Eileen Ford looking at film.
One of the most memorable scenes from 2008’s Devil Wears Prada comes early in the film as novice Andrea Sachs attends her first run through in the office of Runway’s editor-in-chief Miranda Priestley. When a ginger-haired, sparrow-faced assistant offers two belts as styling options, Andrea audibly scoffs at the similarities of the two pieces. It’s a grave misstep, as Miranda immediately sets her icy contempt toward the girl and her own attire. With all the measured stealth of a jungle cat, she deadpans,
“Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know … that lumpy blue sweater because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean…. That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”
It is not the bark in her bite that leaves rookie Andrea red-faced and speechless, but rather the undeniable truth in the sharp retort. Fashion is a complex system, a global industry that employs millions of workers and moves billions of dollars. And yet, it is continually marginalized and discounted as a superficial industry. What’s more, this demarcation is usually made along gender lines.
The entry of women into the workplace was a shift that occurred slowly throughout the course of the 20th century. In the beginning, fashion was deemed the only industry suitable for the feminine constitution. And perhaps, its castigation in the face of other industries has been fostered as a consequence of a mainly feminine contingency. Whichever inequity came first is besides the point. For better or worse, fashion has played a pivotal role in the shift from homemaker to career woman, offering a safe outlet where women could exhibit competitive business savvy. In return, a handful of trailblazers elevated the industry itself, carving out singular careers that restructured and revitalized fashion and the way it was perceived in the world. Two such formidable pioneers passed this month, but their legacies shine brighter than ever before.
After graduating from Barnard with a degree in psychology, Eileen Ford worked in various capacities in the fashion industry, as a copywriter, photographer’s stylist and fashion reporter. In 1946, the expectant mother began to manage booking for two model friends as a means to bring in some income. She discovered a knack for the work, and within a few years she and her husband founded The Ford Modeling Agency. The duo revolutionized and standardized the modeling industry, advocating for respectful treatment, decent working conditions and fair wages. Before long, they were championing the careers of the world’s most famous sirens: Suzy Parker, Jean Shrimpton, Lauren Hutton, Jerry Hall, Christie Brinkley, Cheryl Tiegs, Christy Turlington, Brooke Shields and Naomi Campbell, to name a few.
Ford’s legacy is of particular relevance in today’s discussion on the tricky balance of motherhood and career. She and her husband had four children, and her devotion to them has been a constant reference in the obituaries and interviews that have been published since her passing. But she was also a notorious workaholic. When her youngest daughter was four, the girl announced to the family that she could remember the exact moment of her birth. “Daddy and my brother and sisters were at the hospital,’ she said, ‘and Mommy was at the office.’ (LIFE, Nov 13, 1970). Perhaps her success at the elusive balancing act was achieved in part because she established a career that combined traditional masculine and feminine attributes. She offered physical judgments with the blunt, unattached practically usually reserved for a business transaction (Christie Brinkley was put on a famous diet consisting of fish and water and Lauren Hutton was advised to fix her nose), yet young girls were nurtured like family at the Ford’s 78th street townhouse and their Long Island weekend home. What’s more, she led by example, teaching them, alongside her own daughters, that a woman had to care for her own finances, make her own career and believe in herself in order to be successful. Even in an industry based on superficial merit, it is an invaluable and impressive lesson.
Scholar Anne Hollander’s footfall may have been quieter, but her imprint is no less pronounced. The fellow Barnard graduate received a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1952, but it was the drapes and folds in the paintings she studied that piqued her curiosity. Hollander was entirely undeterred by the intellectual stigma the study of dress held, the “taint of a woman’s-page subject” as explained by Judith Thurman. Instead, she forged her own brilliant path, effectively igniting a new field of study. Her 1978 masterpiece Seeing Through Clothes utilized the history of Western art to show how clothing has effectively shaped each era’s evolving notion of self-image, a concept that is culturally and temporally constructed. It is this association that validates the power of dress. “Considering their importance for the individual self-image, it might seem right to think of clothes as entirely social and psychological phenomena, as tangible and three-dimensional emotions, manners, or habits.” Seeing Through Clothes puts forth a clever hypothesis that accredits fashion, instantly elevating the act of dress to a germane standing worth of scholarly consideration. Hollander achieved was more than just respect for the field of fashion study; she provided ample and effective ammunition to debunk its critics.
What Ford and Hollander share goes beyond a generational relation and a mutual love of fashion; they both strove to make the field relevant and important in the face of a daunting reputation of frivolity and insubstantiality. That they did so on their own terms and with such success is a further testament to the strength and talent of each woman. And it is a lesson that continues to be relevant for women today.
One of the pervading tenets of feminism has been a requirement to reject any notions, behaviors or associations that have traditionally been associated with femininity. Fashion is always at the top off this pejorative list of “girlie” actions. It’s a controversial stance, and one that has inadvertently isolated many followers. The careers of Ford and Hollander speak to such nuanced questions of femininity – what it means to be female, and how that defines or defies the choices a woman makes. While they were, admittedly, born of a generation that was offered fewer choices, both women flourished within their field, and went on to shape it’s future. They can serves as powerful examples for the 21st century wave of feminism. Sometimes, to be successful doesn’t mean acting like a man. It means acting like a woman.
(L) Anne Hollander at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1999. (R) "Seeing Through Clothes" by Anne Hollander.
Eileen Ford (with husband Jerry).
(L) Eileen Ford, Photo by Nina Leen, LIFE Magazine, 1948. (M) "To arrange jobs, Eileen needs a quick massage to repair the damage done to her shoulder by using it constantly to hold the reciever."
Eileen Ford and Anita Ekberg, Photo by Lisa Larsen, LIFE Magazine, 1951.