All About The Clothes

Becky E. Conekin

Though Grace Coddington is well-known in her native Britain by lovers of London’s Swinging Sixties, most Americans only learned who she was from the 2009 documentary about the making of Vogue’s annual landmark, The September Issue. This despite the fact that she has worked at American Vogue since 1988, and arrived there on the same day as its legendary editor, Anna Wintour. Now also famous in her adopted home of New York City, Coddington remarks at the opening of Grace that the film “is the only reason anyone has ever heard of me.” It also led her to write this memoir, for which she was paid a reported $1.2 million, with the help of her “lifelong friend,” Michael Roberts, style director of Vanity Fair.

Many of the best parts of Grace come in the early chapters. Coddington provides evocative descriptions of her childhood spent in rugged, treeless Anglesey “off the fogbound northern coast of Wales,” where her family ran the Tre-Arddur Bay Hotel. As a teen in the 1950s, she would take the bus for three pennies to Holyhead to buy Vogue and bags of fabric to sew her own clothes from the magazine’s patterns. She loved “getting lost” in the pages of British Vogue and the “fantasy” of the beautiful clothes it featured. Shortly after she turned 18, Coddington clipped a small paragraph from the back of the magazine that promised “a life-transforming two-week course at the Cherry Marshall modeling school in Mayfair” and moved to London. She waited tables at a trendy Knightsbridge bistro and took evening classes in modeling.

At modeling school, Grace was told, “You don’t have blonde hair, and you’re not very pretty.” But that same year, 1959, Coddington found that the folks at British Vogue had other ideas. She won their model contest in the “Young Idea” category and Norman Parkinson, the era-defining photographer, loved her look, taking her to Paris to model the couture collections. By the height of the Swinging Sixties her list of friends read like a “Who’s Who” guide to young, cool European life—Catherine Deneuve, Ali MacGraw, Marianne Faithfull, Roman Polanski, the Beatles, Michael Caine, the Rolling Stones, along with every famous photographer you can think of. Vidal Sasson, of course, cut her hair.

Grace Coddington by Eugene Vernier in British <i>Vogue</i> (August 1966). Photograph courtesy of Condé Nast

For anyone enthusiastic about the period, these early chapters are a must-read, as they are for anyone who loves clothes. Throughout, Coddington pays particular attention to the details of the clothes she wore, rendering them clearly and beautifully. Whether it is the description of her Welsh Convent school’s uniform of “gray worsted wool tunic with a blue flannel long-sleeved shirt and tie,” topped with a beret, the Eres “feather-light Lycra” swimsuit that she sported in Saint Tropez, or the all-white ensemble of “white coat over a vintage silk 1920s tennis dress” that she donned for a thirties-themed fashion show in 1971 Venice, her writing allows us to see and feel both the clothes themselves and her love for them.

Less rewarding is the fact that Coddington expends more emotional energy describing her clothes—or her cats, even—than she does recounting the tragedies in her life. Consider Coddington’s laconic “Things had not worked out quite as I had planned,” her account of the serious car accident that resulted when her then-boyfriend ran a red light in London’s posh Belgravia district, which led to her left eyelid being sliced off. “Luckily, they found my eyelashes,” she reports. Two years out of work, living “on very little,” and five operations at the hands of plastic surgeons were the outcome. “I hid my scars behind huge dark glasses—fortunately, Jackie Kennedy was making them popular at the time.” The closest we get to how she actually felt about this event is her admission that today she has “a total aversion to wearing sunglasses … perhaps because they remind me so much of that painful period.” Similarly, a miscarriage at seven months, caused by a rowdy crowd of Chelsea football supporters who turn her Morris Mini on its side with her at the wheel, is given two, terse lines: “This turned out to be the only time in my life that I was able to conceive. The incident was one of the most traumatic of my life.” Few details are provided about her two divorces, while her “highly sensitive” cats, who “feel” her emotions, are granted an entire chapter.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the most compelling components of this book are the images. The colorful end pages feature Coddington’s hand-drawn sketches of the international fashion press’s front row. There are also fantastic photographs of Coddington herself, as model and editor, and reproductions of her imaginative, often extravagant fashion spreads for British and American Vogue. Coddington’s genius is revealed in how she paints her fantasies, stories, and emotions using gorgeous clothes, appealing accessories, and lush landscapes, frequently scattered with quirky, symbolic supporting props. Their presence in this book reminds us that Coddington’s best medium is not words. Indeed, she opens her acknowledgements by confessing as much: “Given that I’ve barely read two books in my life that aren’t picture books, no one is more surprised than me that I have produced a memoir.” Some readers may be surprised, too, but those who approach Grace as a scrapbook and a meditation will find riches within.