JEAN Shrimpton, the model who launched the miniskirt, turns 70 today. Alice Wyllie looks at the impact on the fashion world of a woman who came to epitomise the spirit of the Swinging Sixties
When Jean Shrimpton’s dressmaker, Colin Rolfe, was commissioned to make an outfit for the gamine 22-year-old model for the 1965 Victoria Derby in Melbourne he was left in a pickle when he didn’t receive quite enough fabric to complete the garment. No matter, said Shrimpton, who suggested he go ahead and make the simple white shift anyway, improvising by finishing the hemline a daring 10cm above the knee.
Shrimpton later said she told the designer “nobody’s going to take any notice…” How wrong she was. The dress was in stark contrast to the buttoned-up attire worn by the Australian establishment and caused a global sensation, heralding the arrival of the miniskirt and cementing Shrimpton’s position as an icon of the Swinging 60s.
“The furore in Melbourne caused controversy as much for the length of her hemline as for her general disregard for stuffy protocol – no hat, stockings or gloves,” says Mary McGowne, the founder of the Scottish Style Awards. “She dared to be different and her look epitomised the spirit of the liberal revolution. The Melbourne fashion moment was but one indicator of the radical social and cultural changes of the time, but it was legendary and truly trend shifting.”
Today the woman who embodied the aesthetic of a generation turns 70. Since she stepped out of the limelight nearly 40 years ago, any celebrations will no doubt be out of the public eye. She runs a small hotel in Cornwall and her only nod to publicity over the past four decades has been an autobiography, published in 1990, to pay for roof repairs.
Despite her relatively brief time in the spotlight, however, she left an indelible mark on the fashion world and hers was one of the faces of her generation, alongside Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Edie Sedgwick. Her look was emulated the world over and was so fresh and modern that it still resonates today; the photographs of her in Melbourne, her simple dress teamed with a man’s watch, could have been taken yesterday, were it not for the very of-their-time matrons gawping in horror in the background.
“Jean Shrimpton was a true 60s style icon and one of the world’s first ‘supermodels’ – an everyday phrase now, but a concept unheard of in the late 1950s,” says McGowne. “At a time in history when female voluptuousness was de rigueur, Shrimpton caused a sensation when she exploded on to the scene. So much so that her look at the time – gamine, doe-eyed, heavy fringe – is now characteristic of an iconic image we have of the Swinging 60s. That’s quite an achievement.”
Born in Buckinghamshire in 1942, Shrimpton was raised on a farm, attending a convent school in Slough before going to a modelling school in London, starting her career aged 17. Her father, a builder, was a self-made man and she grew up in a rich household. However, he was emotionally absent and refused to speak to her for a year when she began a relationship with married photographer David Bailey.
Bailey spotted her in a photography studio when she was 18 and filming an advert for cereal. Where their romantic relationship would fade after a few years, their working relationship produced some of fashion’s most iconic images. By the time Shrimpton’s thighs had made their debut in Melbourne, she was already one of the most famous models in the world. Her willowy physique (which earned her the nickname “The Shrimp”), doe eyes and delicate, youthful features were in stark contrast to the older, more severe and aristocratic-looking models of the 1950s. She was just 19 when she was propelled to stardom after a shoot for the April 1962 issue of Vogue by Bailey – who recently described her as having a “democratic sort of beauty” – launched swinging London and what legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland dubbed the “youthquake” of the 60s.
The shoot was in New York, and the young couple nearly missed their flight after Bailey had to drag a reticent Shrimpton aboard the plane at Heathrow, telling her to think of it as “a number 29 bus with wings”. They got there, however, and the shoot, with Shrimpton in front of gritty urban backdrops, carrying a teddy bear and dressed in demure fashions, came to completely redefine fashion editorials. Until that point they had been stiff, formal, posed and often in a studio or ultra-glamorous setting.
The couple arrived in New York as complete unknowns, but, after the shoot was published, were hailed as faces of their generation. Earlier this year, the BBC broadcast We’ll Take Manhattan, the story of the famous shoot, starring Karen Gillan as Shrimpton and Aneurin Barnard as Bailey.
Shrimpton appeared on the cover of countless magazines throughout the 60s, and was one of the first models to be described as a “supermodel”, with Time magazine labelling her thus in 1971. In an age when young women no longer wanted to dress like their mothers – and well-bred, well-groomed models suddenly looked terribly old fashioned – everyone wanted to look like Shrimpton.
Hers was a reluctant sort of fame, however. She was insecure about her looks and disenchanted by the fashion world, describing it as “a high-pressured environment that takes its toll and burns people out”. She thought of herself as too “pretty, pretty” and “vacant looking” and maintained that she never liked being photographed but just happened to be very good at it.
Her relationship with Bailey (who was married during their courtship) came to an end when she left him for the actor Terence Stamp, whom she also left after three years before turning down both Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and moving to Wales to live with the poet Heathcote Williams. She has observed that she has always been in relationships and has always been the one to end them. Stamp described her as the love of his life, while Bailey has said that losing her “was like losing my camera”.
She tried her hand at photography and dabbled in acting, briefly, before deciding in her early thirties that she wanted to quit modelling altogether, moving to Cornwall in 1975, where she met her future husband Michael Cox. She gave birth to their son, Thaddeus, in 1979.
Together, the couple run the Abbey Hotel in Penzance, where they held their wedding reception in 1979, with just two friends as witnesses. She avoids publicity, interviews and photographers, insisting she doesn’t like to live her life through “the prism of the past”. She continues to be uninterested in her appearance, making no concessions to vanity and doing “precisely nothing” to maintain her famous looks.
Being praised for her beauty, she has said, is simply “a nuisance”, but the occasional, intrusive paparazzi shot reveals that that beauty is very much still there: the cheekbones, the lips, those arched eyebrows.
The 1962 Vogue shoot; the famous monochrome image Bailey took of her in profile; the Harper’s Bazaar cover of her in a striking fuschia headpiece; the Vogue cover of her posing in an enormous white hat, blunt fringe resting on her eyebrows – she has been the subject of some of the most iconic fashion photographs of the 20th century.
Not bad for someone who wrote in her autobiography; “I’m not interested in clothes and I hate people staring at me.”
• Jean Rosemary Shrimpton was born in Buckinghamshire on November 7, 1942. Raised on a farm and educated at a convent school, Shrimpton moved to London at 18, enrolling in a typing and shorthand class before joining the Lucie Clayton Charm Academy, a modelling school in the capital.
• She met photographer David Bailey in 1960 and began a romantic relationship which lasted for four years in which time both became icons of the Swinging Sixties. After she split with Bailey, Shrimpton had relationships with actor Terence Stamp, above, and poet Heathcote Williams.
• In 1965, when she appeared at Victoria Derby Day in Melbourne, Australia, wearing a white shift dress that ended four inches above her knees, Shrimpton caused a scandal and brought the miniskirt to the public’s attention.
• Shrimpton also tried her hand at acting, starring in the 1967 film, Privilege.
• In 1975, Shrimpton quit modelling and left London for Cornwall, where she opened up an antiques store and met Michael Cox, whom she married in 1979. The same year she gave birth to their son, Thaddeus. Shrimpton and Cox later purchased a hotel in Penzance, which is still run by the family.