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The Teacher and the Student: Innocence, Exploration, and Redefinition in the 1950s World of Fashion

The Teacher and the Student: Innocence, Exploration, and Redefinition in the 1950s World of Fashion

The Counterfeit Body: Fashion Photography and the Deceptions
of Femininity, Sexuality, Authenticity and Self in the 1950s, 60s and 70s
The Teacher and the Student: Innocence, Exploration, and Redefinition in the 1950s World of Fashion
Tina Butler,
May 9, 2005

Funny Face served as a precursor to this shift in sensibility and sensitivity. The girl next door was about to let her hair down. She was going to be unleashed and a little sexed up. The 1956 musical, starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn encapsulates the feeling and mode of the era with uncanny clarity and proximity. The fairy tale world of fashion presented onscreen is by no means a perfect reflection of reality, however the styles and mannerisms of that time and place are communicated and reinforced; likewise, many characters in Funny Face were based on real and prominent figures of the then current fashion world. Most notably, Dick Avery, Astaire’s fashion photographer character, was modeled on one of the most prolific fashion photographers of the time, Richard Avedon. Avedon also served as a consultant for the film to ensure a more accurate depiction of the current lifestyle and practices of the fashion culture. Further, some of his real life signature images were recreated in the film, such as the scene with Hepburn at the flower market in the Parisian plaza.

While Avedon certainly was not villianized to the degree of his colleagues working later in the industry in the 60s and 70s, if the Avery character is indeed based on him, he comes across as not entirely innocuous in his motives and behavior towards his models. From his first interaction with Jo, who will become his model, in the bookstore, to their second meeting in the magazine’s darkroom, Avery clearly asserts who is the dominant figure in their relationship; the power dynamic is shifted heavily in his favor. Avery treats Jo like a child, yet at the same time, with a good deal of perverse irony, makes no secret of his attraction to and affection for her. He begins to seduce from the outset. The photographer is equally unprofessional with Marion (Dovima), his regular stock model, although in a completely different manner, insulting her lack of intelligence and one-dimensionality and making dismissive and sexist comments.

The film not only presents issues of style concerning photography and models, but also the most basic style itself, the clothes. While Funny Face is often regarded as a showcase for Givenchy couture and as adding to Hepburn’s iconic status in culture, it is not the gown she wears “at the film’s conclusion that will inspire future fashion. She is remembered for the black turtleneck and capri pants that she wears to frolic as yet unreformed in the cafes of Paris” (Radner 130). Avery assumes the role of the star-maker in the film, recreating and introducing the mousy bookstore clerk as the new face of Quality. Her association with the fashion photographs, in a sense, ‘makes’ her. As art often imitates life, or perhaps in this case, life imitates art, Hepburn’s real moment as a fashion icon arrives after this film’s release.

Funny Face addresses many of the real-world issues that fashion was confronting in the mid to late 1950s. The film captures the period of transition from the static, formal conventions of earlier fashion photography to the increasingly popularized ‘Single Girl’ phenomenon and associated aesthetic. Funny Face presents the metaphorical passing of the torch in fashion style from soft, feminine constraint, to a more sexual or sexually ambiguous and edgy look associated with the 1960s. In the beginning of the film, the seasoned professional model Marion, played by real–life modeling star of the time, Dovima, is shown as exceedingly elegant and well bred. At the same time, she is also exceedingly cold, haughty and vapid. Avery ardently expresses his disdain for her type of model as well as the confining stasis and tedium of studio photography. He longs for the dynamism of the ‘real’ world, for spontaneity and movement as well as models of substance and intelligence. Audrey Hepburn, inhabiting the character of Jo Stockton—the fiercely intelligent yet mousy book shopkeeper turned unconventional and revolutionary new fashion ingenue and icon, marks the transition to this new kind of ideal.

The plot of Funny Face runs as a kind of gross condensing of history in presenting the late 50s shift in fashion photography aesthetics. The film begins with a rabidly enthusiastic and brash magazine editor, Maggie Prescott, (based on Diana Vreeland) of Quality (assuming the role of Vogue here), the premier women’s fashion magazine, in a state of panic and frustration. She expresses her dissatisfaction with the stasis of the magazine’s presentation of fashions and models. Prescott is desirous of something new and innovative for the ‘modern woman.’ She decides that the magazine needs to introduce a new type of woman by finding her, shooting her and putting her on the cover. Enlisting the help of Avery and her regular crew, they invade a neglected Greenwich Village bookstore to do a ‘real’ photo shoot with harebrained model Marion. “They have little success making Marion look intelligent, even when surrounded by books. But Dick finds possibilities in using the young, frumpy and studious-minded bookstore clerk Jo Stockton as the model, as she projects character—a new virtue for a model” (Schwartz

Jo is the living, filmic embodiment of the new Single Girl. She is independent, intelligent and in control, at least until she falls in love. Like many of the elements of fashion photography, Jo’s apparent and insistent independence is mere illusion. As soon as she wears a wedding gown for a shoot and enters Avery’s proximity, Jo melts in a melodramatic and weakly feminine display. The quirky and independently minded, yet fairly defenseless girl of the bookstore is gone and in her place is a domesticated and submissive child eager for the tradition and security of marriage. During this period, it was acceptable to present the chimera of this persona, so long as it remained that and was never actualized. While Jo is shown cavorting around Paris as a free-spirited bohemian, she easily shifts into the mode of delicate and feminine high fashion. She is remembered for her ‘spunk,’ but she is ultimately uniformed and preserved as a Givenchy-clothed doll.

Jo’s initial resistance to fashion, modeling and the whole enterprise is persistently weakened, mostly by Avery’s increasingly unsubtle influence. During their first encounter, as the crew from Quality invades the bookstore, Jo expresses the shop owner’s attitude about the industry they represent and espouses some Frankfurt School-like rhetoric. “He doesn’t approve of fashion magazines. It’s chi-chi and an unrealistic approach to self-impressions and economics.” As for herself, she attempts to avoid being included in the frame with, “It would be hypocrisy for me to lend myself to this sort of idealism!” Ironically and pointedly, Jo speaks not her own mind, but the mind and opinions of her boss. The audience never really gets her attitude about her involvement with what she has now unexpectedly become a part of. After the shoot has finished, Avery remains to help Jo clean up the enormous mess produced by the fashion intrusion, she admonishes him and the industry further. “A man of your ability wasting his talent photographing silly dresses on silly women…” She cannot believe his commitment to such a frivolous enterprise. Additionally, she complains of the nature of his industry, writing off the model’s appearance as “mostly synthetic beauty.” Indeed, as the turn of events in the film illustrates, the transitional years of the 1950’s signaled a marked change in aesthetics in terms of modeling framing and presentation.

Funny Face makes several comments on and references to the industry as well as visualizing several changes that occurred within it during this period. One such reference is the transition from pure and controlled studio shoots to on location and street shooting, the latter developed by William Klein. In these latter situations, the elements of each fashion photograph become significantly more dynamic because the new environments necessitate and make available so many opportunities for spontaneity and chance. Also, bringing the models to specific sites instead of the often lacking and unintentionally hilarious attempts to produce studio substitutes creates a higher sense of realism. Avery complains of the limiting nature of the studio in his first shoot with Marion. He is the one who proposes going to an actual bookstore to finish the shoot. At first his colleagues look at him blankly, but soon enough, they are marching out the door. This instant in the film memorializes the birth of the practice of on-site shooting, being as revolutionary a moment in fashion and fashion photography, as it was for Hollywood films shooting on location. While changes in both industries were significantly motivated by advances in technology, fashion photography’s transition was largely influenced by a shift in sensibility, not just simply more sophisticated lenses, flashes, film stock or other equipment.

Even today, the film still retains some of its cultural relevance with numerous references to and within contemporary cultural products. The character of Jo Stockton and Audrey Hepburn the person, have become almost interchangeable at some level. This ‘hybrid’ persona was most recently featured in an advertisement for Givenchy’s L’Interdit perfume. The ad consists of Hepburn (or Stockton?) in her free-spirited yet elegant Paris-cavorting garb. [Fig. 7] The copy line reads “Celebrating 50 years of style. Created for Audrey Hepburn. Once forbidden. Now reborn.” Funny Face’s poster girl has also made appearances in the form of references in recent films, including Robert Altman’s 1995 feature, Ready to Wear. “I feel as though I’m about to break into the “Bonjour Paris” number from Funny Face,” one character in the film remarks.

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