Grace, A Memoir by Grace Coddington

I’ve never been much of a reader. I read in high school because it was required by my AP English classes, but not many of the books we were required to read stuck with me. Except The Bell Jar. I actually wasn’t able to finish it. Not because it wasn’t good, but because it was just so emotionally trying. I was depressed for weeks while I sat in the library trying to crank out a research paper to a book I couldn’t bring myself to finish. I suppose you could say I’m a little sensitive.

My entire aversion to reading was finally lifted my senior year when I picked up Capote’s In Cold Blood, at random, for another research paper. As I reluctantly began what I thought was going to be another forced read, in which I would attempt to pay attention to the same words I raced to finished (and sometimes even scanned) in order to put together something that could believably pass as B worthy, by my perpetually dissatisfied teacher, I suddenly found myself interested in the story that was unfolding. It was the very first time in my life that I began to slow down because I didn’t want it to end. I became very attached to the characters, especially, and to my surprise, the killers. It’s a book that I will never forget as it even went as deep as to shape my opinion on the death penalty.

And when it was finished and the paper was done, I went right back into my book-less life. I’ve always found it difficult to begin a new book after I’ve read something so powerful. To become attached to a book is so rare for me that, when it does happen, I find myself too involved with the characters and scenery I had built for them to live in inside my head for so long, to let it go. I find that I need time before I can move on to a new set of lives. And since In Cold Blood, there have only been a handful of books that I’ve connected with. But after a while, I began to see a theme develop. Most all of the books that I have been drawn to have been biographies, memoirs or true life stories. I guess I just like reading about real lives. I like knowing what it was like to live in eras and scenes which I feel so far removed from. I like to know the back stories, where people came from, how they found themselves where they are today, and not just what was happening on stage, but what was happening behind the curtain.

First model card, 1959

Grace’s original model card, 1954

So what does all this have to do with fashion? Going back to school for another undergraduate degree would not only be massively expensive, but also redundant and unnecessary, therefore, I am attempting to teach myself about the fashion world through other methods. That means, it’s time to read. I’ve done a lot of research on important books that I need to familiarize myself with if I want to break into the industry, and well, I’ve finished my first one!

Detail from a sketch by Grace Coddington of fashion's front row.

Illustration from the inside book jacket displaying many of the whose who in not only fashion but also Grace’s life

First up was Grace Coddington’s Memoir, Grace. I just finished it today, (with the same somberness as I found as I wrapped up In Cold Blood), and I’ve come out of it with so much information on fashion in 1960’s and 70’s London and Paris, knowledge of legendary photographers, fashion editors and models, and a general feeling that I’ve just stepped out of a really fabulous time warp. The book chronicles the life of iconic model and now Vogue Creative Director, Grace Coddington and it comes complete with selected works (Coddington’s Vogue Shoots), personal photographs, and illustrations drawn by Coddington herself.


1960 Marriage to Michael Chow; Photograph by Barry Lategan

It was my intention that by reading these memoirs on fashion giants, I would not only be able to learn more about fashion’s major players and history (so as not to look like a total noodle when asked about such legends), but also I was in search of a better understanding of the paths that these people took, to get to the place where they are today. It was great to read of Coddington’s upbringing in a small, remote town in Wales, her move to London, her first modeling gig and what it was like to be a model in the 60’s (there were no hair and make-up artists, no accessorizing either! The models had to bring a giant bag full of items and do it all themselves!). It was truly all about the clothes, plain and simple.


Grace with iconic hair stylist, Vidal Sassoon, showing off her Sassoon cut

It’s also always nice to hear of other people’s stints at nightmare first jobs in which they took while they were young and struggling. To hear of the many marriages, flings and affairs and know that it’s okay if you mess up and that everyone has set backs and failures. It just means more to me to read about people’s personal stories of loss when I know that they are true as opposed to being works of fiction. It makes it more relatable, to know that you are not the first to feel such a deep sense of loneliness, loss or betrayal. And in the end, to see the beautiful things she has created, the friends and companions she found at all stages of her life, to know that at age 70, she still continues to create at such an industrious and creative level. I find reading these books, as corny as it sounds, an inspiration, and a pick me up whenever I begin to question my own path.


Alice in Wonderland inspired American Vogue Spread featuring designers Viktor and Rolf as Tweedledee and Tweedledum 2003; Photograph by Annie Leibovitz

It was also fascinating to read about how different photo spreads come to fruition. For example, the Alice in Wonderland shoot was originally supposed to be based on Mary Poppins, whom current Vogue editor Anna Wintour had just scene a stage performance of and loved. However, the idea was scratched as Mary only wears black the entire time, a color that Wintour is not fond of taking up so much space in her magazine. That is when Coddington suggested Alice in Wonderland as an alternative. The idea was only strengthened when they decided upon basing their images off of the books original illustrations, and using the designers to create blue dresses for Alice, and further more, star along side their creations as members of the famous cast of characters. And that is the true genius of it all, to take a theme seemingly overplayed or obvious, and to be creative enough to really up the ante.


Grace, 1966; Photograph by Jeanloup Stief

Throughout the book, we are introduced to everyone who came in and out of Coddington’s life. From models and celebrities, to photographers and hairstylists (Many of whom are listed at the end for easy reference). Coddington talks about applying her own makeup and her creation of Twiggy-style eyes before Twiggy was even out of grade school. She talks about her struggle with her hair and how she finally found a great cut with Vidal Sassoon, the iconic hairstylist of the 1960’s who is also famous for creating Mia Farrow’s look (memorably referenced in Rosemary’s Baby). She describes her thrill in being nickname “The Cod,” by photographer John Cowan because she felt it elevated her to the same ranks as model great, Jean Shrimpton aka, “The Shrimp.” She discusses her horrible car accident which sidelined her career for two years. She described briefly where Anna Wintour was before becoming the iconic, sunglasses adorned, Vogue editor we see today. She talks about the discovery of models such as Naomi Campbell and her volatile relationship with Mike Tyson. She talks about the importance of finding photographers who work well with models, which ones are more difficult than others, who are minimalists, and who prefer the outdoors. All and all, it’s a memoir that spans through such a great portion of the 20th century, that you are able to see just how extreme the industry has evolved over time. Finishing this book has left me with this huge web of connections. A million jumping off points to other lives and stories.

Grace Coddington Working with Didier in the English countryside before they were dating.

Grace with her current boyfriend, and famous hairstylist, Didier Malige, 1981; Photograph by Barry Lategan

So yes, I would definitely recommend this memoir to anyone interested in entering the fashion industry. In fact, I would recommend it to anyone who is questioning where they’re at in their life and where they are going. It is easy to get lost in the words and advice of the people around you. Although you may love them and they may all love you back, it’s important to know that you are the only one in control of your life. There are so many people outside of your immediate bubble, that live their lives in completely different ways. People who have had opposite experiences, been exposed to alternative ways of thinking, and who have traveled down roads you may not even know exist. And I think that reading biographies is important because it allows you to take a step outside of your own world and into these other lives. Just knowing of their existence, can make your own life that much more yours. To not be ashamed of where you’re at, or feel pressured to speed up your success to meet up with the traditional trajectory of college, job, marriage, children all while balancing your own career and independence, (but if that’s what you want, great!) but instead to be happy and confident in your own ideas, and know that happiness doesn’t always come in a perfectly planned life. It will only come when you accept who you are and have the confidence that you will get to where you are going through your own means. There are all sorts of lives out there, and only you have the authority and privilege to decide which kind you want to live.

grace coddington


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