Hourglass Figures: The Past and Present Fashion Queens, Eleanor Lambert And Carine Roitfeld

by SUSANNAH LONG · March 11, 2010

[NY's very first fashion week, 1943. Reuters] Part Two in our ongoing effort to educate your faces about socialites past - and figure out if there are modern-day mavens who can hope to fill their predecessors' stilettos - is all about making fashion history. Let's learn about Eleanor Lambert and Carine Roitfeld!

[Hourglass Figures Part One: The Past And Present Queen Bees]

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Eleanor Lambert

August 10, 1903 – October 7, 2003

Aliases: Mrs. Seymour Berkson, The Empress of Seventh Avenue

Eleanor Lambert gets automatic street cred for the fact that her father was a circus advance man. According to friends, Eleanor inherited that talent for pulling people in and keeping them fascinated, a skill that came in handy throughout her many years as a fashion publicist.

It's impossible to overstate Eleanor's role in elevating the US fashion industry’s international reputation. Not only did she found the Council of Fashion Designers of America (!) and establish the International Best-Dressed List (!!), but she was one of the first and most ardent champions of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. Bill Blass, Norman Norrell, Halston, Anne Klein, and Oscar de la Renta were among the many labels she tirelessly promoted, and for whom she wasn’t afraid to get scrappy with the Francophile editors of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Eleanor also created the very first New York fashion week in 1943, in an explosion of awesomeness that gains particular weight at this time of year (when Paris is dominating the headlines and we have more than seven months to go before the spring collections are shown). Think Paris beat her to the punch? Mais non. New York “Press Week,” as it was then called, was actually the planet’s first organized fashion week.

Press Week 1943 . . . and the Oscar de la Renta show at New York Fashion Week 2009 [photo courtesy of Reuters]

Thus Eleanor is the couture bellwether ultimately responsible for those fragile-ankled young things wiping out on slick runways worldwide, and for the copious photos of front-row Mary Kate staring at Kate Hudson staring at Kristen Stewart frowning with her mouth open.

Gratuitous photos of models falling down. [courtesy of tt.mop.com]

Throughout, the Empress of Seventh Avenue never forgot that fashion is made to be worn, and that how a piece is worn and how it makes you feel make all the difference. “I still remember buying my first party dress,” she said in a 1993 interview. “It was yellow, and it had black velvet ribbons on the sleeve. I looked like Chicken Little in it, and I thought I was the cat’s meow.”

La Lambert was the cat’s meow to all of us until her death in 2003, at the age of 100 . E.Lam did it all with elan, though she would doubtless smother us with one of her trademark turbans if she knew we just called her E.Lam. Sorry for the sass, Eleanor. We know you were a classy lady with more than enough taste to go around, and we raise a Halston red suede calf boot in your honor. Would you even like red suede calf boots, Eleanor? We don't know! You make us nervous!

And Now?

Carine Roitfeld

It would be impossible for any person working in the very fashion world that Eleanor Lambert herself created to equal Lambert's devotion, innovation, and arbiter status. Still, there are certain parallels in the society sphere today, and, although patriotic persons will doubtless label this sacrilegious, we’re gonna go with French Vogue editrix extraordinaire Carine Roitfeld. We know that Roitfeld’s not American (scandale!), and that she began her career in the decidedly un-Lambertian field of modeling, but her influence in the fashion world and her persistent push for couture as art are undeniable.

See? Both women are masters of the awkward arm?

[Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair]              [Photo courtesy of Purple Magazine]

Roitfeld's association with fashion is long and multi-faceted: she began at French Elle as a writer/stylist, before partnering with Mario Testino. She’s consulted and styled for numerous fashion houses, and has swanned around as a muse for Yves St. Laurent, as well as for Gucci during the Tom Ford years.  Roitfeld has helmed French Vogue for the past nine years, arguably eclipsing Anna Wintour and pushing forward her own fashion philosophy – which, in a glaring departure from Lambert’s legacy, is often très erotic.

Lambert in 1963 . . .                                         And Roitfeld now...

Like Lambert, Carine Roitfeld is a fixture of the social scene unafraid to court controversy for what she sees as fashion advancement: she was the first fashion editor to put a transvestite on the cover, she printed pictorials using models in blackface (though we won’t explore our personal feelings about that here), and she mysteriously antagonized Balenciaga so thoroughly that she’s now banned from the label’s fashion shows.

Perhaps most importantly, Roitfeld has Eleanor Lambert’s same Never Back Down attitude: a 2003 Telegraph article quotes her as saying, “Every day you have to think you are a soldier."

One caveat: Carine Roitfeld does not wear turbans, which, sadly, sets her personal style far from that of Eleanor Lambert. We have, however, found a partial solution that functions as salvation for our comparison. Exhibit A: Roitfeld put a male model in a Prada turban for the 2007 editorial "Neo Smoking." Exhibit B: Julia Restoin-Roitfeld wore a turban to a 2008 BCBG runway show. If we squint and look quickly between the two photos below, it almost looks like Carine Roitfeld herself is sporting a turb.

[Photos courtesy of Vogue Hommes International; New York Media LLC.]