Past Perfect: Babe Paley

© El Greco, Lady in a Fur Wrap, c. 1577-1580. Held in Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery/ Babe Paley, Erwin Blumenfeld, Vogue, February 1947

Babe Paley’s composed poise sucks the viewer in. Her downcast eyes allow the on looker’s gaze to be drawn to the striking electric blue hat placed upon the crown of her head. The black feather plumes fall gracefully, encasing her illuminated face. Erwin Blumenfeld, the photographer of this image, said, “The shape of her face is as attenuated as an El Greco. She has the most luminous skin imaginable and only Velasquez could paint her coloring on canvas.” Framing her face she places her gloved hand elegantly under her chin, Amy Fine Collins explains ‘she was looked at for not just how she dressed but how she behaved… she would always keep her gestures very close to her body which was part of this extreme elegance that was reflexive with her’. Her body, cast in shadow, encourages a comparison between her crimson lipstick, something she was famed for, and the bright blue brim of the hat. The creation of her own image is striking and unforgettable, leaving the viewer wanting to look again.

Babe Paley was Truman Capote’s favorite swan, a group of society women he favored that included Slim Keith, Lee Radziwill, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness and Marella Agnelli, he commented “Mrs. P. had only one fault: she was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect.” This group was extraordinarily rich, which wasn’t the only stipulation; they had literary appeal, in Capote’s eyes each had a story to tell. He looked upon them with what biographer Gerald Clarke describes as “mingled awe and envy” considering each an artist “whose sole creation is her perishable self.” Babe was the finest work of art, and her impact on him was lasting. Billy Baldwin, the interior decorator, concurred explaining “So great is her beauty that no matter how often I see her, each time is the first time.”

Born Barbara “Babe” Cushing in Boston in 1915, gossip columnists dubbed her and her two siblings “society’s three fabulous Cushing sisters” and as a child her father called her “The beautiful darling.” From a wealthy background, her father was an esteemed brain surgeon; Babe was presented to society in October 1934. By 1938 she had become fashion editor at American Vogue, under editor in chief Edna Woolman Chase, a post she kept until she married her second husband CBS founder William “Bill” Paley in 1947.

While working at American Vogue Babe was shot multiple times by the famed photographers of the day such as Horst P. Horst, Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton, Clifford Coffin and Erwin Blumenfeld. Her style was impeccable, whatever she chose to don instantly becoming fashionable. Her lithe figure meant that any garment hung from her frame with an unbridled elegance. An early manifestation of what we now term a stylist, she had talent for accessorizing her Charles James or Givenchy ensembles with not only Verdura and Schlumberger jewels but paired with costume pieces, or arranging a string of pearls to fall down her back, as opposed to her front. Most infamously it is reported than when she removed a colourful scarf she was wearing and tied it to her bag it sparked a trend that women across the United States emulated.

In 1958 she entered Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed International Hall of Fame and in 1975 Eleanor Lambert, the founder of the Best Dressed List, named her Super Dresser of Our Time. Babe inspired shop mannequins, designers and illustrators, in addition to fashion photographers. However, it was Truman Capote’s immortalisation of Babe in his unfinished work Answered Prayers that is most remembered. The chapter published in Esquire’s November 1975 issue entitled “La Côte Basque 1965” is a risqué expose of the swans closeted world that he has been so openly welcomed into. This signaled the end of his friendship with Babe, her response to the work “I read it, and I was absolutely horrified.” Capote never recovered from the destroyed friendship with his favorite swan. Babe, a remarkable icon, left an eternal impression.

Shonagh Marshall is an independent London-based Fashion Curator focusing on clothing’s role in contemporary culture. She began her career archiving the Alexander McQueen Collection for the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume. Appointed at Somerset House in 2012 Shonagh worked on Valentino: Master of Couture and Tim Walker: Story Teller. In 2013 she co-curated the Isabella Blow Collection, later becoming one of its Trustees. She sits on the selection panel of the International Fashion Showcase and is newly appointed to the board of The Costume Society. Shonagh is currently curating three large-scale exhibitions, which will launch in 2016.