Off and on for years I had heard my relatives talk about what a big-time New York model their childhood friend Charlotte Payne had been. I tended to take such effusions with a grain of salt. They also went on about how my Uncle Vernon played some ball for the Washington Senators, but I’ve never been able to find a trace of him in the major league record books.
But while I was in Laurel, Mississippi, my hometown, for Christmas in 2009, my Aunt Nell took me and my wife with her to visit an old family friend, a relative of Charlotte Payne’s. When prompted, the lady opened a closet and hauled out two big cardboard boxes bursting with photographs, clippings and tear sheets and set them on her dining room table.
Our jaws dropped. Our eyes popped. The memorabilia was amazing. In some shots, Charlotte Payne looked like January Jones, the actress who plays ad mogul Don Draper’s wife on Mad Men. But she was also something of a chameleon, her look changing from shoot to shoot. This probably accounts in part for why she must have been just about the workingest model of her time. There were hundreds of photos and clips in the boxes. She posed in everything from swimwear to business suits to evening gowns. She appeared on the covers of Life magazine and Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, wrote about her life in the fashion world for Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post.
Not long thereafter, I emailed a contact person listed on the website for Laurel’s Lauren Rogers Museum of Art which, just so you know, is quite likely the finest small-town museum in America. As a kid, I spent almost as many summer hours on the cool cork floors of its galleries as I did on the baseball diamond.
In my email, I raved about this treasure trove of fashion history my wife had seen at a house a mere three blocks from the museum. The contact person emailed me back about a week later and said thanks. Said somebody would check it out when they had time. I did not hold my breath.
But someone did check it out eventually, and that’s how the Lauren Rogers Museum (www.lrma.org) came to mount a Charlotte Payne exhibit that it’s calling Focus on Fashion.
Scheduled to open June 21, it will consist of 50 fashion photographs of the late Ms. Payne dating from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, plus an under-glass display of magazine covers and ephemera.
“I was impressed with the quality of the photos and the vast range of types of work represented, from early commercial ads to high-fashion Paris Vogue shoots,” Jill Chancey, the Lauren Rogers curator, told me recently. “I also thought the group as a whole did a nice job of representing the shifting styles in both fashion and the way fashion was photographed during the post-war period.
“Paris has always been a fashion center,” Chancey said, “but New York became much more important in the post-war period in many areas, from painting to fashion to finance. Payne was there through the transition.”
A grocer’s daughter, Payne was a high-school beauty, crowned “Miss Laurel” in the late 1930s. She was “discovered” a few years later on a trip to New York and signed a contract with the prestigious John Robert Powers agency. Looking younger than her years, she started as a juniors model and picked up more adult work as she aged.
Chancey said she found it interesting to compare Payne’s “career arc” to those of contemporary models, “who tend to stick to one genre for the most part, either commercial or high fashion or runway. Mid-century models had to be very versatile. The idea of a 20-plus model switching from juniors to adult fashions would be unheard of today, since they start so young and usually are phased out of the business by age 30 – unless they become entrepreneurs and figure out how to brand themselves. The agency system and expectations of models have changed so much in 50 years. There was no concept of the ‘supermodel’ until the mid-late 1960s. Charlotte Payne predates that concept.”
“Vintage fashion from the 1950s-early 1960s is very popular right now, and I think people interested in clothing and textile history will find a lot to interest them,” she said. “There also has been a renewed interest among art photographers in ‘staged’ work, as opposed to the 1960s-1970s trend of ‘snapshot’ or ‘street’ photography, so this work may appeal to budding photographers looking for new inspiration and ideas.
“The development of fashion photography in the United States really dates to the 1930s and becomes an art form in the following decades,” Chancey said. “Vogue only started using photos on the covers in the 1930s, as a matter of fact, having previously used illustrations. I think the arc of advertising changes – as one sees in Mad Men—is visible in the changing aesthetics of fashion photography. This isn’t so much a ‘local girl made good’ story – although some will see it that way — as a snapshot of the fashion industry at a very specific and transitional period in time.”
Focus on Fashion is scheduled to run through August 14.
Editor’s note: All photos were provided by the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. You may click on any photo in this story for a larger view.