Saturday, May 20, 2017

Stylish Read: "Lee Miller in Fashion"

That neck, that hair, that face...

by Becky E. Conekin
Lee Miller, where have you been all my life? It seems you've been hiding in plain sight. For all my studies of fashion, women in fashion, fashion photography, fashion magazines, etc. Lee Miller registered only as an unusual fashion model (not your typical '20s type) and the war correspondent photographed sitting in Hitler's bathtub. Already that tells you something about the woman, but it's taken till now for me to perform some due diligence.

Lee takes a bath, 1945

Elizabeth (Lee) Miller was born into an upper-middle class family in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1907. She was an inquisitive, headstrong child fairly indulged by her parents. Her spirit of adventure took her to misadventures in Europe (under the guise of schooling) when she was 19, followed by a move to New York City to study art and become a dancer in George White's Follies.  After a chance encounter on the street with Conde Nast (as in the publisher of Vogue) she became one of The Bright Young Things about town. He saved her from being run over by a car— surely the NYC equivalent of being discovered at Schwab's drugstore. She was a favorite model for Edward Steichen, then head photographer for Vogue.
By Steichen, second from right
By Steichen for Vogue

In New York Lee designed theater sets, modeled and honed an interest in photography nurtured by her father, a talented amateur.  In 1929 she set off again to Europe determined to study with the Surrealist Man Ray, who didn't accept students. She no doubt charmed him as much as she was charmed by him. They worked together (and were lovers) for three years until his jealousy wore the charm thin. While they were together she was the one to discover solarization in a darkroom accident. That process became one of Man Ray's trademarks. Lee was also photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene and Horst P. Horst for French Vogue (affectionately called "Frogue" by the staff [love that]).

Solarized by Ray
Immortalized by Ray

Lee returned to New York City and, with the backing of a couple of wealthy admirers, rented two connecting apartments in midtown Manhattan— living in one and setting up a photography studio in the other. She took portraits of the well-heeled and celebrated as well as precise advertising photography for upscale clients like Elizabeth Arden and Saks Fifth Avenue. She began working for American Vogue, sometimes taking fashion self-portraits for the magazine. It was then she said, "I'd rather take a picture than be one." She was successful enough to weather the Depression and her work was shown in galleries devoted to photography.

Fashion self-portrait by Lee Miller

In 1934 a former beau from Paris, an Egyptian businessman, came calling. Lee married him and left for Cairo. She soon found Egyptian society suffocating, especially after meeting British surrealist artist and poet Roland Penrose. Not long after, she decamped to England— and Roland. With war looming the United States government ordered its citizens to return home, but Lee stayed behind. She found photography work at English Vogue.

Not a stage set but London during the blitz

It is  here that "Lee Miller in Fashion" takes a fascinating detour and looks at how and why Vogue was able to boost morale during the blitz and the long war years following. Women in all walks of life were urged to put up a good front (and back) and not forget the importance of grooming, hair and makeup. I learned some interesting tidbits, such as: Furs were not rationed in England during the war, though prices were set by the government. This was to prevent fur from going on the black market.

Though she recorded the devastation with her camera and worked hard putting out Vogue under difficult conditions, Lee became increasingly frustrated that she couldn't do more for the war effort. With the arrival of American service personnel, Lee seized the opportunity to become a bona fide war correspondent, uniform and all. Soon after France was liberated she joined American forces in Paris to report on life there for both American and British Vogue.


French Vogue  had suspended publication during the Occupation, but some couture houses remained open. The editor of French Vogue had managed to produce four "albums" of fashion during that time, had the plates made surreptitiously in the countryside, and the bound volumes sold in Monte Carlo for international distribution. The  now-forgotten couturier Lucien Lelong managed to thwart the Germans, who wanted to take the entire archive of French fashion stored at The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and restablish couture houses in Austria or Germany. That sounds good enough for a movie plot right there.

Lee was very much affected by what she saw in Paris and filed stories with photographs that were sensitive, first-hand observations. As the Americans moved east towards Germany, so did Lee, leaving Paris and fashion behind. She was with the troops in the Alsace Campaign, the liberation of Brussels and the "last leap across the Rhine". She was also present at the liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp. She movingly wrote for Vogue about what she saw, and she never forgot it. This book has some lengthy excerpts of her writing; I'd really like to read more.

 Reportage from Luxembourg, 1944

And then the war was over. It was back to London, back to Roland and rebuilding her life in England. Not surprisingly peacetime brought about a disenchantment with fashion. For a few years she continued to photograph for Vogue. Writing became more and more difficult as it came from such a deep place. Eventually Roland asked Vogue to stop sending her writing assignments for everyone's good. She and Roland married, had a son in 1947 and eventually moved south of London to Farley Farm. She packed away her files of photos, negatives and contact sheets and devoted herself to gardening, gourmet cooking and entertaining the many artists and writers she and Roland had as friends. There were always offers to write, which she always declined. She died in 1977 at age 74.

Lee and Roland

Their son Antony discovered the hidden work after her death and wrote the aptly titled, "The Lives of Lee Miller". In recent years there have been museum exhibits and more recognition. Farley Farm is open to the public, and her archives are available to scholars.   

Picasso, Antony and Lee at Farley Farm

Lee Miller's life was more complex than I've summarized here. There were twists and turns and many unanswered "why"s. She didn't leave a memoir, but she did lead a life in fashion and in full.

A few years ago it was announced that Kate Winslett would star as Lee Miller in an upcoming film. That would be fascinating, and don't you think she would be a great choice?

Kate Winslett to be Lee Miller?


  1. Wonderful article! Now I need to read the book.

    1. Happy to have piqued your interest.Now I'd like to read more myself.

  2. That was fascinating! Looking forward to the movie (Kate is perfect) and the subsequent interesting (and publishing of?) material about her. Thank you!

    1. Thanks, Sheila. That news about the Lee Miller movie is from 2015 so I don't know if anything is still happening.

  3. Fascinating. I have long been interested in the photographers of the 1920-1950s, have collected books of their photos and biographies, some photographs, etc.--and had never heard of Lee Miller. (Feeling fairly stupid.) Thanks for the heads-up.

    1. Don't be hard on yourself. I had pegged her as a socialite and a dilletante. She was neither but so much more.