The Most Iconic Supermodels of Every Decade: 1940s to 1980s

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Before there were supermodels, there were models who toiled in obscurity operating as human “hangers” for couturiers and designers who used them to display their wares. Models had no identity and little autonomy, but then the supermodel came along and changed all of that. With fashion acting as a status signifier in a globally competitive market that opened up in the 1940s after World War II, modeling became both a glamorous career path and a legitimate profession. Supermodels, however, were much more than just tools for showcasing clothing and accessories collections – they were household names, icons, brand ambassadors, and more. Some even parlayed their careers as models into work as actors, photographers, and even editors. “Super” means to go above and beyond, and the following crop of models certainly achieved the right to the prefix.

In Savoir Flair’s two-part installment, we will examine the origins of the supermodel and the most iconic and impactful supermodels of the past, starting in 1940.

1940s

The 1940s are when modeling became a viable career for beautiful young women around the world, with the notable emergence of the world’s first supermodels from the United States and Europe.

Lisa Fonssagrives was likely the most recognizable and iconic model of the 1940s. Not only did this native Swede capture the eye (and heart) of one of the world’s most famous photographers at the time, Irving Penn, but she went on to marry him later.

As one of the first supermodels in the world, Dorian Leigh was constantly booked for magazine covers and campaigns. Due to her famous eyebrows – which the notoriously prescient fashion editor Diana Vreeland once warned her never to alter – she cast a bewitching spell over the world.

As a muse to Hubert de Givenchy himself, Bettina Graziani enjoyed the kind of attention and privilege that comes with being a massive influence on French fashion. It’s not everyday that Givenchy names an entire collection after one person, which he did for Graziani.

Jinx Falkenburg was the kind of girl-next-door model who was able to book dozens of fashion campaigns because of her fresh-faced appearance. She appeared often in sportswear advertisements, and by the 1940s had become the highest-paid cover model in the United States.

1950s

As fashion gained global prominence once again after the war – thanks in large part to Christian Dior’s revolutionary ‘New Look’ collection – models started to gain increased public attention. Suzy Parker would go on to dominate the decade, but there are several models, some of whom are still working today (like Carmen Dell’Orefice) who started careers that lasted a lifetime.

Suzy Parker was by far the most famous model of the 1950s. Not only did she land the most coveted covers and campaigns, but The Beatles also named a song after her. Meanwhile, she was making over 100,000 dollars a year – an astronomical sum in those days.

Dovima was discovered on a sidewalk in New York City, and only days after was shooting with the likes of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. She was extraordinarily beautiful, but many in her close circle reported that she was vain and not very bright. Dovima is said to have inspired the character of Marion in Funny Face.

The ravishing beauty of Carmen Dell’Orefice has not faded even today, as the longtime icon is known as the oldest working model at the age of 83. Her legendary career spans seven decades, beginning in 1946 when she booked her first major magazine cover.

Although Jean Patchett was American, she quickly became a darling of the French couture circuit who worked with the likes of Coco Chanel, Jacques Fath, and Christian Dior.

At 5’6, Mary Jane Russell was shorter than her peers at Ford Models in New York City, but her classic looks so suited the fashions of the time that she rose to tremendous popularity despite her vertical shortcomings.

1960s

Liberated women and a global political revolution contributed largely to the massive shifts in modeling seen in the 1960s. No longer covered-up and coy, models in this era reflected shifting values and politics in more revealing outfits, including bathing suits.

You simply cannot refer to 1960s fashion without instantly conjuring an image of Twiggy. As the most famous model of the decade, Twiggy’s gamine charm and slim physique spawned hundreds of thousands of fashion imitators. In fact, she is still very much an icon to this day.

Jean Shrimpton was discovered by photographer David Bailey and became a muse to him while simultaneously rising to prominence as one of the primary figures of The Swingin’ London scene. Throughout her career, Shrimpton earned the highest accolades – from the “world’s highest paid model” and “most famous model” to “the most photographed model in the world.”

While Peggy Moffitt was never quite as famous as her peers Twiggy and Jean, it was her incredibly strong look that made her one of the most iconic models of the 1960s. Sporting Vidal Sassoon’s famed ‘Five-Point’ haircut, heavy eye makeup and mod shift dresses, Moffit created a signature look that was to be mimicked the world over.

At 71, Veruschka walked in Giles Deacon’s fashion show proving the strength of her timeless beauty, but in her youth she was also a force to be reckoned with who disappeared from the modeling world far too soon. At her zenith, she was worth a reported $10,000 a day, and made memorable appearances in films like Blow-Up.

1970s

The 1970s – the era of disco, glitter, and Studio 54 – also saw the rise of models of color. Diversity was a prominent value of the decade, which was thoroughly appreciated by the fashion industry who put black models on the runway and in campaigns for the first time.

Jerry Hall first emerged as a model in the 1970s and gained prominence when she married Mick Jagger. By the time the 1980s rolled around, Hall had been on the cover of over 40 fashion magazines and had the kind of international name recognition most models could only dream of.

In the 1970s, Yves Saint Laurent himself dubbed Marisa Berenson “the girl of the 1970s”. As an “It” girl, model, and actress, Berenson is a classic triple-threat whose talents went far beyond simply looking good in clothes. For example, she has also been nominated for two Golden Globes and a BAFTA.

Margaux Hemingway was one of the first models to land a brand ambassadorship – in her career she was awarded a million-dollar contract with Fabergé. She was dubbed one of the “new beauties” of the 1970s by Time Magazine, and appeared on the cover of every fashion magazine that mattered.

The controversial and unconventional beauty of Grace Jones made her an ideal model for the 1970s glamorous, fierce, androgynous clothes – which is why French fashion houses like Kenzo and Yves Saint Laurent loved her. Jones was also a music icon who broke through in the industry in the 1980s.

Beverly Johnson enjoyed a lot of firsts in her time as a fashion model, from being the first black woman to cover a major fashion magazine to being named one of the 20th century’s most influential fashion icons.

Lauren Hutton, the gap-toothed model and actress with the thousand-watt smile, almost didn’t make it as a model because of that signature gap. However, smarter heads prevailed and soon Hutton landed one of the biggest modeling contracts ever with Revlon.

From a refugee camp in Kenya to the world’s stage, Iman’s meteoric rise has long been one of modeling’s most astonishing stories. Not only did she become one of the most sought-after models of the 1970s and 1980s, but she is still a fashion force today, who is a business mogul with multi-million dollar cosmetics and fashion lines.

1980s

Fashion and style changed tremendously in the 1980s as women entered the workplace in droves. From power suits and neon pumps to massive hair and statement jewelry – all of it reflected the era of excess.

Gia was arguably the most famous model of the 1980s, and her short but astonishing career was captured in the biopic Gia with Angelina Jolie playing the infamously rebellious model.

Christie Brinkley spent a lot of time on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the 1980s, and you think all that time in the sun might have dealt her skin some damage. However, Brinkley is now in her 60s and she still looks absolutely gorgeous, perhaps for the skin regimen that has been her claim to fame after her modeling career waned.

Janice Dickinson once claimed that she was the first person to ever coin the term “supermodel”, however, it predates her by many decades. However, Dickinson was absolutely a supermodel whose career extended far beyond magazine covers to include photography, jewelry design, and more.

Stephanie Seymour is still a model and actress in the present day, but in the 1980s, she was best known for her modeling appearances in Sports Illustrated and Victoria’s Secret, as well as her cameos in some of the biggest music videos of the decade like Guns N’ Roses’ massive hit, ‘November Rain’.

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