Lee Miller, born Elizabeth Miller (April 23 1907) started her career as a successful fashion model after a fateful run-in with Condé Nast on the streets of New York City during the 1920s. Such a crossing of paths resulted in Miller landing her first modelling job for American Vogue, and she became a favourite model and muse to some of the greatest American fashion photographers of the day, including Edward Steichen. After returning to Paris in 1929, Miller went on to become a pupil of the surrealist artist and photographer Man Ray, who inspired her to open her own photographic studio. Switching from one side of the camera to the other, Miller became a unique talent, performing with brilliance on either side of the lens.
Miller’s career as a photographer resulted in various portraits and fashion assignments being published inside the glossy pages Vogue. She joined British Vogue as a freelance photographer in 1940. However, with the on-going struggles of the war, Miller found that working for a ‘frivolous’ publication such as Vogue was becoming a drain on her own morale. In 1942 she applied and was accepted by the US army for accreditation as a war correspondent. What followed was a series of photographs documenting the British home front, before she headed to France and Germany where Miller shadowed the steady successes of the Allied advances.
The accompanying image of the Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was captured by Miller after the liberation of Paris in September 1944. During the war, many of Paris’ finest Couturiers had closed shop. Therefore, this image of Marlene is particularly important as it signalled the re-opening of the fashion house Schiaparelli.
Marlene Dietrich, born in Berlin in 1901, became one of the most glamorous leading ladies in film of the 1930s and 1940s. Famous for her ability to challenge the accepted notions of femininity, Dietrich often wore trousers and more masculine fashions both on – and off – screen. In this respect, Marlene’s sense of fashion combined with her German origins and her relocation to America, in order to crack Hollywood, meant that the actress came to resemble the sought-after exotic other.
Dietrich as ‘other’ can be explored in relation to the Schiaparelli evening coat she wears in the black and white photograph. The Damask fabric is almost oriental in appearance with its floral embellishment and decorative detailing. However, the coat is also positioned within the context of the war period as well. The single-breasted construction of the coat combined with the gold threaded toggles and matching belt allude to a military uniform. Whereas the coat had originally been part of Schiaparelli’s 1938 Zodiac collection, when placed within the context of war the clothing becomes imbued with colonialism and empire: ‘The design is so subtle that one hardly notices that it represents the British lion capering among faint bluish flowers.’
Marlene can be understood as challenging the accepted notions of femininity whilst wearing this evening coat because of both the feminine and masculine qualities of the garment. Her styled hair, painted nails and the make-up on her face indicate typical womanly conventions, especially when combined with the floral patterning of the evening coat. However, on the other hand, the appropriations of military uniform characteristics allude to a more masculine identity. Such an observation is particularly interesting because the coat can be identified as embodying wartime culture. With more men volunteering and being conscripted to join the front, women had to step out of their traditional sphere and enter into the world of work – something that had typically been reserved as the more masculine domain. As a result, the construction and decoration of this coat when read within the historiography of wartime culture can be seen as reflecting these changes within society
Calvocoressi, R., Lee Miller: Portraits From A Life (London, 2002)