final, most enjoyably venomous appearance in The Wickedest Witch In The World.) It became a bestseller: and Beverley Nichols, parent-poisoner, rocketed back into the headlines.
It was a sour, stark note to end a career on. Yet Nichols was never arrested, or even investigated. It was just a children’s story, after all - wasn’t it? Surely someone would have known if it was real?
And when he is remembered today - if at all - it’s for something gentler; for living in a house with climbing roses and a white-painted gate, and for writing now-faded books about gardens, and cats, and beautiful witches - witches whose satin slipper-clad footprints could wither grass, and whose nostrils, when angry, puffed with delicate trails of venomous smoke.
‘The New Beauty is Part Attitude’ | John Rawlings for Vogue, October 1947
by John-Michael O'Sullivan
Six girls, as separate and distinctive as cartoon characters. Suzy Parker was the Technicolor sex bomb: red curls, hourglass curves, sea-green eyes. Evelyn Tripp was the quiet one: frail and exquisite, her face slanting away from the camera in flat, luminous planes. Sunny Harnett was the knowing platinum blonde, with razorblade cheekbones and a smear of lipstick for a smile. Dovima was the aristocrat; endless white limbs and those soaring, implausible eyebrows. Jean Patchett was the gorgeous, golden-eyed, All-American girl, whose mole predated Cindy Crawford’s by forty years. And then there was Barbara Mullen, halfway between ugly duckling and swan; beanpole-tall, wide-eyed, with slicked-back hair and a rosebud mouth - for all the world like a Mary Poppins illustration sprung to life. Six girls whose faces and bodies would dominate the magazines of the Fifties; girls who would fade away when the Sixties exploded, their world of grainy black-and-white replaced by one framed in Technicolor close-up.
I first heard Barbara Mullen’s name last September, in an FT interview with photographer William Klein. I knew little about Fifties modelling, but Klein’s description - “She was a tough Irish-American living in Brooklyn and she had a foul mouth, she was not at all [well-bred]” - didn’t square with the world of poised sophistication the era’s photography suggested. So I began, casually at first, to research this half-invisible girl. Online searches showed someone frustratingly elusive; a collision of outstretched arms and soft planes, blurred into vagueness in photographer Lillian Bassman’s radically intimate images. That’s almost all there was. But the rise of picture-hosting sites like Pinterest and Flickr has made the internet ever-hungrier for beauty (and strangely nostalgic about the kind of beauty it values) - and as the months went by the trickle of photographs became a flood. And yet the more I found, the less straightforward Mullen became. As Bassman’s muse, she glided through frame after frame like a ballerina; for Richard Avedon she was sophisticatedly graphic, in vibrant colour or startling black-and-white; on location in India with Norman Parkinson she could be subtly, un-placeably exotic; whilst for Klein she turned self-parodying clown. The other girls were always reliably and recognisably themselves; but Mullen, it seemed, was constantly shifting, her face switching from soft uncertainty to wry elegance, from girl-next-door to woman-of-the-world to serene couture swan. And off-duty, she looked different again - her features less composed, her almost-prettiness askew, as though she and the woman on the magazine covers were utterly disconnected.
It’s been 57 years since Barbara Mullen left New York. She lives in Switzerland with her second husband, in an apartment with windows which look across rooftops to deep blue mountains. In her living room, the sill is lined with American totems: the Chrysler, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State. But Manhattan, and her modelling career, seem lifetimes away. She’s bemused (and amused) by the notion that anyone would be interested in her: “No-one knew our names. No-one whistled at us on the street. We weren’t anything special. But we were young, and we were thin, and we were DAMN lucky.”
Initially, that luck meant that the eighteen-year-old Mullen was able to trade in her hated beauty-parlour job for a well-paid life as a department store mannequin, showing clothes to Bergdorf Goodman’s wealthy clientele. And after two years at the store, her Cinderella moment happened. Vogue wanted to shoot a Mark Mooring dress, which the designer had cut to Mullen’s tiny frame. But it wouldn’t fit any of their models; and so an editor sneaked back of house at Bergdorf’s to track the mannequin down. And the following day Mullen found herself, terrified, sitting for Condé Nast photographer John Rawlings, following the polite instructions coming from behind his bulky 10 x 8 Deardorff. She still has that image: a nervous, hardly-breathing girl on a green sofa, her dress swamped in tulle, with the words beneath heralding the coming decade: ’THE NEW BEAUTY IS PART ATTITUDE’.
Paris had become the the undisputed centre of fashion that spring, thanks to Dior’s New Look: but the New Beauty Vogue was referring to would be defined, and photographed, in Manhattan. The magazine’s editor, Jessica Daves, pinpointed the change; 'Over the years the style of beauty … offers a commentary on public taste in women. In the early 1950’s the type veered sharply, and there came to be a group of mannequins in the French tradition of the belle laide … Barbara Mullen was the first of these to be accepted as a top mannequin. Her eyes were slightly too prominent; the proportions of her face were not those of classic beauty. But the proportions of her body were made for modern clothes. Her tiny head, long neck and delicately elongated torso were the essence of the new elements. Barbara Mullen became one of the queens of the modelling kingdom in both Paris and New York"
Belle laide; ugly pretty. Daves’ words put Mullen into a tradition that began with Marion Morehouse in the Twenties, and would resurface, decades later, with models like Kristen McMenamy and Erin O'Connor - women with a changeling beauty, always more comfortable when disappearing into a role. As she recalls, it was simple: “I was quite shy. I’m not shy now, but then I was quite a shy girl - and the camera didn’t talk back. It really was just a relationship between you and the lens. You stepped into those wonderful clothes, and you were taken out of your everyday element. We were just ordinary girls. But you felt … ”, Mullen pauses, and waits till the right word floats towards her before exhaling, pleased again “ … ELEVATED.’”
Ordinary girls, in wonderful clothes: it’s a contrast we take for granted now. Before Mullen’s day, fashion models had largely been society women - exactly the kind of women who would have been buying and wearing couture in their privileged everyday lives. But she happened to arrive on the scene when extraordinary-looking ordinary girls were being discovered by accident (just as Kate or Naomi would be decades later) - shopping at Bloomingdales like Evelyn Tripp, or on the street like Dovima. She and her contemporaries took their success seriously: visiting European models were stunned by the rigid discipline of these tall, Ford Agency-schooled Americans, with their immaculate grooming, their armour of girdles and falsies, and their benzedrine-and-coffee diets. Models had to work fast, and work hard (Jean Patchett’s family still have her meticulously-kept appointment books, recording a schedule which typically crammed multiple sittings into a day), and did their own hair and makeup as part of the package - but the money was terrific. At her height, Barbara Mullen was making $50 dollars an hour; in an era when the average American wage was $3,000 dollars a year, she could make twenty times that. In 1955 Photography magazine placed her alongside Jean Patchett, Evelyn Tripp and Dovima on a cover headlined ’MEET THE MOST EXPENSIVE MODELS IN THE WORLD’. She was at the top.
But the fairytale was crumbling. One day, Mullen’s husband, Jim, was walking through their Long Island home with some contractors. He stopped on the stairs and said the same sentence, three times over. It was nothing, but it it was a nothing that within months had turned into a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. And once he checked into hospital, he was gone. The Fords were her rock: they ensured she was booked solidly, knowing she needed the money to keep up the mortgage and pay the endless stream of medical bills. And they looked after her. One night, in desperation, she called them for help, and Jerry Ford came to her rescue. Whatever happened between the two of them afterwards - and the Fords would always that anything DID happen - Mullen ended up alone.Jim died, and within the space of a year she had moved to Paris permanently, searching for a clean start.
That restart meant that she’s kept little from her New York years. There’s an out-take from an Avedon shoot in 1950, where he’s scribbled tongue-in-cheek suggestions for improvement across her glum expression (and a poster from his retrospective fifty years later, scrawled with the words: “Barbara. This is an order! You must be at our opening at the Met Museum. Dick.” She didn’t go.) And in a nearby drawer she keeps another invitation, from another show she didn’t attend: Lillian Bassman’s, in 2008. This one is signed too; 'For Barbara; The best of the best.’
The story of how Bassman first met Mullen - a bedraggled, unpromising-looking girl in a shapeless coat, who turned up as a last-minute substitute one Christmas Eve - has become the template of model myth. Bassman remembered, “She was just this nothing, but she was magic. Absolute magic. I think there is a talent, an innate appreciation for form, for line, even for fashion itself. And those who are the great models - and there aren’t very many - they have it. Barbara had it.” William Helburn, one of the era’s most prolific commercial photographers, offers another perspective on her success. “She was just outstanding, as good a model as there was - every bit as good as Shrimpton or Twiggy. She had a very unique face - well, she wasn’t Shirley Temple, know what I’m saying?” (And Helburn suggests that it may have been that same chameleon-like uniqueness - that lack of apple-pie approachability - that would ultimately have limited Barbara from continuing her career into the TV age.)
When I visit Barbara Mullen I come armed with 200 pictures I’ve found on the internet, stacked in chronological order from 1947 to 1963. Some are shots she’s not set eyes on in decades; some she’s never seen at all. But each unlocks its’ own recollection of time and place - looking the other way, back into the camera lens: the studio lights, the hovering editors. Inevitably, those memories have been smoothened and gentled by time; but she claps with delight and shouts “MY dress!” when she sees a Nina Leen shot from LIFE of her in a Miguel Ferreras gown (one of the first things she ever bought with her modelling money). She goes rigid with fury when she recalls how Norman Parkinson spoke to the Indian child who shared her last Vogue cover (she finished the assignment, but when she got home she rang her agent and refused to ever work with the photographer again.) She remembers sharing a dressing room at Milton Greene’s studio with Marilyn Monroe, and being led astray through the bars of Paris by Christian Dior and Bebé Berard on her very first trip to Europe. And she still wonders, looking at the glaring gap, why Irving Penn - of all the photographers of that period - never seemed to think she was anything special. And late in the afternoon, just before I leave, she gravely raises the Ford affair. Her gaze resting on a blurred portrait of Jim, she sighs, “You know, you can’t do anything about your mistakes. But all I remember about that time was that I desperately - desperately - needed to be held.”
The last shot in my pile dates from March 1963. It was Mullen’s final editorial for Vogue: wearing Dior, cigarette in hand, staring down the barrel of William Klein’s lens. Two months later, Klein was in London, shooting a 20-year old Jean Shrimpton. Shrimpton wore Dior too, and the strapline read 'THE NEW BEAUTY’ - just as it had below Barbara’s first picture, 16 years before. Mullen knew it was time: and she walked away with little trace of nostalgia or regret. Or, rather, she dissolved - just as she did in every Bassman picture. Despite her prolific output and exceptionally long career, she’s absent from most histories of modelling. Apart from that Photography cover, she’s missing from almost every group photograph of the period. In fact, apart from the story of the Ford affair in the Michael Gross book, Model, it’s as though she was never there.
The other models from that 1955 Photography cover are dead now: the last, Jean Patchett, passed away in 2002. They’re almost all gone, actually; Sunny Harnett, Cherry Nelms, Anne St Marie, Mary Jane Russell, Dorian Leigh, Ruth Neumann. There’s just a few, slightly younger women left - immortals like China Machado and Carmen Dell'Orefice, and invincible Warhol survivor Ivy Nicholson. And there’s Mullen, her hair still drawn back into an expert, disciplined bun (and still with the capacity to startle you with a sudden, graceful movement, even in a sweatshirt and jeans.) There are few people alive today who can tell you what it was like to be photographed by a teenage Richard Avedon, or mimic Dovima - squawking with fear - petrified of the elephants around her in the photo that would make her immortal; who can remember sitting with Coco Chanel in the exquisite luxury of her Rue Cambon apartment - and who in the next breath can flip back to the present, giving those spectacular eyes a 360-degree roll at the mere mention of Heidi Klum’s name. She answers my phone calls with a cheery ’Still here!’, and bickers half-seriously with her husband when he threatens to set her up with a Wikipedia page. She’s not the tough Brooklyn girl that William Klein remembers anymore (she never was - Mullen spent her childhood in Harlem); nor is she Bassman’s incredible 'monster’, blossoming only for the camera’s caress. And she’s not the party-loving force of nature Francesco Scavullo described (though she’s hilarious after a few glasses of wine, and confesses that those enigmatic, away-from-the-lens poses which became her trademark were a useful morning-after disguise.) It’s hard, in fact, to reconcile any of the contemporary descriptions with the woman sitting across the table from me - just as it’s hard to reconcile any two photographers’ interpretations of that elusive face. In a phone conversation with William Klein, he asks “Tell me, does she strike you as a typical Swiss housewife now?”; when I pass the message on, Mullen laughs, “Well, isn’t HE still nice and bitchy!!!"
She doesn’t understand modern magazines - the tortured poses, the flesh-flashing."Is that supposed to be sexy?” she appeals. And she doesn’t think she’d have made it now; not in this world where becoming a model isn’t a wonderful accident anymore, but a fiercely contested ambition. We talk for six solid hours, and then Mullen and her husband drive me to the nearby station. As I turn away, she dashes out of the car for a final hug - and then speeds off, without looking back.
Barbara Mullen | William Klein for Vogue, March 1963
A shortened version of this piece was published in The Observer on 11th August 2013