I’m a fashion historian and feminist, raised in the US, in a period when something we might now call the 'politics of appearance' was at least covertly an issue for activists, who struggled to work out what 'the personal is political' meant for us –then the younger generation. This SHOWstudio project has made me realise that it’s not at all surprising that when I began researching the photographer Lee Miller, this unexplored aspect of her life post-war - and post-photography - came to rather obsess me.
Fashionistas know that Gucci's Frida Giannini dubbed Miller her muse for her A/W 08 collection, calling her 'a pioneer - talented, passionate and fashionable, just like strong women of today.' Miller was, of course, Vogue’s cover girl in 1928, and then regularly photographed by Steichen, Genthe and Hoyningen-Huene. Man Ray’s lover, muse and pupil in the early thirties, she became a photographer herself for Vogue and later served as their WWII correspondent in Europe. Briefly, post-WWII, she returned to fashion photography. But, by the mid-fifties Miller left Vogue and channelled her creativity into gourmet cooking and at times rather whimsical entertaining at her home with Roland Penrose, Farley Farm. Yet, the idea that this woman who’d once been a beauty and talent amidst the modern art scene in Paris and New York and then had been the only female photographer at the liberation of Dachau and Buchenwald could basically retire – (much less do so in pop socks and 'slacks'!) - seems to have many appalled friends and colleagues after the war.
Dave Scherman, the Life photographer, her comrade in WWII and her sometimes lover, wrote in the summer of 1946 that Miller was 'getting old and with it getting fat and she won’t face up to it.' Her trouser-wearing in post-war Manhattan shocked her younger colleagues at American Vogue. Back in London, newly-appointed Vogue arts writer, Peggy Riley, (known today as Rosamund Bernier, famous for her talks at the Met) was also amazed by how Miller 'had lost her delicate beauty' and showed 'a total disregard for her dress'. Her son has written that by 1955 Miller was in the grips of a deep depression, having 'found herself unable to get any pleasure from sex' after giving birth to him in 1948. He states that: 'Her hair was getting thinner and lifeless. The fat was piling on, making her body look coarse and bulky. To make matters worse, the woman who had once been described as a 'snappy dresser' was fast becoming a slob. She would turn up at smart dinner parties in scruffy or unsuitable clothes – calf-high stockings under a knee length skirt, or an ill-fitting jacket worn over slacks'.
Such statements make me wonder. Have any male WWII correspondents been similarly derided for being slovenly, while transforming themselves into gourmets? Surely, this raises questions about women and the 'politics of appearance'. I fear that Miller’s other life- long traits – joking, swearing and drinking - were sexy and attractive in a twenty-year old Lee, but not so in a fifties mother or in a sixties Lady Penrose.
But, isn’t it important to reflect on the 'issue' from Miller’s angle? Perhaps fashion, which had captured her imagination only at times in her life, really seemed rather obscene after what she’d witnessed in the concentration camps. A recent find in the archives, penned to Alison Settle, then Vogue’s fashion editor, reveals this might well have been the case. Miller wrote the following lines in the Summer of 1951, when the Festival of Britain was in full tilt on the South Bank:
Dear Alison Settle, The French aren’t anywhere near as sensitive to the horrors as you think the English might be…gloomed by atom designs in textiles. The famous skimpy bathing costume was named 'Bikini' before the ashes had settled and last week, in Paris, a friend was wearing a new Dior hat…snow-white panama with a naval anchor called 'Narvik'. I’m told Cecil Beaton, somewhere in print, described an elegant and attenuated creature as a 'Belsen Beauty' while there were still bodies on the ground in other un-liberated camps. The ladies are though, I think, and would trim themselves with mice and spiders to be fashionable and remarkable….Yours, Lee