Eileen Ford and Ford Models helped define what American beauty looked like

Eileen Ford ran her modeling agency for more than 40 years, and in that time she cast a maternal but demanding eye on the young women — and eventually young men — whom she represented. She was a blunt boss and a fierce competitor. And she believed that modeling was a profession and that its practitioners should act accordingly. But most important, she crafted a definition of all-American beauty that endures today.

Ford died Wednesday at 92.

When Ford co-founded her eponymous agency in 1946, she set about shaping our cultural standards of beauty through her business decisions and her own aesthetic sensibility. A host of iconic women were on the Ford roster, including the cool, 1950s grace of Suzy Parker with her cascade of red hair and a face that was all planes and sharp angles. Ford also elevated the Ivy League classicism of Ali MacGraw, the blond casualness of Cheryl Tiegs and jaunty swagger of Lauren Hutton.

In choosing the women she would represent, Ford was not terribly keen on eccentric looks, waif bodies or curvaceous figures. Early in her career, the model Janice Dickinson wrote, Ford rejected her, saying: “I’m sorry, dear. You’re much too ethnic. You’ll never work.” Ford reportedly had little optimism for the prospect of Grace Coddington — now Vogue’s creative director — as a model and personally took tweezers to her thick eyebrows.

Ford packaged and sold models who were tall and thin, with a swan’s neck and a modest to nonexistent bosom. Cleavage, Ford believed, interrupted the lines in a photograph. A charismatic personality was the fire that brought a picture to life. And a slim figure was essential to being a perfect hanger for clothes.

Over the years, Ford’s embrace gradually widened, although she never championed an emaciated figure. She continued to gravitate to blondes, but she eventually represented a variety of ethnicities, including African American models, ultimately helping them establish their footing in the industry at a time when race relations were especially tense. She represented the regal and elegant Beverly Johnson, the first African American model to appear on the cover of Vogue. And she recognized the potential of a teenage Brooke Shields with her distinctive bushy eyebrows and Lolita lips.

Regardless of background, however, the through line for Ford models was always a clear, symmetrical beauty — a kind of glossy, poreless perfection.

In the early years of Ford’s agency, working as a model was not a road to great riches, although it could be a glamorous, jet-setting life. The women who walked designer runways and posed for magazines were young — although not as young as many of them are now — and often came from small towns. When they arrived in New York, Ford was protective of them and took it as her responsibility to watch over them. She discouraged nightclub carousing, put them on strict diets and gave them a curfew.

Ford could be maternal, but she was also a businesswoman who was looking out for her investment: the models’ earning potential. She wanted to see young women paid what she believed they were worth.

In the 1970s, she represented the young black model Charlene Dash, who had begun to make inroads at Vogue and with photographers such as Richard Avedon. Dash recalled that when she was invited in 1973 to participate in a now legendary fashion presentation at Versailles — a booking that required days of rehearsal and travel — Ford was ready to turn down the job on her client’s behalf. She didn’t think it paid enough to make it worth Dash’s time. But the young model insisted on going anyway, intoxicated by the idea of jetting off to Paris for the weekend.

Ford’s greatest competition, or at least her most antagonistic competition, was John Casablancas, the founder of Elite Model Management. If Ford turned models into professionals, Casablancas, in the 1970s and ’80s, catapulted them into celebrities. The two agents battled viciously — including with lawsuits — for the greatest influence within the fashion industry and for the best models. Their competitiveness helped to ramp up the salaries of models so that those at the top could eventually become millionaires.

Within the fashion world, Ford laid the groundwork for the modern modeling industry. But for the general public, her eye for the photogenic girl and her ability to manage that young woman onto the covers of magazines, shaped our understanding of what it meant to be sexy, elegant, pretty. She did not define what it meant to be an American woman; but she told us what that woman looked like.

Robin Givhan is a fashion critic and writer, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.
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