Hopefully, you have already met some of these beautiful ladies in Madame Koska and the Imperial Brooch. However, we did not discuss them in the detail they deserve.
What I must tell you first is what they were not. Unlike today’s models, they were not children. You would never meet a girl between the ages of fourteen to sixteen being forced to diet into anorexia and stunt her development. They were young ladies who had come of age. They were not over six feet tall and made of skin and bone; they had real women’s bodies. Certainly they were tall and slim and had the necessary tiny waist and long legs, but they did not resemble a giraffe.
In the 1920s, there were about a hundred Russian young women who worked as models. They were exiles from the Revolution, and came from the aristocracy, had no money and needed employment – and the great couture houses were only too happy to get them. The girls had excellent education and perfect manners, and could converse with the clients with ease, not only because of their social habits and experience, but also because French was really the first language of the Russian nobility.
There was a strict hierarchy in the modeling profession. The models were divided into several categories: Mannequins de cabine, who were on payroll for the couture house; mannequins vedettes, or “stars” who came for special shows, and mannequins volantes, or flying models, who were hired to travel with shows abroad; and mannequins mondaines, or society models, who were particularly beautiful or had important titles. The last category did not appear in shows. They were given dresses to wear in society.
The house of Chanel, for example, had two “star” mannequins. The first was Princess Mary Eristova. Mary was born in Georgia, but her father, Prince Schervachidze, was a member of the State Duma of Russia, raising his daughter and her siblings in Saint Petersburg, where she became a lady-in-waiting for the Empress Alexandra. When she arrived in Paris and was introduced to Coco Chanel, the couturier was impressed with her fragile, dark, exotic beauty that truly suited Chanel’s style. The second was Gali Bajenova, a tall blond with a full figure, and was the daughter of a famous general, Konstantin Nikolayevich Hagondokov. She came to Paris as a married woman, and was hired by Chanel to be a society model, showing the Chanel dresses at many society events. Her pictures appeared in many of the more popular magazines.
Many noble families would have objected to their daughters doing any work at all – let alone showing themselves in public – but often there was no choice. The Russian immigrants had absolutely nothing, and many of them had no marketable skills for anywhere but Russia, where the fathers served as officials and the mothers either did not need to do anything, or served at court. And modeling paid extremely well – a model could earn at least four times as much as a waitress or a shop girl. In addition, these young ladies had the love of fashion that helped them settle into the new life with a level of comfort. Many saw it as an adventure and enjoyed the trade and the social opportunities it brought.
The pictures in this posting came from a site that declared them as copyright free. If anyone feels this is incorrect, please let me know and I'll remove it immediately.