Fifties Model Extraordinaire: Barbara Goalen
Cometh the mode, cometh the woman, and between 1947 and 1954, the British queen of hauteur was Barbara Goalen, who became known as “the most photographed woman in Britain” in the Fifties, thanks to her extraordinary poise and beauty and an astonishingly tiny waist. She began to study art, but after a year signed up to drive a wartime ambulance, so by the time she faced the lens whether in Dior and diamonds or printed cotton satin, adult experience showed in her black-pencil-lined eyes.
Besides the figure, cheekbones and swallowtail eyebrows, Goalen already had the considerable self-possession of a classy English childhood. Her father was the owner of a Malaysian rubber plantation, and, she, at the age of eight, had been shipped back home to board at preparatory school, before going on to St Mary’s girls’ school, in Calne, Wiltshire.
In the unambitious manner of her times, she became a model only after she was widowed at the age of 24, when her husband Ian Goalen died in a crash. Her first, teenage,fiancé, an RAF bomber pilot, had been killed in action during the second world war. Barbara and Ian had a small son and daughter, neither of whose arrival had permanently expanded their mother’s 33-18-31 inch measurements or under-eight-stone weight, the perfect shape for what was then called a “mannequin” – with implications of grandeur descending a staircase – rather than a model.
She stopped short of Saudi Arabia, famously refusing to model lingerie in a harem for the 300 wives of a Saudi King in 1954. “It simply isn’t done you know,” she explained, adding with a sigh, “but the underwear is really divine.”
Educated at St Mary’s Calne, Goalen’s standards were legendary and though her career only spanned six years, it was a time she described as “the vintage years”. Her work took her all over the world, including New York and Australia, where she once paraded the new “short” evening dresses (seven inches off the ground) for Australian débutantes.
Barbara appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and British Vogue just as the New Look, with its promises of future luxury, arrived to dominate fashion: she had the waspy waist and elegance needed to wear it – the look, based on Dior’s memories of the courtesans of France’s belle epoque around 1900, was designed for women, not girls.
She was among the first British beauties to be recruited to parade in the Paris shows, and was on demand photographically in New York and London for a well-above average rate of five guineas an hour.
The work was hard, especially, she said, on the feet – no one in her line of business wore flat shoes – but the women who modeled in the Fifties and Early Sixties, were treated as ‘society-by-association’, with couture gowns loaned for the evening and an entrée anywhere. Their personal upkeep, Goalen recalled, took just as much maintenance in manicures and hair salon time as later supermodels had to put in at the gym.
The between-job transport was slower, too, if stately: chauffeured Rolls-Royces, liners to America, or the airliners Goalen once took in stages to Australia to model frocks for Sydney débutantes.
Débutante – a girl presented at court in her first social season – was a word that recurred in her career: Goalen had doubts about the modern validity of the season, but still organized the Berkeley dress show during the 1960s. By then, she was only visible as a private citizen at charity events, faithful to her own era of extreme style.
In 1954, on her marriage to Nigel Campbell, a Lloyd’s underwriter, Barbara had retired from modeling, without regrets, still at the top.She continued to be active in the fashion world by giving interviews and writing for British newspapers.