Dovima with the Elephants
It could be said that Dovima, for whom the term ‘supermodel’ was coined, made a name for herself—literally. Born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, she took the first two letters of her three given names. Not just that, she also perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, while asked her what she thought of Africa, she replied, “Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt.” When it was explained that Egypt was in Africa, she replied, “I should have charged double rate!” On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk that the photographer Richard Avedon assumed was filled with clothes. When he asked Dovima about the trunk, she told him they were her books. Avedon didn’t want to separate the girl from her books, so they lugged the trunk across the desert only to find out they were her comic books.
Yet, Avedon admired her as “the last of the great elegant, aristocratic beauties… the most remarkable and unconventional beauty of her time”. For him, she posed in many photographs that came to be the most iconic fashion images of the century. The above picture,”Dovima with the Elephants” was taken by Avedon at the Cirque d’hiver, Paris, in August 1955. The dress was the first evening dress designed for Christian Dior by his new assistant, Yves Saint-Laurent.
Dramatic juxtaposition between diaphanous grace and brutish power was achieved by the symmetry between elephants and Dovima, and underlined by the dirty elephants and the clean, elegant model, the rough elephant skin and the smooth fabric of the dress, as well as by gray sprightly but chained elephants and clear-cut and flowing black and white dress. Yet, Avedon was unsatisfied; for the bottom picture, he lamented that, “the sash isn’t right. It should have echoed the outside leg of the elephant to Dovima’s right.” The photo was conspicuously absent Avedon’s seminal photobook, An Autobiography.
Two contrasting studies of Dovima were published by Harper’s Bazaar. The photograph of Dovima in black was reprinted many times but the image of Dovima in white was printed only once and the negative no longer exists. “It disappeared mysteriously,” Avedon said. Dovima, too, disappeared. Always insecure about her looks, she left modeling in 1962, saying, ”I didn’t want to wait until the camera turned cruel”. The woman who earned merely $60 per hour even at the height of her career ended her life working as a waitress in Florida. It was a tragic final act more damning of modern extravagances of fashion than of a simpler, quieter era she represented.