November 6, 1942– Jean Shrimpton:
”Fashion is full of dark, troubled people.”
With her pouting good looks and convent school allure, Jean Shrimpton embodied the very essence of Swinging 1960s London. She had just turned 17 years old when she first moved down the catwalk. She was also noted as the arm candy of celebrity photographer and notorious ladies’ man David Bailey.
As a fashion icon and half of the ”It” couple, Shrimpton became famous across the globe, partying at the world’s coolest clubs, with her face on the covers of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Elle, Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar.
Then, as suddenly as she’d appeared, she abandoned it all for marriage, motherhood and obscurity.
She grew up in rural Buckinghamshire. Her father was a builder, a self-made man, albeit from a rich family. Educated in convent schools, she could have attended a university, but instead she took a secretarial course because she wanted to go to London.
A film director spotted her having lunch in London’s Hyde Park and suggested she try modelling. She took his advice and enrolled in a modelling course. At 17 years old, she found modelling work. At 18, while doing a photo shoot for a breakfast cereal, she met Bailey, who saw great potential. Bailey had recently been contracted by Vogue and he insisted on using her in his shoots. They became romantically involved. Bailey divorced his wife to be with Shrimpton, causing such a scandal that even Shrimpton’s father refused to talk to her for a year.
Bailey’s groundbreaking, unconventional photographs turned the skinny girl into a fashion star, using unusual angles and photographing Shrimpton quickly in relatively natural poses, as if she didn’t care how she looked. All of which was very unlike a model.
Her waifish look was also a contrast with the aloof, voluptuous, aristocratic look of models from the 1950s. Shrimpton’s look was copied by millions of girls. With her long legs and slim figure, she was nicknamed “The Shrimp”. Shrimpton was also known for her long hair with a fringe, wide doe-eyes, long wispy eyelashes, arched brows, and pouty lips.
Shrimpton’s first photo session with Bailey was in 1960 for British Vogue. Shrimpton has stated that she owes Bailey her career, but she was Bailey’s muse, and his photographs of her helped him rise to prominence in his early career, so he owes her also.
Bailey and Shrimpton’s gritty, witty collaborations completely reshaped British Vogue’s aesthetic and made both of them stars. Bailey:
“I think we created each other. You can’t create a portrait by yourself. I always tell people it’s them taking the photograph, not me.”
Of Shrimpton, Bailey wrote:
“She was magic. In a way she was the cheapest model in the world — you only needed to shoot half a roll of film and you had it.”
Shrimpton wrote that she was far from the only one to be instantly seduced by Bailey:
“Women love him. Gays adore him. Children and animals run to him. Mothers dote on him. He is universally attractive, except to fathers.”
On Bailey’s first visit to Shrimpton’s family farm, her father made his feelings for the photographer known. Bailey:
“I had to hide in the hay loft, over the pigs, because he came after me with a shotgun.”
Bailey, who was said to have had sex with over 400 women, took full advantage of the sense of sexual liberation in the 1960s. The promiscuous lead character played by David Hemmings in Michelangelo Antonioni‘s Blow-Up (1966) is based in on Bailey. Shrimpton grew tired of the philandering photographer and left him for actor Terrence Stamp, who was as beautiful as Shrimpton. Bailey:
“I had three or four other girls on the go. I couldn’t complain.”
When her romance with Bailey ended in 1964, she enjoyed the company of many famous men. In the late 1960s she had an affair with poet Heathcote Williams, who set himself on fire doing a magic trick on her doorstep, years after they had broken up. She appeared in the film Privilege (1967), playing the love interest of a pop star whose managers use his fame to create a fascist state. She only made one other film, the very odd Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising (1970), perhaps you’ve seen it.
Her two films were flops; not that it mattered. She was one of the highest paid models, and the first person to be called a ”supermodel”, in a 1971 Time magazine article. Yet, by 1975 she had grown disenchanted with fashion, an industry only interested in her body, not her brains, and she retired from the biz.. In 1979 she married photographer Michael Cox. In 1980, they bought the Abbey Hotel in Penzance, which is now run by their son.
In 2009, Shrimpton was named by Harper’s Bazaar as one of the 25 Best Models of All Time and in 2012, by Time as one of the 100 Most Influential Fashion Icons of all time.
During her career, Shrimpton was the most photographed woman in the world. She was dubbed “The Face”.
In 1965, the beautiful, bold, bare-legged British model shocked the world when she showed up at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Australia on Derby Day wearing a dress four inches above the knee to the mortification of the conservative crowd.
There was absolute silence in the lounge at Flemington when Shrimpton arrived accompanied by Stamp. She was openly scorned by the horse race fans for defying protocol by not wearing a hat, stockings or gloves. In the stands, she was met by catcalls from men and jeers from women. She was surrounded by kneeling cameramen shooting from below to make the dress look even shorter.
Australia’s The Sun News-Pictorial newspaper dumped the Derby and its winner from the front page for the story on Shrimpton’s outfit. Radio and television stations and newspapers published editorials against clothing, and Shrimpton defended it:
“I don’t see what was wrong with the way I looked. I wouldn’t have dressed differently for a race meeting anywhere in the world.”
Under pressure by her sponsors, three days later, Shrimpton arrived at the Melbourne Cup Day dressed and accessorized in a three-piece grey suit, straw hat, beige gloves and stockings, and a brown handbag.
Shrimpton’s appearance at Derby Day 1965 was the introduction of the miniskirt to most of the planet, although London designer Mary Quant had promoted it the year before. Shrimpton’s Derby Day appearance was the moment when a global youth culture began to shape young people’s style of dress. Girls wanted to be like The Shrimp: free and cool.
The dress was made by Shrimpton’s favorite designer, Colin Rolfe. It was a simple white shift dress. There was not enough of the chosen fabric to complete his design, so at Shrimpton’s suggestion, Rolfe improvised by finishing the hemline a daring 4 inches above the knee. Shrimpton told Rolfe: “Nobody’s going to take any notice…” She told the press:
“I always wear my day dresses above the knee.”
“Youthquake” was how it was dubbed by legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.
In her essay The Man in the Bill Blass Suit, Nora Ephron tells the story of when Shrimpton posed for a Revlon advertisement in an antique white Chantilly lace dress by Bill Blass. Minutes after the lipstick placard was displayed at the drugstores, the Revlon switchboard received thousands of calls from women demanding to know where they could buy the dress.
The tale of Shrimpton’s relationship with Bailey was told in a BBC film, We’ll Take Manhattan (2012), with Karen Gillan playing Shrimpton.
She was happy to wear the clothes and she said that she admires the creativity of the industry, but it wasn’t modeling that defined her as a person. In her eighth decade, Shrimpton lives the quiet life with Cox in Penzance. She was once one of the most photographed people on the planet, but now she dodges the cameras.
“I never liked being photographed. I just happened to be good at it.”