What do you learn when you have been working as a supermodel for seven decades? This is what the sharp-cheeked, silver-haired Carmen Dell’Orefice has spent years trying to work out. After landing her first Vogue cover aged 13—she was spotted riding the bus to ballet just after the close of the Second World War—her career continues to gain momentum even as she moves through her 80s.
So in an industry famous for its passing fads, what’s the key to her longevity? She sees herself as a silent actress, quietly surveying the intricacies of the fashion industry from her various positions atop the runway and in front of the lens–even when acting as a muse for Salvador Dali; a gawky teen sitting in his suite in Manhattan’s St. Regis hotel. “There have been many rebirths,” she says. “I keep looking. Listening. Trying to understand, silently.”
Her conclusion is that fashion is a unifying force that spans far beyond clothes. “It’s a visual language in the alphabet of communication.” When she was first plucked from the normal rhythms of adolescence, and flung into the foreign, often lonely world of modelling, it was fashion that helped her connect with her contemporaries, many of whom were far older, and far wilder, than the young Dell’Orefice. “My companions were the expats of World War Two. The Cecil Beatons. The Horsts. The Blumenfelds. They honed my sensibilities and gave me permission to dress the way I wanted. I got encouragement.”
And now, working in a landscape that is vaster, faster and, with its frenetic emphasis on technology and social media, virtually unrecognizable from the one in which she began, it is this shared passion for self-expression that unites Dell’Orefice with today’s rising stars. “It’s been a wonderful journey for me because it’s kept me in touch with the generation I’m in, the generation behind it and the generation coming.”
“And fashion’s a wonderful place to live,” she adds. “Because people always have to dress themselves–because of weather!”—Isobel Thompson
More like this: