The big picture
A model ventures out of the studio and on to the gritty streets of Paris in this 1955 shot by Marilyn Stafford
In 1950s Paris, photographer Marilyn Stafford was commissioned to capture the glamour and elegance of a new fashion concept – prêt-àporter.
She took models out of the studios and into the gritty workingclass areas of the French capital, where they attracted the attention of curious children playing in the streets.
The result was a collection of black-and-white photographs showcasing the likes of Chanel and Givenchy that reflect both the style and the darker, dirtier side of the City of Light.
In this shot, a pouting child in a well-worn dress and scuffed boots sits perched on railings on the Montmartre steps, in stark contrast to the designer-clad model who is gesturing theatrically.
“I loved the streets. I wasn’t so interested in the clothes – I was looking for interesting places, backgrounds, passageways and alleys,” Stafford says.
“And in those days if you were a woman out in Paris with a camera, you had kids following you.”
Stafford, who was born in Ohio in 1925, initially worked as a singer after arriving in postwar Paris, performing at a club near the Champs Élysées, where she met Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour and Bing Crosby, as well as the French photographers Henri CartierBresson and Robert Capa.
After her voice failed, she took the Rolleiflex camera she used for “casual snaps” and sought advice from Cartier-Bresson – who let Stafford watch him while he worked – and Capa, who suggested that she join him in documenting the war in Indochina (where he was later killed).
Shunning the battlefields, Stafford, who turns 93 tomorrow, went on to report from around the world, including for the Observer.
Today, Stafford admits there was another reason for using the street as a fashion backdrop: “I had no studio. It was the streets or nothing.” Kim Willsher
Marilyn Stafford – Fashion Retrospective 1950s-1980s is at the Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonards-on-Sea, until 17 November
Ready-to-Wear, Montmartre Paris, 1955. Marilyn Stafford/Courtesy of Lucy Bell Gallery