'The Truth About Modelling' by Jean Shrimpton

Fashion icon of the 1960s and one of the most beautiful models of all time, Jean Shrimpton reveals the truth about modelling in this extract from her 1964 autobiography.

My start in photography was like everyone else's. An exciting gamble. I left Lucie Clayton's (modelling school) with some confidence, knowing they had faith in me because I had a nice crackling two year contract next to my now approved photographic composites and a list of thirty photographers in my pocket. Also one of the secretaries and I had conspired to change my name (temporarily) to Jean Abbatt-Shrimpton. The 'Abbatt' part put me on page one of the model directory.

Jean Shrimpton in a Mary Quant dress, photograph by John French, 1964. England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I was all for 'impact' but I had no intention of copying any of the models who were the 'greats' then. In any case I could not have been less like the then reigning, maturely ravishing Suzy Parker, with her arresting colouring and beautiful bone structure.

I was gawky and tomboyish, more like one of the ponies I loved than a girl, with a lot of leg, a lot of hair and a lot to learn. I was known as 'Shrimpie'. I didn't wear lipstick. I made up my eyes rather heavily and untidily, and wearing a pale blue mac with a fur collar and patent pumps I set out to conquer London like some female Dick Whittington.

Jean Shrimpton, photograph by John French, 1965, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

That was three years ago, and in retrospect I don't know how I had the nerve. But that gauche rather scruffy girl was me. The real me and not a carbon copy of someone else. I believe that unless you are prepared to have faith in your own individuality, and your own style, and then project it, you have no chance. You are a puppet, full of tricks and poses. You will never be more than an adequate model.

There were one or two times when I felt very low, but I don't think I ever thought of giving it up. In the days before the Christmas of 1960 I was very broke, despite my mother's loan of £30, and another from Lucie Clayton, and there was no sign of money coming in. I remember going all the way out to the Oval which seemed like the end of the world, to be looked at for a catalogue job. And it always seemed that on the days I wanted to look good I looked particularly wretched. My London A–Z got very dilapidated, because studios are in the oddest places.

Jean Shrimpton in a frilly shirt, photography by John French for the Daily Mail, 1960 – 65, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Some of my very first pictures were taken in a small basement in George Street by photographer Larry Neal. I was terrible. He thought so too.

"You were the most gawky awkward thing I've ever seen," Larry told me recently. "You'd got that flared nostril look, so I took plenty of head shots. But I just couldn't get a full length one as you couldn't really stand still. You were ridiculously young too."

Apparently he took me out for a coffee afterwards with a Lothario-like friend of his, and I managed to bore them both to death. When Larry rang him two years later and told him I was on the covers of the English, French and American Vogues all at once he didn't believe him.

Jean Shrimpton profile with black necklace, photograph by John French, 1960 – 65, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Tania Mallett, then an established model, also remembers me in those early days.

"You know I don’t chat up new girls unless I think they have talent," she explained, as sweetly blunt as ever. "But you had, although you hadn't a clue. You were a born model. Your limbs were so absurdly long, and you sat on a stool twiddling your hanky, and asking me whether I thought you would make it or not. Thank God, I said I was sure you would." And then, typically Tania, she gave me all sorts of helpful hints about which photographers to visit and how to behave.

Jean Shrimpton and Celia Hammond in Mary Quant designs, photograph by John French for the Daily Mail, 1962, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I needed the advice. I hadn't a real idea in my head. I thought modelling was easy. I thought I just had to stand in front of the camera and go through half a dozen expressions. It didn't strike me that perhaps they ought to relate to the clothes I was wearing. I just did the poses I had seen the other girls do.

I smiled the same smile in a silk shift as I did in a sheep-skin jacket. And I seriously thought it was a pretty easy way of earning three guineas an hour, and the sooner I got through my limited repertoire, the sooner I would be home.

Jean Shrimpton in a suit, photograph by John French for Vanity Fair, 1962, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I don't know how people had patience with me. But they did. My first lucky break came when my agent sent me round to Vogue and by some heaven sent chance a model booked for a knitting pattern hadn't turned up. Photographer Eugene Vernier offered me the job.

Fairly soon afterwards I was asked back for their issue devoted to Brides and again Vernier did the pictures. With now at least some experience behind me my agency somewhat daringly sent me to John French, at that time the very top newspaper name for high fashion photography. He was kind to me then and he still is. He told me a month or two ago that he liked working with me because I was one of the few models who worked as hard as he did. John has a great elegance about him. He is gentle, encouraging and complimentary when you work for him. He has strong opinions on what makes a good model.

"She must relax and project at the same time. She mustn't go into automatic clichés she has learnt, but every look, every move must spring from the mood of the clothes she is wearing."

In January 1961 I still had a long way to go.

The complete The Truth About Modelling by Jean Shrimpton is now available in the V&A Fashion Perspectives e-book series from online retailers.

Jean Shrimpton in a Mary Quant double-faced jersey dress, photograph by John French for The Sunday Times, 1963, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Header image:

Jean Shrimpton wearing an evening dress, photograph by John French, 1960 – 65, England. © John French/Victoria and Albert Museum, London