Supermodels: An Historical Perspective

They weren't always called "supermodels" but they have been around for a long time. During the centuries there were celebrated models for artists, some of them extolled to legendary status, as in the case Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, the wife of Marco Vespucci (a relative of Amerigo, the Italian explorer who gave the New World its current name) and perhaps the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici (the younger brother of Lorenzo il Magnifico, the Reinassance ruler of Florence).

According to local traditions, "La bella Simonetta" was the main model for at least one of Botticelli's best known masterpieces, the "Primavera", and she may also been the inspiration for "The Birth of Venus" (the painter himself asked to be buried at her feet, in the Church of Ognissanti in Florence, a wish that was in fact carried out when he died).

During the thirties, when slick fashion magazines used photos to show the fashionable clothes, they were often worn by socialites. In the late forties and early fifties models such as Lisa Fonssagrives (married to fashion photographer Irving Penn), Jean Patchett, and Dorian Leigh emerged, and their names were well-known in the fashion and advertising industry, and sometimes appeared in the New York gossip columns. The Miss Rhinegold contest, sponsored by a local beer brand, plastered the faces and names of many models and aspiring models on New York's busses and subway cars during the fifties, and the yearly winner became famous, at least in the New York area.

John Robert Powers and Harry Conover were among the first model agents, but Eileen and Jerry Ford took the business to the next step in the early fifties, and made Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh's younger sister, into a star. For more than twenty years Eileen Ford's taste in feminine beauty dominated ads and fashion pages in U.S. publications. In those days there was a very distinct division between "house" models (who worked full-time for the fashion houses), "show" models (who wore the new fashions on the runway during the twice-yearly fashion shows), lingerie models, and "print" models, who posed for photographs, considered the top of the class. A "print" model would NEVER do a runway show or pose for pictures wearing underwear.

The writer of this article, who was Gucci's first director of Public Relations, from 1968 to 1970, may have been the first person to hire "print" models from the Ford Agency to wear the first Gucci evening dresses during a benefit evening at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York in the spring of 1970. The six models, including Dorothy McGowan, strolled through the "Street of Shops" created for the evening and around the dinner tables, chatting with the guests. The models were paid their regular fees, if I recall, $ 70 an hour for three hours. (I won't tell you what a struggle it was to convince Aldo Gucci to accept my idea!) Believe me, this was pretty revolutionary stuff at the time.

In Italy, Valentino was one of the first designers to bring over some of the then-top photographic models to strut down the runway for his high fashion shows in the seventies. Nati Abascal, a stunning six-foot Spanish beauty was one of his favorites - she went on to marry the Duke of Medinaceli from her native Seville. Another Valentino favorite was Suzy Dyson. Valentino was also one of the first designers to invest lavish amounts of money in top fashion photographers and models for his advertising campaigns. He was soon followed by Gianni Versace, who bet all his first earnings of Richard Avedon for what became a memorable series of ads.

There were a few exceptions like Twiggy and Lauren Hutton in the sixties-seventies, but it was not until the eighties that the real supermodels emerged, known to their non-industry fans as well as those in the business, and appearing on the runway as well as in photographs in ads and the fashion magazines. Earnings also shot up, minimum day rates were introduced, the designers invited the top models to their after-show parties (a no-no before), celebrity models dated and married other celebrities, and girls competing in the Miss Italia contest started saying their ambition was to be a "Top model" rather than a "Movie star."


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