“If I wasn’t a model I would have liked to be a gardener. It is still a puzzle to me that I ever became a model. I am an extremely private person and I do not have the temperament for fame. I think I was rather ashamed of this trivial way of earning a living.”
The most famous model of the 60s and the first super model, Jean Shrimpton is a fascinating woman to talk about. Although I always knew who she was and loved that infamous photograph of her modelling one of the Madame Paulette hats as well as the Young Idea Vogue editorial (which, in my books, goes under Jean and Teddy Bear in New York) I never really tried to dig deeper than beautiful images. Shame on me, I know, but frankly, I guess I just needed that unique spark of inspiration that has a tendency of visiting me at most surprising and unexpected moments of time.
A couple of months ago I saw her on TV – I had it on for some background mumbling comfort, but I had to look up as soon as I heard her name. And there she was – a beautiful woman in her 60s walking around a beautiful hotel, The Abbey, and the rose garden, one of Jean’s passions. This was the moment when I suddenly wanted to know the story and share it with you.
Jean Shrimpton got her very first modelling job when she was two. Her mother always believed that her little baby was the most beautiful girl in the world and deserved the most idyllic childhood as well as plenty of attention. She dressed Jean in a striped blue and white dress and took to a local photographer to take some pictures, one of which was then entered in a child study competition.
Another incident that convinced Jean’s mother that her daughter was born to be a model came about when 15-year old Jean went to a holiday camp with the family. At the end of that week all the photographs taken by the camp photographer were put up on a big board for the campers to make their selection. That day Jean was flattered to discover that the photos were mostly of her, but since she wasn’t really into all this, the story just became a summer memory.
Although by the time Jean turned 16, her main interests included the boys, parties and horse riding, she still had to decide what to do with her life, and so she chose to go to the Langham Secretarial College at Marble Arch. She soon realised that she would never make a good secretary, but she went to college for as long as required while also enjoying her newly discovered world of the West End clubs and social life.
On one of those days she was walking down the street wearing a new grey silky dress when a dark haired man approached her to ask if she would like to be a model. His name was Colonel Voynovitch. A few days later he met her parents and offered £5 for an afternoon’s work. Her parents liked the idea and the following weekend Voynovitch came to pick Jean up. They drove to his house near Sunningdale for a photo session which turned out to be the first and the last one as far as Jean was concerned. Voynovitch happened to be not much of a gentleman when it came to young beautiful girls. After that weekend she said to her mother: “I’m not going again, he’s a dirty old man. He keeps trying to touch me.” Although the entire experience was a short one, one of the pictures taken by the Colonel did appear in Woman’s Own later that year.
The incident, however, didn’t put Jean off modelling because, after being “discovered at a zebra crossing” by a film director Cy Enfield who later became her good friend, she decided to agree with his enthusiastic idea and take up a Lucie Clayton’s modelling course.
At the beginning of her career she was as Duffy once put it “the epitome of ordinariness”. All jobs came along mostly because she took every and each one with great responsibility. Until one day when Jean was finally sent to work with John French.
As Shrimpton recalls: “If French booked you, you were on your way. French adored woman and made them look marvellous. French was one-off.”
And then there was Bailey who really made her famous and was, according to Shrimpton, was one of two most important people in her life (the other one being her husband Michael). Jean Shrimpton and David Bailey met at Vogue photoshoot. The 23-year old Bailey was working with John French trying to learn from the best and make a career as a photographer. They became a couple. She was his love and muse. He was the photographer who showed her how to work the camera, move, react and respond to the lens. He brought something in her that made her exceptional.
They worked a lot, mostly as a duo, jet setting around the world, working for Vogue US, Vogue Paris, Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour, becoming more and more successful in their careers. He kept her exclusive by choosing the best jobs and working with her most of the time apart from when she was photographed by Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton. Avedon and Jean Loup Seiff.
“If you’re going to be a great model,” Bailey would instruct her. “you must work with all the great photographers of the day.”
The only thing Bailey seemed to have failed to give Shrimpton was happiness and that was part of the reason why she decided to break up with him one day almost out of the blue. Bailey was heart broken. She felt sad and guilty for ending things that way. They stopped all contacts apart from an occasional one when a job would bring them together for a split moment. It took them years to finally be able to find emotional strength to communicate again.
During this time Jean Shrimpton was getting bored of modelling. She was still incredibly famous and lived quite a glamorous life, which, behind the beautiful façade, wasn’t as blissful as it seemed.
One day, in November 1965, her agent got her a job in Australia. All that she had to do was to show up at the Melbourne races wearing clothes made of Orlon fabrics and present the prize for the Melbourne Cup. It paid well and was a great opportunity to get away from rainy and cold Britain.
The event became a part of fashion history. It all went disastrously wrong at first. Orlon never provided the model with any details on etiquette and she never bothered to ask any questions. They sent her some synthetic fabrics for the clothes and left it up to her to design the ensemble. She found a dress maker called Colin Rolfe and he did the job. Unfortunately, the organisers failed to provide enough fabrics and so the decision was made to make the outfits a little bit shorter, four inches above the knee.
On the day of the races Shrimpton decided not to wear her stockings – the day was supposed to be quite hot, and appeared before the organizers and, later, stunned public in a short dress, bare tanned legs and no hat or gloves in sight. Instantly she became a cause célèbre.
She, of course, did her best to dress appropriately the next day and was even called “exquisite”, but that mini skirt moment was still on everyone’s mind.
As a result young girls all over Australia started shortening their skirts and back in Europe Mary Quant was the first one to incorporate the trend into fashion.
And this is how the mini skirt was born.
When she was 33, Jean Shrimpton decided to end her modelling career. She moved to Cornwall, found a pretty and non-fussy cottage just outside Camborne and opened an antique shop which she stocked up with bits and pieces from her own home in London. She enjoyed her new adventure. Buying antiques was an obsessive business and she considered herself to be an obsessive person. It kept her occupied, but also brought in some money. And it was right there, in her shop, when she met Michael, her future husband. Michael Cox was married, but the marriage was a problem one, there was no love between him and his wife any more.
Jean and Michael became friends, but as it grew stronger and stronger, Jean couldn’t help but realise that Michael gave her a feeling of peaceful comfort she hasn’t experienced for years. There was never any proposal – one day they both knew being together was what they both wanted. They married in a quiet ceremony on Friday, 12 January 1979 at Penzance register office. She was 3 months pregnant with her son Thaddeus. In 1979 they bought and restored a beautiful and charming hotel called The Abbey that became their home and new business venture. There’s not a single photograph of Jean as a model in her home. This is when and where she finally found her true happiness.
My story is based on Jean Shrimpton’s book, An Autobiography
Photo source: Jean Shrimpton by David Bailey, Bert Stern and Richard Avedon