Sunday, 14 June 2009


Born Lesley Hornby in 1949, and discovered in 1966, Twiggy is the perfect example of how the right model at the right time can act as a catalyst to create an entirely new brand of culture.

Sixteen-year-old Twiggy’s spare frame and sharp, bird-like features meant that her ascent into modelling stardom was not an easy one. Fashion had very particular ideas about what constituted beauty, and Twiggy, in no uncertain terms, did not meet those ideals.

After the Second World War, while the fashion world took stock, Paris grabbed the reins and became the fashion capital of the world. Christian Dior created an entirely new kind of womenswear. Dubbed the ‘New Look’, the emphasis was on fiercely drawn-in waists, full skirts and exquisite tailoring. It was an intentionally lady-like look that spoke of refinement and afternoon tea at the Savoy. Its elegance was a deliberate attempt to separate Dior from the ‘make-do-and-mend’ era of the 1940’s. Luxury was key.

To go with his vision, Dior needed elegant and refined models to show off his designs to their best advantage. Many of the ‘models’ he ended up using were high-society girls and heiresses – the girls who were modelling his clothes would be on first-name terms with the women who would end up purchasing them. Never had the line between model and consumer been so thinly drawn.
Dior’s supremely poised girls were the real deal, but they were not professional models in the contemporary sense of the word. Dior was willing to sacrifice grace for good breeding.
The ‘New Look’ was a sensation – it made Paris the undisputed fashion capital, and Dior a legend. If fashion had stayed here, our perception of what fashion is, and what is does for us, would be very different – but the true constant of fashion is change. As the Sixties rolled around, the corseted Dior Look began to lose its lustre. It was time for a revolution.

Twiggy’s year was 1966. After being discovered by Nigel Davies, she was persuaded to chop off her hair and a brave new look was born. On advice, she changed her name, and chose ‘Twiggy’, her childhood nickname. She then undertook a small photo shoot with photographer Barry Lategan – an event that would not only change her life, but have an enormous impact on the world at large.

The bold, black and white images were a revelation: uncompromising, high-fashion and quirky. Twiggy’s cropped hair and drawn-on eyelashes gave her a startling, bird-like quality. Her slim, androgynous body was in absolute contrast to the Dior classic hourglass shape.

Twiggy’s thoroughly modern look swept the UK. The Sixties were an unprecedented period of transformation: people wanted to embrace change in whatever form they found it. The post-war hangover mood of the 1950’s was shaken off and in its place was a mood of possibility – anything and everything was permissible.

The most striking changes were taking place in popular culture: the end of the 1950’s brought with it the advent of rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley was the King-in-training, and the modern teenager was born.

It is now hard to imagine, but before the Fifties, the cultural concept of the teenager did not exist. The sweeping rock’n’roll movement brought with it a new identity for young people to cling to: it was rebellion, sex appeal and individuality – for the first time, teenagers had their own definitions of music and style. They no longer dressed like their parents.

Fashion in the Sixties became democratised. Along with the popularisation of casual fabrics like leather and denim (made desirable by film stars such as Marlon Brando and James Dean), fashion became cheaper and more readily available. Fashion brands sprang up on the high street, but one did not need a double-barrelled surname to gain access to an atelier. Brands like ‘Biba’ produced high-fashion looks for pocket-money prices: fashion was now available to everyone.

This wave of democracy held up Twiggy as the gold standard: before her, there had never been a working-class supermodel. She was the everyday girl who became the face of the Sixties, and the class barrier (within the fashion world anyway) was broken for good.

Twiggy’s unique selling point was her youthfulness. Her body suited perfectly the A-line dresses and miniskirts created by designers such as Mary Quant. For the first time in fashion history, the teenage body was held up as the ideal. Twiggy’s strongly androgynous look paved the way for models like Linda Evangelista and Agyness Deyn – girls for whom femininity is not served straight up, but with a twist. Twiggy’s gauche, knock-kneed appeal made fashion young again, right at the point where it was in danger of retreating into permanent middle-age.

Twiggy’s most enduring legacy (in a career that has spanned four decades), is the kick-start she gave to modern fashion – models would look very different today if it were not for Twiggy. Her long-limbed, fashion-friendly body became the new ideal. Twiggy’s debut into fashion was a celebration of originality, and Dior’s ‘New Look’ made way for the new look – something that possessed major staying power.

Twiggy’s charm offensive on the fashion industry, taking it very much by surprise, brought the concept of ‘model’ centre stage. Before her arrival, fashion had been guilty of taking itself too seriously. She imbibed the colourful new fashions with personality – much debate has been centred on Twiggy’s ultra-slim figure, but the fact remains that she would not have been half as successful if she had not learned early on that a good model is more than a clothes hanger.

The difference between her and the 50’s Dior models is clear-cut. They gave the ‘New Look’ an air of sophistication, but Twiggy gave 60’s fashion her body and soul. Her wit and exuberance are what gives the Lategan images their punch. A great photographer, a great model and a great idea created a moment of magic that still, even 40 years on, has the power to charm and bewitch. It is this collaborative spirit that best sums up what the Sixties were all about, and why Twiggy’s images continue to inspire us today.

The best fashion moments arrive when they are least expected. No-one expected Twiggy’s notoriety to last beyond a month, but her impact on culture, fashion and modelling has been insurmountable. She changed the way we think about beauty and made fashion fall in love with the awkward, gangly girls. There is always room for the polished and poised, but Twiggy taught the world of fashion that the unexpected can create something truly wonderful.

If fashion equals youth, Twiggy is the answer.


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