Carmen Dell'Orefice for Peter Alexander, 2013. Photographed by Alexei Hay.
At 85, the renowned muse Carmen Dell'Orefice is the oldest working model in the world. For 70 years she has graced catwalks and magazine covers, and inspired some of the greatest photographers and artists of the past century, from Norman Parkinson and Richard Avedon to Salvador Dalí. After speaking at London College of Fashion's annual Fashion Matters gala last Thursday, she spoke to us about growing up during the Great Depression, the importance of fashion, and how she keeps going, no matter what life brings.
How did your upbringing influence you?
I'm totally formed by my mother's interest in fashion. As a Hungarian immigrant, she couldn't afford clothes. She made all her clothes from patterns. It was not dépassé to make your own clothes, it was a respected skill and it was financially expedient. I learned that doing it yourself, having self-discipline and working went hand in hand. Sometimes we have to do a job we'd rather not do in order to put food on the table. But to work passionately at something is the key. I'm fortunate and blessed to have had, for the most part in my life, the privilege to work at something I'm passionate about.
You fell into fashion. How did that happen?
I had started with ballet but collapsed with illness and was in bed for a year. Then I trained as a swimmer but missed the 1948 Olympics because I broke my leg skiing. My accidental beginning in fashion happened in the fall of 1945; I was brought to Condé Nast through a staff writer called Carol Phillips who ultimately became the president of Clinique. I was 13, I think, when my first pictures were taken and 14 when they were published.
Indeed you first appeared on the cover of Vogue aged 15. How did you cope with that success?
Well, I was not worldly. There was just my mother and I and we were very poor. I had no schooling because we had to move. I had my godparents who were famous cartoonists, Gregory d'Alessio and Hilda Terry, and they had the [New York Classic] Guitar Society. So, I grew up at the feet of the guitarist Andres Segovia and [the poet] Carl Sandburg. They were my buddies.
Did you have a natural ability in front of the camera?
Yes, it was an affinity. The first day, the pictures turned out. I was very graceful from ballet but I was 90 pounds and 5'9", not by choice but by accident of bad health. Horst passed me on to Cecil Beaton and in the first three weeks I had worked for Clifford Coffin, Erwin Blumenfeld, Irving Penn, Constantin Joffé… they became my mentors and my surrogate family. They treated me as a human being and I realised I was something. When I was in front of their camera it was a silent language of me paying attention, them paying attention to me.
Do you think models today will forge the same relationships?
I don't see how it's possible because the world works on a sound bite and a picture from an iPhone. Maybe it's better, more efficient and maybe it's less painful learning, maybe you cut to the chase. But I can only speak for where I've come from.
What was it like working with artists such as Salvador Dalí?
Beaton brought me to Salvador Dalí. I was friends with Dalí until the day he died. They all decided I was in their life permanently. Lucky me. I can't say why. I didn't live to be noticed, I lived to enjoy the excitement of doing right that day, and I knew I was doing it right when they would have me back. That was the thrill for me. I yearned to be validated because my mother was stern and I never did much right, that's how I perceived it. My mother was hard-working; she gave up her theatre life to go take a regular job to feed me during the Thirties in the Depression.
What do you think is the key to overcoming adversity?
Be ready to understand that you have enough, no matter what rug is pulled out from under you. You can't live in fear, or thinking "I'll never figure it out." The more consciously we can understand what we're experiencing, the more that is our protection. Learning to toe dance (I know how hard it is to achieve a fouetté – three years of bloody toes!) and then to understand I didn't have the right physical combination to be a dancer was heartbreaking. So, we run into adversity, but we don't have to stay there if we have imagination and a way to help ourselves change course. Sometimes we can't – knowing the difference is wisdom and the acceptance that we have enough.
Why does fashion matter?
Fashion matters to the degree that it is, for the sighted person, the first language we speak to each other. We are… "judge" is a very harsh word, but we're taking in and we're evaluating. Who is this person? What do I have in common? Do I respect them? All of that is that unspoken visual impact.
Why is the Fashion Matters campaign important?
London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, offers the range of subjects that help young designers to arrange the underpinnings that are necessary to get from zero to 10. The hardest part is the beginning, understanding your passion and making the decision that whatever it takes, that's what you're going to do. London College of Fashion shows them what they must do and helps them to find their goal.
What is your view on supporting the arts?
The minute we don't finance the arts, the accountants, attorneys and politicians keep taking the cream of money off the top and it doesn't trickle down unless all of society understands that we must support the arts, whether it's ballet, opera, fashion. Fashion is like opera, is like ballet, is like theatre. It's a visual theatre.
How do you view fashion today?
It goes in cycles but nothing has changed. When it's ridiculous it's more ridiculous than ever, and when it's wonderful it becomes more wonderful than ever because now more people think: "I dress the body I have, not I have to change the body to wear the fashion." That's what I admire about the growth of the fashion industry. I also think it's wonderful that there is the opportunity to use different textures and fabrics on different colour skins. I am inspired by that.
What are you working on now?
I'm doing the best I can with the ravages of time on my body and I'm a work in progress. I can't write a memoir because I can't do it this week or next week… I try to be an inspiration to the young to respect their older people; we can't stay the same, but we do the best we can with what's left. You can't whine about stuff, you have to learn to eat humble pie along the way and keep going, because the alternative is going to happen.
What is your philosophy?
It is the balance of remembering the past but not living in it, to know where you are in the moment, to project a little in the future and be ready to change. It's how you experience the grace to enjoy the smell of the pavement after a rain – the little things in life to make you satisfied. I never settle for anything that doesn't give me a modicum of pleasure if not total joy and satisfaction. It's allowed, that's what we're supposed to feel. How can we, from an empty cup, offer a stranger a drink of water? You have to fill that cup to the brim!