Hers was a face (and body) that launched a thousand quips but also made her the first fashion model to be treated like a pop star. Seventeen-year-old Twiggy (born Lesley Hornby) was dubbed ‘The Face of ‘66’ by the London media and, for the next four years, was the world’s most sought-after model. Her slim, androgynous look, charm and wit shook the snobbery out of fashion, making it an integral part of the Swinging London scene. Ingrid Jensen, PKM’s fashion expert, examines the life and legacy of Dame Lesley Lawson DBE.
Twiggy Lawson was born Lesley Hornby in the North London suburb of Neasden on September 19, 1949. She escaped the horror of the Blitz, but not the deprivations of rationing (which didn’t end until 1954) and her nickname growing up was “Sticks.” She was very thin, all gangly arms and legs, knock-kneed like a colt, and supremely uncomfortable in her body. Despite feeling self-conscious about her appearance, Twiggy expressed an interest in modeling, but she was informed that, at 5’6’’, she was too short.
She got her lucky break in 1966, when, aged 16, she went to the hairdresser Leonard of Mayfair (a protégé of Vidal Sassoon) to get her hair done in Sassoon’s famous “Five Point” pixie cut. A headshot of Twiggy with her new Christopher Robin-esque hairstyle was snapped and tacked up with a slew of other photos on the wall, where a fashion editor from the Daily Express happened to spot it. That editor, Deirdre McSharry, saw great potential in Lesley’s androgynous appearance, and thus one of the most famous faces of 1960s fashion began her rise to fame.
Initially, Lesley’s image was promoted by her boyfriend/manager, Justin de Villeneuve, who changed her nickname from “Sticks,” to “Twiggy,” which sounded modern and hip. She was dubbed “The Face of ’66” by the Daily Express and almost at the speed of light became the most sought-after model in the world.
Diana Vreeland, then editor of Vogue, called her “…the mini-girl in the mini-era. She’s delicious looking.” (Twiggy appeared in 13 Vogue shoots in the space of a year.) “I hated how I looked in the Sixties,” Twiggy later confessed in a 2008 interview with the Telegraph’s Cassandra Jardine. “I thought everyone had gone stark raving mad.”
Her signature look was focused on three things: her short, boyish hair; her hugely dramatic baby-doll eyes (she wore three sets of false eyelashes and drew on squiggly stick-lashes beneath her eyes too); and her slim, androgynous body. As fashions change, so do erogenous zones. With the rise of hemlines, the emphasis which had formerly been centered on the bust suddenly focused on the legs. Twiggy’s gawky limbs, bare from upper thigh to ankle, became the symbol of a generation suddenly freed from the cages of corsetry, from garter belts, girdles and waist-cinchers.
She was the first model to be treated like a pop star by the public.
Cecil Beaton photographed Twiggy in a mustard velvet minidress, perched atop an antique credenza. Richard Avedon snapped her picture in a green fur coat, with flowers painted on her face for the cover of Vogue, Linda McCartney clicked away at Twiggy in a sparkly knit top and braids, and Helmut Newton asked the ethereal girl to jump into the air for a photo, to express her buoyant personality and youthful energy. For the duration of her four-year modeling career, Twiggy was one of the most photographed people on the planet.
Twiggy makes a pop star-like tour of Germany:
There is a beautiful openness to Twiggy’s face, which radiates a genuine kindness that few fashion models project, that endeared her still further to audiences. Looking at images of other models of the time, such as the undeniably fabulous Veruschka von Lehndorff, you feel awed, cowed, a bit sub-par. Looking at Twiggy, you feel loved.
No matter how discomfiting the interviewer, or how invasive the photographers, Twiggy was witty and friendly. She had an well-honed sense of humor and was almost deadpan in her honesty and directness. She was very relaxed for a girl of 17 who had the eyes of the world fastened on her every move.
When Woody Allen asked her in a TV interview who her favorite philosopher was, she laughed and said she didn’t have one: “Who’s yours?”
“Oh, I like all of them,” he replied vaguely.
“Name them,” she insisted. Allen was silent.
Twiggy shuts down Woody Allen:
Her face was on everything from billboards to pencils, T-shirts, posters and paintings. She released her own range of clothes, which debuted in a catwalk and release party at a London boutique. The line included pantsuits, modish mini-coats, rompers, and dagger-collared shirts paired with kipper ties. It was a smashing success. Mary Quant, the fashion designer credited as the “Mother of the Mini,” stated: “Snobbery has gone out of fashion… you will find duchesses jostling with typists to buy the same dress.” Couture was losing its prestige. Ready-to-wear fashions were more in demand than ever before; our current problems with the environmental devastation of fast fashion began back in the 1960s, when teen-age spending power was at its peak.
This 1966 newsreel focuses on 17-year-old ‘beanpole’ Twiggy’s line of fashion:
Although her waifish shape was the new ideal in fashion magazine photography, it wasn’t universally admired. Her legs were cruelly referred to as “two painted worms” by Mark Cohen, the president of Leeds Women’s Shop, and she was called “a beanstalk,” and “a stick insect,” by the press. There were even bumper stickers that read, “Forget Oxfam, Feed Twiggy.”
She was asked an embarrassing amount of invasive questions by interviewers about “her figure,” to which she replied, with a touch of mournfulness that endeared her to the public even further, “It’s not really what you’d call a figure, is it?”
Twiggy’s gawky limbs, bare from upper thigh to ankle, became the symbol of a generation suddenly freed from the cages of corsetry, from garter belts, girdles and waist-cinchers.
On one occasion, she was seated next to Princess Margaret at a dinner party. The famously rude Princess professed not to know who Twiggy was. Unruffled by the snub, Twiggy replied, “My name is Lesley, Ma’am, but most people know me as Twiggy.” “How unfortunate,” the Princess said primly.
It is an undeniable truth that her ultra-thinness inspired an entire generation to basically stop eating. Inevitably, cases of malnutrition and anorexia nervosa spiked. The 1950s craze for “fatty” fiction (laughable novels about teens whose lives were miserable failures until they lost that last five pounds of puppy fat) was ceded by a tsunami of publications of teen fiction with plots centered around anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Twiggy herself has spoken out against the continuing trend for excessively skinny models, reiterating that her own thinness as a young girl was natural: “I always ate sensibly. Being thin was in my genes.”
“That look is a total impossibility for women over the age of twenty,” she mused to the Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley in 2009. “Fashion has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it?”
In 1969, Twiggy made a publicity tour of America. It was not her first formal pond-crossing from the psychedelic hysteria of Swinging London to the dim, drab bustle of New York City, but it was the most important. Hordes of fans greeted her at the airport. She was the first model to be treated like a pop star by the public. It was a turning point in pop culture.
Fashion designer Ossie Clark sewed a snakeskin coat for Twiggy’s tour that made the front pages of papers across the country. It was a full-length affair of python skin, lined and trimmed with Arctic fox fur. (Animal rights activists would go into cardiac arrest if the coat were made today, but 1969 no one batted an eye.) The opulent weirdness of the coat’s design made an important statement: Twiggy was the superstar of the future. Models before movie stars. The coat invoked the glamour of the old world (Golden Age Hollywood) and the weirdness of the new (Swinging London, come to invade staid Suzy-Homemaker America with its youth, its talent, and its new-found appetite for sex, drugs and Eastern religions.)
When Twiggy retired from modeling in 1970, after only four years, she said, “You can’t be a clothes hanger for your entire life!” She stayed busy, however, starring in Ken Russell’s 1971 film version of The Boyfriend, for which she won two Golden Globes—Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical, and Most Promising Newcomer.
The Boy Friend-Original trailer (1971):
She came out of her self-imposed retirement from modeling to pose with David Bowie for the cover of his 1973 album, Pinups. She released her own album, entitled Twiggy in 1976. The album, which was centered around her lifelong love of American country music, peaked on the UK charts at #33 and went silver.
She continues to work in film and television. She was awarded the honor of Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2019.