In My Fashion, the wonderful 1960 memoir of Vogue editor Bettina Ballard (1905-1961), is a book that reminds me of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast—it invokes a particular time, place, and mindset. In this instance, Ballard takes the reader through a well-written and fascinating account of pre-WWII Paris, when Ballard was the correspondent for American Vogue under then-Editor in Chief Edna Woolman Chase. You get a real sense of what Paris and the couture was like in the mid-1930s right up until the declaration of WWII and the first months after it, when nothing seemed to be happening and people in France called it the “sit-down war.” Here is one of her recollections about going to work in the Vogue offices each day during her first few months in Paris:
“I would dress very carefully every morning, always the same black Creed suit, but a different hat and scarf, and walk with self-conscious dignity by the elegant guards with their tricornered hats who stood in front of the Hôtel Matignon. I knew how well or how ridiculous I looked by the small noises that would come out of their mouths as I passed. Two clucks meant that my hat was a success, a low snort meant that I had gone too far. This barometer of chic often saved me from public ridicule.”
|Ballard outside of Balenciaga in March 1951. Photo by Nat Farbman.|
|Ballard at a Dior show, March 1951. Photo by Nat Farbman.|
While Ballard was an intimate of Coco Chanel, Cristobal Balenciaga and Christian Dior, and has three chapters devoted to those iconic designers and how they worked and lived, this is not just a book about fashion or editing a magazine. During World War II Ballard realized she was sick of working with women and wanted to test her own character during wartime, so she left Vogue and went to work for the American Red Cross, eventually becoming a staff director at headquarters in Algeria. A female Red Cross personnel administrator asked Ballard before she joined if she really liked men and said that was especially important since she was going to be with them overseas during a war and Ballard, once working for the Red Cross, quickly came to understand what the woman meant. She noted:
“There was a vast difference between liking to have beaux, dancing partners, husbands, or lovers and liking to have masses of men smothering you with their loneliness, their male smell, their male habits, their very ubiquitousness in a war theater. The small-town belle was the first to crumple under the weight of this all-male world. If more Red Cross girls had understood this personnel worker’s question, they would have saved themselves and the Red Cross lots of trouble.”
|Ballard at a shoot with photographer John Rawlings, March 1951. Photo by Nat Farbman.|
One fabulous and hilarious anecdote involves Ballard taking the packing list the Red Cross gave her and modifying it to her own liking. Before reporting for duty she had her maid (!) fill her foot locker with her own list of essentials.
“I lay on my bed watching Geneva neatly roll a shocking-pink shantung Chinese-y jacket and apple-green pajamas (my favorite Traina-Norell at-home costume) around bars of super-fatted soap. Bottles of nail polish and hand lotion were protected by a black jersey Norell dress with a dramatic black pailletted scarf. None of these things were on the Red Cross list, but they were high priority on my own private list of what was going to make my war career a success.”
Proof that you can take the girl out of Vogue, but you can’t take Vogue out of the girl!
|A 1948-49 silk Dior dress owned by Ballard, which she gave to the Met.|
The Red Cross chapters provide a wonderful juxtaposition to Ballard’s experiences as a fashion editor in Paris, and later New York, and elevate her book into something sublime—the deeply felt detailing of what was a remarkable life for a woman in any age. After the war Ballard returned to Vogue, where she was an editor until 1954. She then became a fashion consultant and freelance writer. She died of cancer in 1961 at the age of 56.
I wish I could tell you you could just order this book up from Amazon, but I had a difficult time finding a copy of In My Fashion. The Brooklyn Public Library doesn’t have it and it is sadly out of print. After months of searching I was able to snag a copy on eBay for $10. If you ever get the chance I urge you to do the same, this is a fantastic book!