An Interview with Dorothy Bond

Dorothy Bond

by Finola Austin

I meet former model Dorothy Bond on a Thursday night at her Chiswick home. She’s been kind enough to slot me in during the week of her husband’s retirement – between dinners and the arrival of various friends. When I come to the door she is trying to maintain phone signal long enough to say goodbye to a friend in South Africa, and manages simultaneously to welcome a man calling to replace the gas metre and me, providing me with a glass of wine and apologising for supplying only cheese and olives.

When we settle down to discuss her impressive modelling career in the 1960s and 70s, it is immediately obvious that she looks back at the era with perhaps some sense of embarrassment. She thinks I might have been better off interviewing one of her model friends: ‘I was more the girl next door. I did a lot of covers, I did a bit of catalogue, I did a bit of fashion. I did have a year where I did very high fashion but these girls used to do Vogue all the time. But, of course, they actually earned far less money because people like Vogue didn’t pay that much’.

Dorothy’s very commercial attitude to the job is, however, pretty refreshing and understandable given the genesis of her modelling career. Born in Seven Kings in Ilford, she was teaching ballet to a group of children at a small ballet school (‘a very ramshackle, extremely eccentric ballet school at the bottom of someone’s garden in a glorified shed’) in order to fund her own dancing lessons when the photographs were taken which would change her life. ‘A photographer from Ilford Films came along to take photographs of these little moppets doing dance and asked if he could take photographs of me’. These photographs were displayed in Ilford Films’ gallery on Bond Street where they were seen by agency Lucy Clayton – ‘THE agency’ she explains, home to models such as Jean Shrimpton, Celia Hammond and Tania Mallet. Even then she couldn’t join them immediately. She completed her O Levels, and then had to save for a year, working in an opticians to be able to afford the 28 guinea fee for the agency’s modelling course. ‘I wanted to do dancing so I thought well if I do a bit of modelling maybe I could go to ballet school’. A soon-familiar note of self-deprecation comes in: ‘Actually I was the most useless dancer. Why I ever thought I could do ballet I don’t know….and of course I was much too tall’.

She’s damning about the quality of the course the agency eventually provided: ‘So I finally saved the money and I went to their bloody modelling school which was a load of old rubbish. It was basically for very rich debutantes - learning how to get out of a car without showing your knickers and other useless things, like walking around with books on your head’. When she was then told she’d need elocution lessons to lose her East End accent, she was having none of it. ‘I basically said, well, you know, ‘fuck off’’ she tells me in now perfectly RP tones, with a slightly surprised laugh at her own audacity. She went round photographers herself, landing a huge campaign for Cadbury’s – a break she yet again describes as ‘a stroke of luck’, rather than as due to Audrey Hepburn-esque appearance or modelling skills. ‘Then of course the agency decided perhaps they would like to sign me after all’ she says with steely satisfaction.

The world she was thrown into was a far cry from the lives of today’s top models. Models would do either photographic or catwalk work. Dorothy did photographic – ‘it was much more prestigious than doing catwalk. I mean I suppose because you earned a lot more money’.  She featured in Vogue but explains she wasn’t ideal for high fashion – ‘Basically I was never super super skinny. And I always had terrible legs’. I don’t quite manage to disguise my scepticism. ‘Most of the girls [models] now have got really nice legs but in those days it was relatively unusual’ she adds. She often featured in magazines Queen and the Tatler, as well as in catalogues and advertising campaigns. What she emphasises repeatedly as we talk is just how hard the work was, dropping big names, while highlighting the practical and mundane (bad hair days, coping with cold sores): ‘We used to work Monday to Friday and quite often at the weekends, year to year. I went 5 years without a holiday. Whereas I think the girls now, they maybe work one day a week, two days every three weeks – and of course they get massive amounts of money’.

Models did their own hair and make-up, unless the job was a TV commercial. Then ‘you’d have these dreadful old dragons who would do your make-up’ - dark foundation, red lipstick and copious amounts of powder. ‘You used to have to lock yourself in the loo to put on mascara’ she laughs with a slight shudder. ‘Then, in the late 60s, everything started to change. You had people like Barbara Daly, an explosion of make-up artists; you had Vidal Sassoon, you had Andre Bernard – hairdressers that understood hair’. She remembers going to lots of jobs with curlers in her hair: ‘You used to have rollers with a big scarf tied round your head. I can remember Jean Shrimpton arriving in the dressing room with these huge rollers, three inches across, because she actually had curly hair so she had to straighten it’. Models arrived at studios with ‘what were called model bags – of course, they didn’t have wheels in those days, so they were so heavy.’ These contained all manner of accessories which the girls were expected to provide: ‘black shoes, white shoes, brown shoes, grey shoes, flat shoes, high-heeled shoes’ (they would be told to bring coloured shoes in advance if required), ‘gloves (would you believe!), leather gloves in every colour, scarves in every colour, jewellery and tights (obviously) in probably two or three colours’. They even brought wigs: ‘I had a friend who had this dreadful wig – a dreadful pale grey. And she would throw this pale grey wig on to do knitwear for catalogues. Now they make rude birthday cards out of a lot of those photographs which is quite funny really’.

The modelling agency comes across in her description as, at best, incompetent, at worst, exploitative. Paid by the hour or for day bookings, with the agency taking a commission and often paying models very late, there was little effort to draw up beneficial contracts for the models. One of Dorothy’s pictures, for Chelsea Girl (which was taken over and rebranded by River Island in 1988, before being resurrected as a fashion line by the chain in 2011), was ‘used for every shop window, every paper bag, every carrier bag, and River Island recently did a whole chain of T-shirts, bags, dresses, loads of stuff with that same photograph’. She was only paid a single hour’s wages – ‘nowadays if a girl did a photograph to be used in that way they would write a contract and get her a fortune’ she explains.

There was constant pressure to stay slim. Dorothy describes her younger self as a Size 10. When I say that her stats in the agency books I have seen online indicate a small Size 8, she laughs and says ‘sizes have got bigger now’. Clients would ‘measure you at fittings and they would fit to those measurements when the job could be anything up to a year later. And if you got there and you were a quarter of inch bigger anywhere, well a. you wouldn’t do the job, and b. if they missed a day’s shoot they would make you pay for the other models’ fees so it was very strict’. As children of post-war Britain she thinks people were generally thinner, but since ‘by then most people had discovered lovely things like wine and gin and tonic’, some in the industry were happy to hand out amphetamines as appetite suppressants to girls in their late teens. ‘There were these slimming doctors they [the agency] would send girls to – well, I say slimming doctors but there was one, on Harley Street, he was notorious. He would give you injections of God knows what’.

The picture she paints is, at times, a lonely and bleak one: ‘I wasn’t a terribly girly girl I don’t think. I was quite introverted and quite unhappy in a way as lots of young people are and I never particularly liked the way I looked. [Later in her career] I became an interior designer so I always had a very good eye for stuff. And I wouldn’t have used me as a model, which sounds weird, but I was successful and I can never really understand why to be totally honest’. Yet, as with everything else, she holds herself responsible for her own loneliness: ‘it was my own fault when I look back, entirely my fault. I chose to live alone. I liked being alone anyway I think’.

What strikes me throughout our conversation on the other hand is just how well Dorothy coped with embarking on a life so entirely removed from that of her upbringing, and the bravery involved in such a great departure. Aged 20, in 1965, on the agency’s instructions she flew out to New York for the year – the air fare alone cost a then staggering £500. She missed home, could only write to her family and flew to a friend in Montreal at the weekends ‘so didn’t come back with very much money’. She hated the city – ‘a nightmarish place’ – and remembers the ‘rusty iron girders’ which greeted her on the taxi drive from the airport to the centre. New York was also culturally backward –while ‘swinging London was huge and all the other people in Europe and America wanted to get that feel’ in their advertising and campaigns, in New York everyone was ‘still in cocktail dresses and little suits and hats’, a far cry from hippyish denim-wearing Londoners.

This was not Dorothy’s only opportunity for travel. One of the things she looks back on with genuine nostalgia are the on-location shoots she did for the ‘wonderful Fashion Editor’ at Woman’s Realm. The magazine ‘only cost fourpence or something’ but the models got to travel to ‘Kenya, Mexico, Grenada, Antigua –all those places that cost a fortune to get to and no one ever went to in those days. It was almost like a paid holiday – it was great. I mean we were young – we used to giggle away. And also there were far fewer girls – they were probably only 50 girls doing 75% of the work – so you all knew each other’.

Fashion, exotic travel, conversations with Twiggy in a London hair salon, sharing a flat with heroin addicts in 60s New York – my chat with Dorothy gives me more journalistic material than I could have hoped for, but her ambiguous feelings about the time are much more revealing, both about her and the industry. She concludes (always so anxious to excuse her criticisms and clarify her observations):

‘Some of the people I met and some of the times I had were wonderful - I was incredibly lucky. It gave me independence; an escape from the suburbs I was born into, it gave me a different life. But did I actually like standing in front of a camera and being in a dressing room all day? No. It worried me. Some girls really enjoyed it. Some girls were naturally extremely slim – they had wonderful legs, wonderful complexions, beautiful hair, it was easy for them. It was easy for them to look good all the time. They looked amazing in the clothes. I mean I never really thought I did. I suppose in a way I must have done from some people’s point of view but I probably would have been a lot happier the other side of the camera. Yet I’m not in any way knocking what it gave to me. I mean - it changed my life’.

Finola is studying for a Master’s in nineteenth century English literature at Corpus Christi College, after completing her BA in Classics and English at Merton College in June 2012. She writes articles on fashion for both OFS and Cherwell and was last year shortlisted for Clothes Show Live’s Young Journalist of the Year, in association with Cosmopolitan magazine. Originally from Northern Ireland, Finola has also completed work experience atNorthern Woman – the region’s top fashion magazine.

You can follow Finola on twitter @alonif01

6 comments:

  1. Nice interview, thank you Finola. Dorothy was a face on which I learned what female beauty is, when I was at school. I'm happy that she's OK today. http://s1047.photobucket.com/albums/b475/Antiochus89/Dorothy%20Bond/
    Finola, can you contact with me grgnps[]yandex.ru?

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    1. Great pictures I hadn't seen before - definitely worth checking out if you want to see more of Dorothy's work. Thank you again! Finola x

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  2. Just came across Dorothy - named, unusually - and looking fantastic in a Daily Telegraph magazine fashion spread from 1 December 1964 about Donald Davies, Mayfair shirtmaker. Penny Patrick also modelling. No photo credit.

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  3. Hi guys,
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