The Replacement Girl: A Life in 24 Frames
By John-Michael O'Sullivan
A biography of Barbara Mullen, one of the twentieth century's great fashion models
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TWO UNSEEN EDITIONS
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Every picture tells a story. And fashion, a world defined largely through pictures, has millions of stories to tell. But we rarely look beyond the beauty of the fashion image itself to consider what lies hidden behind.
When Barbara Mullen was born in Jazz Age Harlem, the profession of fashion modelling had barely begun. But by the time she’d graduated from high school, it was booming. Starting out as a department store mannequin in wartime New York, she would become one of the most successful models in the world. And then, after a series of personal tragedies and scandals, she disappeared from sight.
Today, Mullen exists largely through a series of extraordinary pictures, shot by some of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century; Richard Avedon, Guy Bourdin, Lillian Bassman, Norman Parkinson, William Klein, Horst, Irving Penn. Taken all over the world (Peru, Paris, India, Mexico, Sicily, New York) they tell fashion’s story in one of its most vital decades, as it transformed from an elite, luxury pursuit into a global mass-market phenomenon. Lillian Bassman labelled Mullen ‘the replacement girl’ — a last-minute stand-in for a 1948 photoshoot, who stunned the photographer with her ability to transform for the camera’s gaze. And that chameleon-like quality would allow Mullen to adapt and survive as notions of fashion and beauty themselves transformed across the Fifties, from Dior’s frothy New Look romance to the slick, graphic style of rising stars such as Cardin and Givenchy.
But what was it like to be a model then, at a time when editors such as Diana Vreeland, Bettina Ballard and Carmel Snow ruled the fashion world; a time when Madison Avenue’s Mad Men were conjuring up campaigns that needed spectacular, audacious images; a time when the designers and photographers we now venerate as gods were just inexperienced youngsters; a time when women weren’t expected to have careers (and certainly not ones which saw them become better-paid than most men); a time when models were expected to be their own stylists, hair and make-up artists, and luggage carriers; a time when you could be on the cover of every fashion magazine on a Manhattan newsstand, without anyone ever knowing your name?
Today, we live in a world where models can be superstars; thanks to social media, they now have the power to create their own images, and tell their own stories. But the voices of the women who founded and shaped the industry have largely gone unheard. Barbara Mullen’s biography offers a chance to examine modern fashion and beauty from the other side of the lens, through the eyes of one of that pioneering generation’s last survivors.
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John-Michael O'Sullivan is a London-based writer and designer. A regular contributor to Esquire, NowFashion and The Observer, he also edits Article (a biannual menswear magazine which started life on Unbound back in 2013 and is now in its 10th issue). His particular interest lies in mid-century fashion and photography. For the past four years, he has been working with Barbara Mullen, one of the top models of the postwar era, on a biography which explores fashion's golden age from the other side of the lens.
John-Michael O’Sullivan photographed by Ben Harries, 2017.
Barbara Mullen in a Talmack dress, photographed in New York’s Gramercy Park by William Helburn, for a 1957 Supima Cotton advertisement.
Barbara Mullen in an Originala coat, photographed in Cuzco by Toni Frissell, for the January 1952 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
Barbara Mullen in a gold lamé Christian Dior ballgown, photographed in the ruins of the Qawwat-Ul-Islam mosque in Delhi by Norman Parkinson, for the November 1956 issue of British Vogue.
- 31st December 2020 New Year's Eve
It's been a while.
Seven years, six months and eighteen days to be precise, since I first met Barbara Mullen. And nine years, two months and twelve days (give or take), since I first saw Lillian Bassman's portrait of her, photographed at La Grand Véfour in Paris in 1949; an impossibly long streak of arm and neck, slicing across the frame - and a face twisted away from the camera's glare, disappearing…23rd April 2019 Lights, Camera, Action
It's the most clichéd of clichés, but sometimes life just gets in the way. And so, for most of the last six months, thanks to an obstacle course of different events - work, family, health, Brexit - The Replacement Girl has been on hold.
But we're back. And having hit the 85% mark during the hiatus, it's beginning to feel like we're on the home stretch - wrapping up interviews, agreeing…11th September 2018 Road Trip
20 cities, in 4 time zones, in 4 weeks: it's been an action packed August for 'The Replacement Girl'.
It's been quite a while since my last post - largely because, for the last month, I've been in the US to finish researching 'The Replacement Girl'. Starting and finishing in New York, the trip took in Connecticut, Washington DC, Maryland, West Virginia, Oregon, California, New Mexico, Texas…4th June 2018 One Year On
Yesterday was Barbara Mullen's 91st birthday. Or it would have been, if Barbara hadn't decided (very sensibly, quite some time ago) to stay put at 85.
It was also the first anniversary of our Unbound campaign; a full year since we started to finally assemble this long-in-the-making project, and a year since we began in-depth interviews with a whole host of Barbaras' contemporaries - fellow…25th April 2018 Liat Sandys, 1958
From Cote d’Azur beauty pageants to animal rights protests, and from couture salons to encounters with royalty and movie stars, Liat Sandys’ modelling career was — at the very least — never boring.
I’ve been living with the stories of most of the women I’ve written about for the best part of five years. But a few weeks ago, out of idle interest, I ran a Google search for ‘top fashion model…26th March 2018 Jean Dawnay, 1957
Jean Dawnay, 1957
Most of the women whose lives I’ve featured (both here, and — in more condensed form — on Instagram) had neither the profile or the platform to share their perspectives. Jean Dawnay was the exception; a household name with a glittering career, who seized the chance to tell her side of the story.
In what’s perhaps the most famous picture ever taken of her, Jean Dawnay…16th March 2018 Renée Breton, 1956
Renée Breton, 1956
It seems only fitting to be writing about Renée Breton in Paris, in the springtime. Three weeks younger than Barbara Mullen, she spent most of her career as one of Christian Dior’s most treasured muses. She embodied midcentury French elegance — and her career was in many ways the antithesis of that most top-flight American models enjoyed.
Renée Breton hated change…25th February 2018 Dolores, 1955
Barbara Mullen spent two years as a department store mannequin before getting her first break at Vogue. But some women would spend their entire careers working in ready-to-wear showrooms and couture salons — none more famously than Hartnell model Dolores, who reigned over London’s fashion scene for two decades.
She wasn’t Norman Hartnell’s first Dolores. That honour fell to Norine Schofield…12th February 2018 Anne Gunning, 1954
2018 sees research for ‘The Replacement Girl’ shift to Barbara Mullen’s later career, in London and Paris. And so the second group of stories to be told are those of Barbara’s French and British contemporaries — women like Anne Gunning, perhaps the first real British supermodel, who took America by storm a decade before Twiggy and the Shrimp.
‘She has been everything that girls dream…18th December 2017 Manhattan, Christmas 2017
It’s been just over eight months since Harper’s Bazaar published a book to celebrate their 150th anniversary. For its cover, out of all the iconic images produced across the magazine’s long history, they chose a spectacular Lillian Bassman portrait of Barbara Mullen in Dior; Barbara’s first Bazaar cover, as it happened, in almost sixty-five years. And that same month, at a star-studded party thrown…22nd November 2017 Liz Benn, 1953
For some, modelling was an end in itself. But for Liz Benn, it was a springboard — one that catapulted her from a humble Canadian upbringing to life at the helm of the Caribbean’s most glamorous resort.
It’s hard to imagine Liz Benn ever having an awkward age. From the very start, her pictures radiated a commanding presence; skin glowing, stance confident, profile always perfectly tilted…7th November 2017 Sophie Malgat, 1952
For much of the Forties and Fifties, American models dominated the world of fashion photography. The countercharge, when it finally came, started in Paris, where women like Sophie Malgat led the way from couture salons to magazine covers.
Whenever France’s midcentury models are discussed, the name that inevitably leads the pack is Bettina; the redheaded, freckle-faced girl from Brittany…23rd October 2017 Joan Pedersen, 1951
Joan Pedersen grew up dreaming about dancing. But fate led her to modelling instead, and to a successful career that flew largely under history’s radar.
World’s Oldest Living Cover Girl. It’s a title that rests lightly on the shoulders with Joan Pedersen Coleman, an elegant, chatty 93-year-old, who first graced the cover of Vogue seventy years ago — and did so in some style, appearing…8th October 2017 Katherine Cassidy, 1950
Howard Hawks promised he’d make her a star. But Katherine Cassidy decided to go her own way, and chose modelling — and money — over the movies.
“It’s fine while it lasts,” Marie Icide yawned. “Like many models, I hope to be either a dress designer or an actress.”
It was the summer of 1945. And on a Paramount Studios soundstage, Icide — a precocious half-Irish, half-Romanian teenager…23rd September 2017 Ronnie Compton, 1949
Ronnie Compton was one of the most glamorous models in America. Vera Lee was a merchant seaman’s daughter from Southampton. And Veronica Minette was the doomed widow of a Belgian count. But it would be decades before anyone realised that all three were the same woman.
Ronnie Compton died twice — once in the London Blitz, and once in a Northern boarding house. The first time (as with so…10th September 2017 Jeanne Klein, 1948
Barbara Mullen chose a modelling career; Jeanne Florin tried to avoid it. But despite that, she became one of the most sought-after models in Paris — and, with her husband William Klein, would form one of photography’s most enduring partnerships.
It’s one of fashion’s great love stories. It even comes with a beginning straight out of an MGM musical; a handsome young American soldier…26th August 2017 Tedi Thurman, 1946
After a decade of modelling success, Tedi Thurman remained an unknown. But once she made the leap to broadcasting, she became a household name — and one of the industry’s first mainstream stars.
Even today, there’s not much going on in the City of Midville, Georgia (pop. 269) — just a few flat streets of spread-out timber-sided houses, scattered round the intersection of Highway 17…13th August 2017 Marilyn Ambrose, 1944
Many of the top models of the Forties and Fifties enjoyed exceptionally long careers. But even by those standards, Marilyn Ambrose was exceptional, enjoying two decades of top-flight success — forging a now-faded reputation as one of the most elegant women in fashion.
In 1947, Irving Penn’s now-iconic portrait of the most photographed models in America was first published. Shot against…30th July 2017 Bijou Barrington, 1942
You can’t have a good Cinderella story without having an ugly sister somewhere in the frame. In Barbara Mullen’s particular fairytale, that role falls to Bijou Barrington — a glamour girl whose career contrasts with that of Mullen in almost every significant way.
Of course, in reality Bijou Barrington wasn’t remotely ugly. Like most models of the early Forties, she was uncomplicatedly…15th July 2017 Muriel Maxwell, 1941
To borrow an expression that wouldn't become common currency till decades later, Muriel Maxwell had it all; beauty, brains, connections, and a glamorous life both in front of and behind the camera. She achieved remarkable success across much of her career — but if she’s remembered at all, it’s as one of the first of modelling’s cautionary tales.
Rabbi Benjamin Tintner — the…2nd July 2017 Liz Gibbons, 1938
If any of Manhattan’s first generation of models could have successfully told (and sold) their story, it would have been Liz Gibbons. She did, in fact, over thirty years ago — a fascinating historical document of a fashion industry just beginning to take shape. But the manuscript was rejected by her publishing house, and has lain untouched ever since.
Like many models, Liz Gibbons…17th June 2017 Marion Morehouse, 1927
Barbara Mullen’s story is unique. But it’s just one of hundreds of stories that could have been written about the modelling industry’s early pioneers. While Unbound’s campaign to publish Mullen’s biography continues, we wanted to tell the story of some of these other forgotten figures.
When Mullen was born in June 1927, the cover of Vogue featured a slim figure on board a rowing…
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