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Twiggy and the Gang

November 20, 2013 | by

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My mother was not a regular reader of Vogue when I was girl in the 1960s, but my friend Diane’s mother—a cool, soignée blonde with an alluring French twist and a lily of the valley–infused cloud of Diorissimo hovering perpetually about her—was, and whenever I visited, Diane and I would pore over the magazine’s slick, bright pages together in a companionable reverie that needed no words. Veruschka’s Slavic exoticism held us deeply in thrall; the preternatural perfection of Jean Shrimpton’s full, exquisitely lipsticked mouth was like a valentine. We longed to look like them, but we knew these girls—and they were, after all, girls—would always remain at some poignant and unattainable remove from us, or anything we could ever aspire to be. With their sinuously lined eyelids, thick manes of hair, and aloof, worldly posturing, Shrimpton, Veruschka, and their ilk had already assumed the lacquered and impermeable gloss of fully grown women, and had left us far, far behind.

twiggy-lashes

So you can imagine our mutual astonishment on the day in 1967 when we turned the page and found ourselves locking eyes with the vulnerable, unvarnished, and most astonishing of all: the impossibly young face of Twiggy. From the moment I saw her boyishly cropped hair, faint spray of freckles, tremulous mouth and huge, wide-open eyes, I felt a visceral shock of recognition. Although she was not one of us—neither Diane nor I were so deluded as to imagine that—we could discern that she was nonetheless only a few baby steps ahead, and onto her fey, coltish image, we could project that of an adored babysitter or someone’s cool older sister. The vestigial childishness of her narrow hips and her pipe-stem legs only confirmed our immediate sense identification. Twiggy was the first model appearing in a women’s magazine who was not precisely a woman; instead, she embraced and exalted her at moments awkward—yet always adorable—girlishness. And since it was clear that Twiggy loved being a girl, not a woman, she gave us the heady permission to love what was still girlish in ourselves.

Quickly, Diane and I spread the word, and the fifth and sixth graders who comprised our little pack were eager to climb on board. We formed our own Twiggy fan club, and at the weekly meetings quizzed each other on tidbits gleaned from teen magazines. Real name? Leslie Hornby. Birthday: September 19, 1949. Soon we could recite the complete catechism: she attended Kilburn High School for Girls and began modeling at fifteen. Her nickname—first Sticks, then Twigs—soon morphed into Twiggy; that was the one that stuck.

Those magazines yielded pictures too, and we jostled each other for the chance to see images of her riding her bicycle, sipping hot chocolate with her boyfriend-turned-manager Justin de Villeneuve or romping with a litter of puppies; clearly those dogs were as besotted as we were. Pages were roughly torn out, taped to our walls, doors, and book covers; we wanted to be Twiggy, each of us vying furiously for the right to inhabit the Cockney cutie’s persona for the duration of our “let’s pretend” games.

When the meetings were over and we went back home, we pestered our mothers for the Twiggy lunch boxes, tights, sweaters, tote bags, and paper dolls flooding the market. Diane’s mother, more indulgent than mine, was willing to purchase the Milton Bradley Twiggy board game, the Twiggy Barbie made by Mattel, a Twiggy lunch box, binder, pen, and tote. I had to settle for the paper dolls.

The author, desperately growing out bangs to achieve the coveted Twiggy crop.

The author, desperately growing out bangs to achieve the coveted Twiggy crop.

Then there was the memorable occasion when we all saved our money and descended, en masse, upon a local beauty parlor (the word salon had not yet come into common parlance) begging for Twiggy crops. One by one, we stepped up to the chair, submitted to the long, floral-print smock and the flashing scissor blades. Diane’s smooth blonde hair—very much like her mother’s—was the perfect raw material for the coif; once shorn, her face, newly revealed, displayed an angular grace none of us had noticed before. Nancy and Betty fared a little less well; Nancy’s hair was too thick, resulting in a style that looked puffy rather than sleek, and though raven-haired Betty looked cute—she always looked cute—she was nothing like Twiggy. Still, I would have traded their experience, gladly, for mine.

 During the interminable wait for my turn, I fairly pulsated with excitement. How would the cut look on me?  Would I be transformed? What secrets of my soul would it reveal? Would the haircut bring me one step closer to feeling like Twiggy might have felt? I never had the chance to find out. The beautician (re: stylist, see note above) told me that my shortly cropped, uneven bangs would need to grow several more inches before they could be coaxed into anything like an approximation of my idol’s. I stepped down from the chair, crushed. By the time my bangs did grow long enough, the cut seemed like an afterthought and I never ended up getting one. And although our collective Twiggy love continued through the 1960s, she was eventually replaced in our affections by the new crop of American beauties—Cheryl Tiegs, Cybil Shepherd, Christy Brinkley—that bloomed in her wake.

In the decades to come, Twiggy went on to become a singer, an actress (both stage and screen), a television personality, and, most recently, a judge on America’s Next Top Model. She’s been highly successful in these various pursuits, but for those of us who remember her back in the day, her most resonant incarnation, both culturally and psychologically, occurred somewhere in that midsixties, Carnaby-incubated madness. I began to ponder why this was so; what made her different from the girls who had come before her, and what made her image, even all these years later, such a powerful symbol—maybe even talisman—of that era?

twiggy2Unlike her predecessors, who were largely silent in the public realm, Twiggy talked. She also giggled, guffawed, and was occasionally—and charmingly—tongue-tied. The gamine girl from Twickenham, Middlesex—a town about twelve miles southwest of London—was possessed of a lower-class accent that both spoke of the times and directly to them. And, to quote Bob Dylan, another sixties icon, the times they were a-changin’. Cheeky, underclass interlopers like Twiggy were upending the old, deeply entrenched supremacies of class and money. She could easily have been the girl Beatle: she had both the background and the street cred. And like a true Beatle, she made no attempt to hide her own unvarnished roots; quite to the contrary, she, like the lads from Liverpool, made a virtue of them. During the years my friends and I had swooned for Twiggy, we swooned for the Beatles too: Paul’s cherubic cheeks and sweet voice, John’s surprising, low-key irony, George’s soulful silences, and Ringo’s sad-clown charm. I didn’t realize the connection back then, but now the link seems so apparent. Twiggy, like the Beatles, was part of the new order in which the past, and all it represented, was going to be less important than the future.

Twiggy was also considered the world’s first supermodel, and it seems telling, in retrospect, that it was her very rawness that allowed her to assume the role. For she had a certain self-consciousness that was both unique and touching; until she came along, models were not generally thought to have selves about which to feel conscious. And they were supposed to hide any self-consciousness—now in the sense of discomfort or awkwardness—under the veneer of their sophistication and grace. Twiggy blew these precepts to smithereens. Her unpolished—and at moments downright gawky—demeanor both heralded the youth culture that was storming the barricades, and announced, loudly, that the spoils belonged not so much to the strongest but to the youngest. She was the proverbial breath of fresh air, the clean sweep, the very face of change in a pair of two-inch false, feathered, eyelashes.

Image via Fanpop

Image via Fanpop.

When visiting The Model as Muse, the much-touted show mounted some years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, I saw—for the first time in decades—the face I remembered staring out at me from the pages of decades-old magazines. There she was with the flower painted round one eye; here she was with the spiky, drawn-on lower lashes that gave her a doll-like mien. There is something both deeply shocking and supremely comforting about looking at photographs remembered, vividly, from the past. The intervening years become nothing but a mist, a skein of smoke, easily dispersed as you confront not only the photos, but the person you were when you first saw them. Then I came upon an image from Harper’s Bazaar I did not remember seeing: Twiggy standing in front of the window of FAO Schwarz, when the store was on Fifty-Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue; across the avenue, the north corner of Bergdorf Goodman’s can be glimpsed, along with the somewhat obscured entrance and awning to the old Plaza Hotel. 

In the photo, Twiggy wears a short, citron-green suit with a pointed collar and patch pockets. On her head is a matching beret; on her famous, often–knock-kneed legs, a pair of patterned tights. In one arm, she holds a large stuffed owl brandishing a Steiff tag; Steiff was known for producing the ne plus ultra of stuffed animals, and the owl, which looks to be a good twenty-four inches high, is a splendid example of their stunning craft. Was there some witty juxtaposition being drawn? A visual contrast between innocence and experience? Youth and wisdom? 

Most remarkable of all is the group of people flanking Twiggy. Like the model, they are all on the outside, peering into an unseen window display, and each and every one in the crowd wears a flat, two-dimensional paper mask. While I did not see the photo back in 1967 when it was taken, I suddenly recalled the masks, which my friends and I all wore, one Halloween, along with our striped, turtle-neck minidresses (mine was a giddy medley of hot pink, turquoise, yellow, and black) and our white, Courrèges-inspired go-go boots. Talk about a madeleine moment. 

We walked the streets of our Brooklyn neighborhood, masks firmly in place, ardent in our collective hope that they would … what? Protect us from harm? Launch us into a bright, hope-filled future? Sprinkle some of Twiggy’s magic girlpower upon our untried young shoulders? Even all these years later, I still cannot say for sure. But it is worth mentioning that not long ago, I told my stylist to crop me closely, like a lamb in spring, and I’ve been sporting the super-short coif proudly ever since.  Without my being fully aware of it, Twiggy was right there, in whispering in my ear.

Yona Zeldis McDonough’s fifth and most recent novel, Two of a Kind, was just released from New American Library.

 

11 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Marlena Maduro Baraf | November 20, 2013 at 7:19 pm

    Yona, this was delightful. I had no idea about Twiggy’s impact on 12 year olds. I was maybe 18 and buxom and this featherweight, though charming, bore no messages for me. I believe the Twiggy phenomenon started a stampede of extremely skinny models with flat chests, and my interpretation then was that photographers and people in the biz did not like women. Not at all. Go figure.

  2. Yona Zeldis McDonough | November 20, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    So interesting, Marlena! Context is all, and cultural icons are open to many interpretations–none of them wrong.

  3. Sandra | November 20, 2013 at 9:37 pm

    That was an era. We pre-pubescent girls, understanding little of what was being set before us, the uncertainty was unsettling. So frumpy were we. Were we? And then this ultra sophisticated gloriously attractive girl is appreciated around the world. (How does that happen) Now decades later……… Hmmmm……. Thanks for the re-wind.

  4. Doreen McGettigan | November 20, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    I was a very skinny pre-teen and adored Twiggy. Lucky for me I had the cool Mom who liked her too. My father liked her singing.
    Such good memories…

  5. Yona Zeldis McDonough | November 21, 2013 at 12:01 am

    I think she was an inspiration–and a delight–to many…

  6. Karen Propp | November 21, 2013 at 2:30 pm

    Lovely article, Yona, love the nostalgia, though I have to confer that in my girl-clique Twiggy was used in a slightly pejorative way, synonymous with impossible to achieve thinness of the aneroxic variety.

  7. Walker Thornton | November 21, 2013 at 3:13 pm

    Your recounting of her is just wonderful-vivid and poignant. I remember Twiggy but hadn’t really thought much about the sharp contrasts with all the pouty, sexy models of the day.

  8. Lucy Jackson | November 22, 2013 at 11:53 am

    A fascinating, beautifully written piece that instantly evoked memories of my own long-lost youth!

  9. Sasha Quinn | November 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    And best of all, the super-thin Twiggy was healthy looking. A good era for rising young models, innocent of the years of heroin chic to come.

    I too remember her as the first supermodel, and I think she has since become a touchstone for many women who were delighted to celebrate her wholly unconventional beauty. Nicely done piece!

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] obsessed? In the Paris Review, Yona Zeldis McDonough penned a great piece about her childhood obsession with Twiggy. And if you’ve ever whiled away your weekends leafing through magazines and obsessing over […]

  2. […] obsessed? In the Paris Review, Yona Zeldis McDonough penned a great piece about her childhood obsession with Twiggy. And if you’ve ever whiled away your weekends leafing through magazines and obsessing over […]

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