Enduring Beauty

Fashion has been forever at the forefront of criticism for its insecurity-inspiring depictions of unhealthy and, for many, unattainable standards of beauty. Latterly, however, a refinement in the posing paradigm has been noticed regarding many strands of the aesthetic attributes of models, size being, of course, one of them and one of the most contentious issues people have ever had reason to rally against the industry.

But what has been infinitely more interesting is the waning of its infatuation with the immature.  One could of course argue, and quite rightly so, that during these financially- ruinous times, designers have wizened up to the commercial nature of even an artistic enterprise and thus comprehended that it is rather foolish to market high-fashion to little girls who cannot afford them and that there is a lot more lolly to be made by suddenly courting the many successful, more seasoned women with a penchant for style and a disposable income.

Yet I don’t really believe this shift to be essentially about maximising sales, but rather as a reflection of an altering of perceptions. It is simple to see that a youth-smitten society will engender a mint of sadness and silliness for all but the young, who of course won’t remain that way. How disheartening it is to live in a world that suggests there is a very little to look forward to and that you are in your prime from about that phase when you are emotionally lost and you get the first bout of intellectual flickerings about your bonce.

You could say a new exemplar has been called to arms to nurture the soul, or perhaps the idea of aging has become a bit outmoded with increasingly sophisticated beauty science meaning you retain a look and radiance for decades rather than years. I am not ashamed to be truthful about how long I have been alive for; these days a great portion of my new friends are years my junior, in fact the common comments and surprise shown when I dash the number people had in their minds when admitting my age I find damned amusing and really makes the whole idea of age seem obsolete. Whatever the case, this development is of encouraging merit to humanity as to admire our elders creates an aspirational culture, where one strives for betterment for themselves in
the future.

There has been quite a poverty of positive role models for older women. I used to do the PR for a luxury ladies wear label that specialised in dressing a more advanced demographic demurely, yet not without fun, and how often we would bemoan the lack of ladies in the public eye of a certain age who could have provided the publicity for the brand in a sea of a childhood-enthused, contemporary celebrity culture. Yet there is one eminent exception: Carmen Dell’Orefice who turned 80 in June 2011. Recently awarded an honorary doctorate by University of the Arts London for her amazing contribution to the fashion industry and currently the subject of an exhibition at the Fashion Space Gallery, it being the first major photographic retrospective of her 66 year career. Curated by her long term friend David Downtown, it features photographs from her personal archive, many of which have never been seen by the public.

Born to an Italian Violinist father and Hungarian dancer during the Great Depression, the pictures track her progression from childhood to her supersonic rise and unflinching prominence as fashion’s muse. She was discovered on a New York City bus at the age of 13, then her first contract was with US Vogue and almost immediately was working with the defining photographers of the era, such as Cecil Beaton who introduced to Salvador Dali, Irving Penn who named her ‘Little Carmen’ and shot her as Snow White, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, Erwin Blumenfeld who praised her talents as a ‘great actress’ and Horst P Horst who referred to her as an ‘antique beauty of another age’. In the spring of 1957 she modelled for Richard Avedon for the Paris collections for Harper’s Bazaar and, despite nearing 30, was more in demand than ever: she called it her ‘platinum period’.

During the 60’s with the onset of jet travel, when location shooting became the norm, she decided, after a lot of travelling and subsequent third marriage, that it was time for her to ‘play house’, but when the marriage ended and Carmen needed to work in the mid 70’s, it was Norman Parkinson who said, ‘she didn’t look bad for an old bag’ and flew her to Paris for French Vogue and relaunched her career. It was these new images of her as she neared 50, with silver tresses and all the sexier for it, that gave her a fascinating and regal appeal. Finding things weren’t as they were during her heyday and that now models were expected to have persona’s as well as prettiness, she wrote a best selling book and appeared in films by Woody Allen and Martin Scorcese and turned up on the catwalks for the first time in her sixties. She is now as equally revered for her wit, sophistication and
indefatigable commitment to fashion as her timeless unique beauty, crowning her with a legendary status. At the exhibition launch to celebrate her life, that status was evidenced by the illustrious people in attendance and was exuded by her in her striking swan like features and the sheer captivating quality of her presence. She is dazzling to behold, an inspiration and proof that beauty gets more remarkable with age. Dear Carmen, I want to be like you when I grow up.