I spotted Bettina, the signature model of the Fifties, standing at the door of Azzedine Alaïa’s studio with a bush of russet hair framing her smiling face.
As she came into the show space, I was standing beside a vividly coloured drawing by René Gruau of the famous Bettina Blouse, invented by Hubert de Givenchy when the star French model helped to launch the young designer’s couture house.
It was one of the rare images in the Bettina exhibition in the Marais district of Paris (until January 11) that was not in black and white. For Bettina was the image of graphic, exaggeratedly feminine fashion – an era of pencil-slim skirts, hats with a quiff of decoration and dainty high-heeled shoes.
Add, perhaps, a dog as a refined accessory to mimic the models’ stance, which was always described as “greyhound”. Bettina, being more down to earth, would be with an actual canine partner, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1951. Or, better still, I appreciated Henry Clarke’s photo of Bettina wearing a Jacques Fath country jacket, the waist accentuated by a belt and the dog as ultimate accessory. She had become Fath’s muse, before being solicited as a cover girl for the French magazines from Elle to Vogue.
“It’s magnifique!” said Bettina, surveying the room filled with a fashion Who’s Who?, from Azzedine himself to Christian Lacroix, talking about his post-fashion role as a theatre and opera stage designer.
“I came back to fashion — or maybe I have never left — I always had a feel for it,” said Bettina, whose age hovers somewhere near 90. She sat like a flame-haired queen, surrounded by friends and admirers of the little girl from Normandy whose childhood was ripped apart by the war, but who became a model superstar.
The exceptional quality of the photographs and the iconic status of those who took them, make the Bettina images a beacon of their times. The photographers’ roster includes Willy Maywald, who created a haute-couture vision of Bettina in a Dior gown with layers of chiffon falling from a tiny waist. Robert Doisneau, a photographer of reality, not artifice, caught Bettina and two companions – figures like pencil drawings, their silhouettes caught in the wind.
Irving Penn especially captured the severity chic of the Fifties in couture outfits that seemed to trace the ideal female silhouette: out-bust, in-waist, out-hips.
I have been thinking about models and what gives them a lasting quality. I remember Natalia Vodianova laughing at me on one occasion when I did not immediately recognise her, saying: “Suzy, it is me – remember, I am a model!”
I saw the chameleon quality of Bettina in those images, as though each photographer had a personal vision.
Erwin Blumenfeld stopped me in my tracks when I saw his image of a Sixties Bettina looking like an immaculately made up and coiffed housewife.
A great model, on the catwalk or in photographs, is one whose own personality, grace and charm shines through. And however haughty Bettina might appear, her exuberance glows throughout the show.
Bettina is at Azzedine Alaïa Gallery 18 Rue de la Verrerie, Paris, 75004 until January 11.
A book, Bettina (Carla Sozzani Publishing), is available from 10 Corso Como, Milan and Azzedine Alaïa Gallery