Patti Hansen began her storied career in the pages of Glamour magazine when she was just a teenage model — a freckled-face blonde with long legs and good bone structure. She eventually graduated to Vogue, to iconic Calvin Klein advertisements and ultimately, the pages of pop-culture history.
Discovered at a Staten Island hot dog stand, she came to fashion after the waifish Twiggy of the 1960s and before the supermodel Amazons of the 1980s. Her face, her body and her demeanor helped define the idealized beauty of the 1970s, an era of realism in fashion — or at least as realistic as fashion would deign to get for a very long time.
“I started my career at 120 pounds and immediately went up to 130,” she recalls. “Photographers were always calling up [my agent] and saying, ‘Is Patti fat or skinny right now?’ ” But her career never suffered for it. “They’d sort of giggle at it, the weight thing,” she says. Editors would squeeze her into clothes and get on with the shoot. And the fact was, she really wasn’t that much larger than most of the models with whom she worked. The size 00 mannequin had not yet taken over the industry.
The sole subject of a new photo book, “Patti Hansen: A Portrait,” Hansen was striking but not dauntingly pretty. She could be sexy, but not dangerously so. She had a handsome face with a square jaw and, in the beginning, a wedge of a haircut with a cheerleader flip. (She later upgraded to a tousled shag. Pure rock-and-roll cool.) Her looks were described as “all-American” and “girl-next-door” before those phrases became loaded with certain presumptions and prejudices.
And at 5-foot-9, she was mostly angles and straight lines rather than curves. But she was not bony. She was not delicate.
In the 231-page book, assembled by Ivan Shaw, the photography director of the Condé Nast Archives, there’s a famous image of her in a one-piece swimsuit photographed by Arthur Elgort for the January 1976 edition of Vogue. Hansen’s swimsuit is wet and nearly transparent. Her hair is wet, too. Her pose is casual. She’s leaning on a railing overlooking the water. One can see a few swimmers in the blurry distance. The image is sexy because of everything that it is not: obvious, revealing, urgent. Her calm expression is inviting but not demanding. Will she delight in your company? Or shrug it off?
Helmut Newton, who was mildly obsessed with her fluctuating weight, photographed Hansen for French Vogue in 1977. She wears a lace-trimmed bra and matching bikini bottoms. A garter belt fits snugly around her waist, creating the tiniest hint of a muffin top. Her hair is long and styled in big, tumbling curls. She’s looking directly into the camera and tugging on the garter straps. The pose isn’t sexy as much as it is confrontational and confident. She is a woman indifferent to critical inspection.
“I was chubby Patti,” she says with a chuckle. Perhaps. But in 2018, she looks like defiant Patti.
In assessing her work, Hansen explains that she was only embodying a character. She was not the narrator of the story. That was the philosophy of a model from the old school — before social media and the battle for followers and personal branding. She was in service to the fiction, not the star of it.
“It’s the editors who make the story, not the model,” she says. “They chose me. They chose the clothes.”
It’s the model, however, who brought the clothes to life and made them real.
Even now, when discussing the book, she emphasizes that it was Shaw who had the idea. He called her; he selected the photographs. “So many people are calling and saying, ‘Oh, you did a book about yourself.’ That makes me uncomfortable,” she says.
Hansen, 62, lives in Connecticut. She is the model who married a rock star yet avoided the usual cliches. She and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones have stayed together almost 35 years; they have two daughters and grandchildren. She survived breast cancer and then bladder cancer, discussing the latter experience in blunt terms in the pages of Vogue in an effort to destigmatize the disease.
She mostly retired from fashion, only to be pulled back in whenever a magazine was doing one of its style-through-the-ages issues and she was asked to represent the sophisticated 40s or the self-confident 50s. “They haven’t called me back for the 60s,” she says. At least not yet.
When she looks back at the pictures of herself in the 1970s from a critical perspective, she sees images that depicted women as strong. That, of course, was not consistently the case, but the photographs of Hansen have a solidity to them. In the early days of her career, she came across like the raucous cheerleader or the class president — not the brooding artist or the disaffected rebel. She always seemed to be in the thick of things.
Many of her Vogue images portray her as a woman on a mission, a woman’s woman. Occasionally, she has been surprised by her own photos. A photograph taken by Chris von Wangenheim for the April 1981 issue of Vogue captured her in a little bikini, leaning on one arm as if executing some sort of Pilates maneuver. She looks at it now and thinks, “Who is that woman? I look so muscular! That looks like I work out all the time!” And that, she says, was far from reality.
She assesses her current appearance without getting too emotional. It’s professional, not personal.
“After years of being in this business, you’re so aware of every little thing, every line, every mole. I try to keep a healthy focus,” she says. “Every morning I look in the mirror and say, ‘Oh, you could lift up here.’ At 60, I finally decided to take really good care of myself. . . . I’ve done Fraxel [laser treatments] for all the sun damage. My daughters are in their 30s, and they do facials and have all the creams. I never did any of that. Now I do. Now I’m learning from them.”
When she considers the industry today, she’s struck by the large chorus of voices that weigh in on a single image. Little is left solely to the creative whims of the editor or photographer. The industry is consolidated. Big corporations dominate. But she also sees an industry that has become more outward-looking, more self-aware.
“Target is using all different sizes of women. The Dove ads. I think it’s a great time right now. Women are so powerful.” Or, they are at least declaring their power in an industry still overwhelmingly controlled by men.
The pictures in the book are a reminder of how so much of the fashion story has been told by men. By male photographers, designers and editors. Women have mostly been seen from a man’s perspective. But what is also true is how often Hansen met their gaze with an unwavering one of her own.