Penelope Tree | Illusion and Influence

Posted by Reem
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Tree by David Bailey, 1960s.

Models of decades past are a lot like a great vintage designer piece - one of a kind, possessing qualities that are no longer found in their modern counterparts and a part of history that will never exist as organically or authentically in current fashion culture when replicated.

A prime example of this is blue-blooded ‘60s model/muse Penelope Tree. When the 2014/15 F/W fashions rolled out, Vogue Paris was quick to cite ‘60s influencers Jane Birkin, Penelope Tree and Twiggy as inspirations for Louis Vuitton, Saint Laurent, Gucci, Miu Miu and many more. Yet Tree who ended her modeling career at the tender age of 22 due to adult acne scarring dismisses her image as a fashion icon of the ‘60s.

When interviewed by The Guardian in 2008, Tree says of her time as a model: “I felt quite fraudulent because I am not a classic beauty,' she adds 'not now, not then. Like lots of models I felt insecure about the way I looked. We know too well that it's a lot to do with disguise and how you put yourself together.”

Upon further research I began to wonder what it meant that Tree herself doesn’t look back at her brief yet impactful career as a model with even a fraction of the marvel that so many fashion enthusiast do. She works for a charity now and, save for a brief appearance in a Barneys New York catalogue in 2012, largely avoids the fashion scene. Yet designers and editors continue cite her ethereal, youthful photos as a point of reference.

There are two sides to Tree’s iconic shoots with fashion greats like David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton and Diana Vreeland. There is the Penelope Tree that became the property of the public; the image of the impeccably styled, ethereal, original model who partied with the elite (discovered the first time by Diane Arbus at the age of 13 and a second time years later at Truman Capote’s Black and White ball). Then there is the truth of the rejection and pain that lay within Tree’s seemingly charmed life. Therein lies the real inspiration behind the British model’s legacy. Tree paved the way for the not-so-classic beauties, so when models strut down the runways in mini skirts, go-go boots and embellished sixties inspired outwear, the spirit of rebellious youth is not quite as authentic as the heyday of the sixties It Girls, but the nod to Tree who John Lennon once described as “Hot, hot, hot, smart, smart, smart,” is ambitious in its pursuit of an original, complex youthful vibe.

What Tree symbolizes is greater than just her original beauty and her famous friends. She rose to stardom at a time when there was great social shift; her personal style was a statement, coming from a place of privilege to become a poster child for wild ‘60s youth culture. In the days of #instafame, a story so raw, a culture so authentic and a fashion star so alien - yet so real - will probably not happen upon the fashion scene, unwittingly and unintentionally setting trends for decades to come as Tree did and likely would not be as humble about it decades later.

(L) Photo by David Bailey, Vogue, 1970. (R) Tree in Ossie Clarke, Photo by David Bailey, 1970.


Tree at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, 1966.


(L) Photo by David Bailey, Vogue Italia, June 1970. Make-up: Serge Lutens, Dior Hair Design: Aldo Coppola. (R) Photo by Cecil Beaton, 1967.


(L) Tree and Brian Jones photographed by David Bailey, 1965. (R) Photo by Richard Avedon, 1968.


David Bailey and Penelope Tree share a moment, London, circa 1965, Getty Archive.


Tree by David Bailey, Vogue, 1969.


Photo by Richard Avedon, 1967.

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