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October 15, 2015

Jean Patchett, Vogue and Irving Penn

Jean Patchett Vogue cover by Erwin Blumensfeld, January 1950. The picture is described as “a visual haiku”.

Who does not recognize the picture above…? It’s one of the most published images ever, but not many know whose face this is. Well, it’s the face of Jean Patchett, one of the most recognizable and popular models in American fashion.

An absolutely stunning creature with a signature beauty mark, Jean was a super model decades before the term ‘super model’ was invented and staggeringly, has had more covers than any fashion model in history. Jean’s distinct features helped define the face of fashion for over a decade, the body of work she did is enormous and the legacy she and fashion photographers created together is monumental. The camera loved Jean and Jean loved the camera.

Editorially, as Jean herself once said, she “belonged to Vogue.” She is the subject of two of the magazine’s most famous covers ever, shot by Erwin Blumenfeld and Irving Penn, respectively, in January and April of 1950. The first, which has been described as “a visual haiku,” features only Patchett’s slanted doe eye, lips, and a beauty mark. The second, titled Girl in Black & White, was the first noncolor cover the magazine had run since 1909. The symmetry is broken only by Jean’s sidelong glance. To help get the contrasts Penn wanted, Jean used black lipstick, improvised from mascara. In 2008 a signed, initialed, titled, dated in ink copy of the famous photograph by Irving Penn of Jean Patchett was auctioned at Christie’s, New York for a fabulous sum of $266,500.

Here are some of Jean Patchett’s Vogue covers

The start of Jean’s modeling career

In 1948, 21-year-old Jean Patchett (1927-2002) borrowed $600 from her father and headed to New York City. There she met future boyfriend Louis Auer, a banker who lived at the Yale Club, at a luncheonette (they married in 1951). In February she signed with the Harry Conover modeling agency and two months later, April 10, Jean signed with the Ford Model Agency (a new agency when Jean walked in the door) and became their first star model.

”I’ll always remember what our first great model Jean Patchett went through when I told her she had to cut her hair. I don’t remember everyone, but I do remember her,” Eileen Ford said. “You just had to take a deep breath, even then. She had on a black tent coat that her mother had made with black velvet at the shoulders and a black hat with veil and garnet earrings, bracelet and necklace. She really was a country girl. When she took off her hat and veil I saw that she had beautiful ‘doe eyes’ and a marvelous mole on her face, which she darkened with an eyebrow pencil. Jean was unique.”

Impressed with Jean, however Eileen told Miss Patchett: “Loose 20 pounds and come back in a month; you’re as big as a house!” At that time Jean weighed 135 pounds. “Jean didn’t mind the weight part, but her hair was her glory,” Eileen continued. “We took off just one inch, but you’d have thought we’d taken her life’s blood!” In september Jean modelled for her first Vogue cover.

The Tarot Reader. Ph. Irving Penn, Vogue, 1949.

Working on ‘The Tarot Reader’ in 1949, Irving Penn discovered Jean was not only of seldom beauty, but also had great skills as a model. Their frequent collaboration resulted in many iconic photographs, like the one 1949 he took of her chewing pensively on a string of pearls as she sat in a cafe, a picture that came about spontaneously. This photo was for a photo-spread article for Vogue “Flying down to Lima” a romantic travelogue as lived by the model. Jean was also photographed in a shoeshine stand with an admirer and rubbing her tired feet; again in a real life and spontaneous moment. In later sessions, Irving Penn (who called Jean Beautuful Butterfly) would give her the suggestion of a story she could act upon,

Jean Patchett & Irving Penn, Award Winning Photography in Lima, Peru, Vogue 1949

Jean later said “Flying down to Lima” for Vogue was her big break-through.

“A young American goddess in Paris couture” - Irving Penn.

“She has great physical energy and throws it all into a job,” Irving Penn said. “She is not conventionally pretty but has the real beauty of a person of deep intelligence and sympathy, and that all comes out.”

Some other pictures of Jean by Irving Penn

(This original was published on


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