Books: glamorous models, actresses, socialites



Babe Paley, 1946. Photo by Horst/courtesy of Vogue

Baby Paley, 1946. Photo by Horst/courtesy of Vogue

 The World in Vogue: People, Parties, Places (Alfred A. Knopf, 390 pp, $75)


“…the exaggerated glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo transformed the beauty industry in the thirties and inspired Vogue’s fashion photographers, artists, and society ladies to new heights of artificiality.”

If you placed Twiggy or Penelope Tree in one palm and The World in Vogue in the other, the latter would be heavier. There are some 300 photographs in this large-format, glossy book, culled from the past few decades of Vogue magazine, and it not only contains an A-list of models and actresses and socialites, but an impressive array of photographers – Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Herb Ritts, etc. – who so perfectly captured them for posterity.

Subjectively speaking, the best example of that might well be the 1946 Horst photograph of Babe Paley (reproduced here), which simply transcends time. Some years later, in 1963, Irving Penn photographed Paley’s 19-year-old daughter, Amanda Burden, and her countenance seems as striking as her mother’s.

Many of the classic Vogue models – and many of the actresses who were profiled – have faces that were made for 8 x 10 glossy stills. In several instances, these faces are masks – in which there’s little to lead us beneath the surface of perfect skin and symmetrical features. This is when Oscar Wilde’s notable quip rings true: “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.” (Some of you will counter this and say that a woman’s face is man’s work of fiction!)

Shalom Harlow, in Pierre Balmain Couture, 1995. Photo by Bruce Weber/courtesy of Vogue

Shalom Harlow, in Pierre Balmain Couture, 1995. Photo by Bruce Weber/courtesy of Vogue

Of course, since this book highlights “the beautiful people,” who are rich and famous and inevitably stylish, it is also very, very much about haute couture, that is, high fashion as it specifically relates to dressmaking and designing. In short, most of these beautiful people are decked out in original, exquisite clothing, where the cost of a single dress could feed a family of four for three years.

 For example, the centerpiece of The World in Vogue seems to be the annual Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is a sort of fashion Mardi Gras for the elite and privileged. Each year there is a different theme and – like carnaval in Rio – people go all out. There is a photograph of Tom Cruise dancing with Katie Holmes, and lots of other attractive couples as well, but I’d say that the one pair that stands out, really stands out (they’re even on the cover), is supermodel Gisele Bündchen and star quarterback Tom Brady. You probably don’t need solar energy if you live in their neighborhood. On the other hand, they make an intriguing contrast with Bruce Weber’s 1989 shot of prizefighter Mike Tyson and renowned model Naomi Campbell as they stride down the boardwalk in Atlantic City. While Campbell looks demure, the bare-chested Tyson is strength personified. I’ve never seen a Marvel Comics superhero radiate such raw power.

 This may be a roundabout way of saying that the most memorable faces aren’t necessarily the prettiest (think of all those Fellini extras!). The portraits of Cameron Diaz and Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst don’t do much for this writer. They aren’t quite the classic beauties like Grace Kelly or Sophia Loren or Marisa Berenson (as depicted in these pages), although I realize that this may simply boil down to personal preference. Sometimes the setting or context elevates the subject: Elliott Puckette looks like she just stepped off of a Greek vase. She’s graceful, fluid, slightly languorous, with a collection of her silhouettes on the wall behind her. Also striking because of setting and frame is the image of Jennifer Lopez and her dog team of Doberman pinschers as they strain forward on leashes – more like reins – the same azure blue as the actress-singer’s long, billowy dress.

 Although glamour seems to favor the young, the women who come off best in these pages are the ones who’ve survived their youth, and these include the Duchess of Windsor (married to Edward VIII), C.Z. Guest, and Marie-Laure de Noailles, the latter photographed in her Paris home in 1950, posed amongst her books and artworks like the patron of the arts that she was. The Vicomtesse is not what one would call beautiful, but she seems to have been the sort of person with whom one would gladly spend an hour – as did Picasso, Stravinsky, Breton, Sartre, Klee and others.

 Perhaps being among artists and art adds integrity and depth to a face. I see that here with Alba Clemente, wife of painter Francesco Clemente, and also Jacqueline Schnabel, formerly married to artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Or maybe these women had that indefinable but somehow weightier countenance beforehand, that affinity for art and artists on the creative edge. Magnetism, after all, works on so many levels.

 I shouldn’t neglect to mention the text, much of it by Hamish Bowles, who knows how to guide us into places we’d otherwise never (even vicariously) experience. A case in point is the 2006 wedding – more sophisticated and elaborate than most of us might have guessed – of Dita Von Teese and Marilyn Manson. It took place in an Irish gothic castle and the ceremony was presided over by filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose pictures – “El Topo,” “The Holy Mountain,” and “Santa Sangre” – titillated some of us way back when (Ah, art houses! Where have you gone!).

 Likewise, we accompany Truman Capote on a 20-day cruise along what was then the Yugoslavian coast, and what looks to be a silly piece on dogs dressed up as bride and groom and wedding guests that emerges as a short history of the wedding cake. Essentially, as Jeffrey Steingarten notes, “the cake itself stands for fertility because it, or at least the edible part of it, is made from grain, a nearly universal symbol.”

 The World in Vogue is a coffee table book that is easy to wander into and not so easy to depart. One almost feels like placing it upon a pedestal, right alongside some of the women that grace its pages. ER


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