From her first US Vogue cover at age 15 to her most recent runway turn in Alberta Ferretti’s January 2011 show, Dell’Orefice’s work has brought her into contact with nearly every personality that has defined post-war fashion.
‘My first week, I worked with Clifford Coffin. Joffe, Horst, Cecil Beaton—Irving Penn was still in his army uniform. Years later, I met a new kid on the block called Dickie Avedon,’ she told us today. (That new kid would photograph Dell’Orefice jumping off of a Parisian sidewalk in his “Homage to Munkacsi”, destined to become one of the indelible images of both individuals’ careers.)
In London to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of the Arts London alongside Hussein Chalayan and Vidal Sassoon, Dell’Orefice is every inch the style icon. Though she's perfectly polished in a black suit and polka-dotted blouse, it's her flawless posture, trademark silver coif and direct gaze that announce her as someone who commands attention.
At the beginning, she says, American fashion was in its infancy and nylon stockings were a novelty.
‘We walked differently, with a kind of grace and elegance that isn’t in style or in fashion,’ she says. ‘I think there’s going to be a renaissance, though. I think they’ve let it hang out, too much, for too long, and that’s boring. You really want to have a little bit of reserve and mystery, because if you know everything right away, what’s left?’
Working in the industry didn’t lead Dell’Orefice into the sort of glamorous life she portrayed for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She used her $7.50 hourly wage to support her Depression-crippled family.
‘Nobody ever gave me anything, and I never made enough money to buy the clothes I was modelling. That’s life,’ she says. ‘I always knew what was real in my life. I always knew the job I was doing, what I was getting paid and where my money was going.’
She and friend Suzy Parker, also a noted Avedon model, sewed their own clothes. But there were moments of fashion rapture on set that Dell’Orefice recalls as magical.
‘I have two moments. One was Charlie James [the American couturier Charles James]. I did a Cecil Beaton shoot for an ad... I was maybe 15 years old at the time, and I’m in a brown satin ball gown, looking in the mirror. The other was when Ali McGraw, the star of Love Story, lent me her navy blue Fortuny dress to wear to a ball. Is that friendship?’
In November, the London College of Fashion will celebrate Dell’Orefice’s career with an exhibition curated by friend David Downton. She’s sifting through reams of photographs and archival ephemera from her stylish life to assemble the exhibition and an accompanying book. Does she still find fashion exciting after her decades in the spotlight?
‘The one thing I know about fashion is that it’s always there, as long as people are alive. In any period, people always look at each other and want to know each other, and the first thing is with their eyes.’
As for the honorary doctorate conferred today, will she go by ‘Dr Carmen Dell’Orefice’? She smiles.
‘I’ve earned the right, don’t you think?’