With The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition The Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion, The Costume Institute explores the complex and often co-dependant relationship between fashion designers, and the beautiful bodies that inspire them. The model has always been an integral part of the creation process, but many designers and couturiers have relied to a greater extent on fashionable, interesting, and often unconventional women to jump-start their creativity. Here are my top five twentieth century fashion muses:
1. Princess Nathalie Paley
Nathalie Paley, a blue blooded Romanov princess, came to Paris during the Russian Revolution after her brother and father were murdered by Bolsheviks. Her haunting beauty combined with her haughty demeanor landed her a position as a house model for Lucien Lelong in the early twenties. By the middle of that decade she was Mrs. Lucien Lelong, always appearing in her husband’s designs and the official face of the couture house. After their divorce in the early thirties, Paley moved to New York, and there became close friends with American couturier Mainbocher. She became head vendeuse for his New York salon, and regularly posed in Mainbocher designs for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
2. Edie Sedgewick
Edie Sedgewick set New York on fire in the sixties with her incredible beauty, extravagant lifestyle, and innovative fashion sense. With her kabuki-like makeup, silver hair, and black leotards, Sedgewick became best known as muse and mirror to pop artist Andy Warhol, but her influence was wider reaching. Hip, young American fashion designers like Betsy Johnson and Rudi Gernreich loved to dress Sedgewick in their most daring designs. Even rock star Bob Dylan was touched by her style; it is rumored that the song ‘Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat’ from Blonde on Blonde was written about Edie Sedgewick.
3. Betty Catroux
Statuesque, blonde, dressed in black leather and dark sunglasses, Betty Catroux epitomized hard-edged chic for couturier Yves Saint Laurent throughout his career. Saint Laurent often said that Catroux was his soul mate, his reflection, and the feminine version of himself. In the early sixties, Catroux exposed the young designer to the seedy underbelly of Parisian nightlife, to drug culture, and to street level fashion. Her dark, masculine style is thought to have been the inspiration for Saint Laurent’s iconic Smoking ensembles.
4. Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn’s close personal and professional relationship with Parisian couturier Hubert de Givenchy in the late 1950s and early 1960s was beneficial to both of their careers. Givenchy loved Hepburn’s patrician, gamine good looks; she exuded youthful chicness and sophistication. He dressed her for her most iconic film roles; Funny Face, Roman Holiday, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (his black cocktail ensembles for Holly Golightly have become hallmarks of late fifties style). Givenchy, whose couture creations were exclusive and expensive, was able to reach a wider audience for his work on the back of the young actress. Hepburn quickly became a film and fashion star due to the elegant image Givenchy had crafted for her in her film work, and she was a faithful customer until the couturier’s death.
5. Lady Amanda Harlech
A true English eccentric, Amanda Harlech has been a behind-the-scenes force in the world of haute couture for two decades. Married to an British lord at a young age, Harlech was a central figure in London's New Romantic scene of the early eighties, and an editor at Harper's and Queen. In the mid-eighties she met the young John Galliano, who was working on his graduation show at Central Saint Martins, and the two became fast friends. Galliano was heavily reliant on Harlech's refined eye and slightly disheveled style; she worked with him practically for free until his move to Dior in 1996. Since the mid-nineties, Harlech has served as Karl Lagerfeld's 'second set of eyes', and helps him develop and produce his Chanel and Fendi collections. Amanda Harlech, a raven haired beauty, has helped develop and nurture the careers of two of the most powerful figures in contemporary fashion, and continues to assert her unique aesthetic.