What It Was Really Like To Be A Model In The 60s
29/11/2016 by DIGITAL
Being a successful model in 1960S IRELAND meant doing your own make-up and never saying no. MAGGIE ARMSTRONG meets four formidable women who led THE ERA’S FASH PACK
Their bags were big, deep and back-breakingly heavy. Inside: twelve pairs of shoes, four hair pieces, rollers, six pairs of underwear, eight pairs of tights, pots of make-up, sticking plasters, false eyelashes, safety pins, a sewing kit, boxes of jewellery, scarves, aspirin and, usually, a good novel.
It was Ireland in the 1960s, when the fashion industry was shaping up in a half-dressed sort of way. Models then didn’t have the entourages and glam squads of today. They were more like journeymen hauling tool boxes: a model packed her own kit for a show, leaving nothing to chance outside her precious bag. These behemoths inevitably came on wheels, such was their weight. Grace O’Shaughnessy’s was black leather from Liberty, and she lugged this baby onto vans for the country fashion shows that back then were a model’s bread and butter – before the lucky few were plucked out to work with the top couturiers of the time, such as Sybil Connolly or Ib Jorgensen. “It was exhausting. You’d get home from a show at night and have to lay out all your shoes and count them for the next day,” she says.
Models learned exactly how to pack for every sartorial eventuality at the “poise and personality” classes that sprang up during the 1950s and 1960s. Under the expert tutelage of the agency heads, including “perfect” Violet Collins, fur-clad Betty Whelan and “mother hen” Miriam Woodbyrne, girls learnt how to glide at a backwards slant in heels, swivel their heads admirably, make the best side of their faces the prettiest. “In those days, to be a model or an air hostess was considered to be a very good thing for a girl,” says O’Shaughnessy, who was a secretary in Walpole’s linen manufacturers when her older sister sent her money to do a modelling course. She went on to become leader of a pack that included Helen Joyce (now Lady Wogan) and Hilary Frayne (now Weston, and married to Selfridges, Brown Thomas and Arnotts owner, Galen). Gay Byrne once told Grace on The Late Late Show that, “You were all so above us, we were afraid to talk to you”. With olive skin, long dark hair and an oval face, she was compared to the Madonna by Sybil Connolly, and won the remarkable title of Europe’s Ideal Woman of 1966, for which she got a Fiat car. White, of course.
In religious Ireland, a model was supposed to be a paragon of true virtue. Unlike today, when more skin means more success and girls are outspoken on social media, a model was decorative: seen and not heard. A very tall doll. “To be signed with an agency, it was like being in a religious order,” explains Marguerite McCurtain. “Walking down Grafton Street, you had to have your hair and your make-up done perfectly. You had to represent ‘amazing’, insofar as any of us could.”
That was the idea anyhow. Behind the scenes, the job was far from amazing. Suzanne Macdougald, arguably Ireland’s most famous model of the era, recalls the “glamour” of driving around the country with a sales rep to show clothes to shop owners. “We changed in every goddamn toilet, hotel room, back bar, you name it. If you ever did a show in Ballydehob, you’d arrive and wash your hair and there was never anywhere you could dry it, unless you brought your own hairdryer.” At age 15, she took a modelling course with Violet Collins. She was so good, she left Alexandra College girls’ school in Dublin and soon became a teen sensation, all golden features, bouffant hair and pale pink lips. “Everybody thought it was very glamorous but I disgraced the school – they didn’t like the idea that I was appearing in the newspapers and things.”
Similar to today’s Irish models and promotions girls, in the 1960s, the way to secure work was to say yes to everything. Macdougald even learned to smoke when she broke into television commercials. She did get to be Terry Wogan’s “Jackpot girl” though, an impressive achievement in those circles, spinning the wheel of fortune. “I didn’t do much talking,” she laments. “You didn’t have to be very bright.” Stripping off on occasion was par for the course too. “I was never averse to doing anything that I was asked to do,” says O’Shaughnessy. She recalls Clodagh, one the era’s most venturesome designers. “She said, ‘Grace, I want to do body painting. You’re the only one I know who will do it. So will you allow me to paint your body and appear on shows and things?’ So I said ‘yes’; it was a job. I had a very skimpy bikini on, and she painted me with wonderful artistic spiral designs and trees of life.”
Model agents were always keen for their girls to go abroad and fly the flag too. Macdougald wore her share of “ghastly crimplene” at trade shows in Czechoslovakia, and leapt at the chance to travel to New York in 1964 with a group of dressmakers, including Henry White, Jack Clarke, Clodagh and Irena Gilbert, on the Irish Export Board. “Nobody would pay you any money, basically,” she says. Along with Catherine Connolly, she was told they would have their air fare paid but they would have to fend for themselves once in the US. That is how the 19-year-old fast friends ended up on a plane to Kennedy airport, pretending they had somewhere to stay. “I was so desperate to go to America I said ‘Yes, of course I’ve got relations.’ I didn’t tell them that they lived in California,” says Connolly. “Everyone was going off to the Hilton Hotel. Somebody on the plane told me about a really quirky hotel. I didn’t realise it was basically for down-and-outs. Anyway, Suzanne and I stayed there, by the docklands. We woke up in the morning with helicopters landing on the roof and somebody shooting up two doors down the corridor.”
It wasn’t only drug addicts they had to worry about. Due at the Hilton for the fashion shows at three o’clock, unbeknownst to the girls, a funeral procession for fallen firefighters was taking place on the same day and the city had ground to a standstill. Coming out of their seamy digs, they spotted a girl with false eyelashes and an enormous bag on wheels. A model bag! “We thought, oh, she must be a model. We asked her if she was going to the Hilton. She said ‘yes, come this way’.” Off they went to the wrong Hilton, on the other side of Manhattan, spending their entire first morning in a traffic jam and arriving two hours late, missing most of the shows. “We were murdered,” says Macdougald. “We spent the next ten days sleeping under the coats and suits. This was our exotic trip to New York. Hitting the big time.”
Both Macdougald and Connolly ended up in London being groomed at Vidal Sassoon’s legendary salon and working with international superstars like Twiggy. Connolly recalls one shoot for Selfridges, when she first met the Cockney waif. “She was delightful,” Connolly says. “She was much smaller than I’d expected, only about five foot five. She was far too small for all the clothes, they had to rush off and get her the equivalent of a size six today. We all felt like great big elephants in comparison.”
This is a joke, of course. None of the models was overweight and dieting was not a part of their lives. “You worked so hard, it was never an issue. Sometimes you didn’t have time to eat,” says Connolly. Macdougald tells a darker tale, however, of working in London later, in the 1970s, under a Bond Street agent. “We were told we had to lose weight. We were sent to a doctor on Harley Street who gave us blue pills, brown pills, pink pills and green pills, and you had to take these. They were uppers. And a lot of girls collapsed. At that stage I was very thin – I was told I was too thin. I would have been a size ten, I was a size eight by the time London was finished with me.”
Did they have to put up with sexism? Abuse of power? Absolutely. “We had it the whole time,” says Connolly. “Especially in England, if you went for an interview they’d sort of say ‘Ooh, you’re a nice little thing.’ Or get you to try on one thing after another and walk into your dressing room with half your clothes off.” She once worked on a beach in winter with the photographer David Bailey – “a very intimidating person to work with. He would scream and shout at you but I sort of got on very well with him.”
But lasting friendships were forged. For many of the girls a day on the catwalk meant laughter and confidence-sharing. “The best fun was doing shows,” says Connolly. “There were a lot of girls you had to be with for two weeks in rehearsals. We’d discuss recipes, or do our knitting. You’d see all these girls with false eyelashes and amazing figures, sitting knitting waiting to be photographed.” In those days, to work with the Danish-born Ib Jorgensen was the pinnacle. According to Marguerite McCurtain, who was his muse, “He had the most beautiful house at 24 Fitzwilliam Square; the double drawing room was his salon. It had the aura of a cathedral about it.” But McCurtain would arrive late having done her make-up in the car, and enjoyed tormenting Jorgensen’s top buyers during her defilé. “I kept my most spirited presentations for them. I found it very hard not to drape a feather boa along the nostril of one, or give them a good whack of my shawl, or open my coat so that they were sneezing and gasping for air. It was complete theatre.”
The other designer to know was Sybil Connolly, reinventor of tweeds. O’Shaughnessy was Connolly’s favourite model, and the designer would make the clothes on her body in her Merrion Square studio – after summoning the butler for tea and a homemade biscuit on a silver tray. O’Shaughnessy remembers her “lovely trilling laugh” on planes to London to meet buyers, and Jacqueline Kennedy’s magnanimous visit – to order six of her pleated house coats. “[Connolly] was the grande dame. She was most kind to me. She gave me several outfits; a beautiful oatmeal tweed dress, slimline and sleeveless, and a jacket over it, in rolled silk, and an aquamarine blue dress with a matching coat.” Alas, she’s since misplaced them.
Years of passive preening and tedious packing and repacking deterred none of these women from forging impressive careers after modelling. Macdougald: art gallerist, who ran the Solomon. Connolly: interior designer, with her London company, Northwick Design. McCurtain: travel writer. O’Shaughnessy: model agent and business consultant. Are the former 1960s dolls impressed with today’s not-so-model citizens? Macdougald is disappointed by the tendency to gloom on the runways, a far cry from how it used to be done. “The girls, they don’t project a personality. I don’t like this deadpan look. I think they think that clothes are supposed to speak for themselves. But clothes, as far as I’m concerned, should be worn.”
Maggie Armstrong @MaggieDubliner