War Hero and…Fashion Writer? The Life and Work of Edmonde Charles-Roux

From 1954 to 1966, Edmonde Charles-Roux was the holder of a fashionista’s dream. It was her mind that shaped one of the top publications in the fashion industry as the editor-in-chief of Vogue Paris. A Charles-Roux issue intertwined eye-catching photography and high-end fashions with text on art, culture, and society. She approached the fashion industry as an “…evolving social history, and as France’s major export and source of identity.” Charles-Roux explained, “For me, fashion has never been frivolous.”

But as the saying goes, “One day you’re in, and one day, you’re out.” In 1966, Charles-Roux was abruptly dismissed as the head of Vogue Paris. She told the press that the firing was due to a disagreement over the magazine’s direction. When inquired on why Charles-Roux was no longer employed by the publication, Vogue Paris’ editorial board stated that she resigned. Charles-Roux believed that she held the publication to a higher standard than what others wanted to put out. “We have always wanted more cultural coverage,” stated the president of Vogue Paris Henry A. Bertrand. “But, of course, this coverage must conform to a fashion magazine.”

A secret source told The New York Times that Charles-Roux was too old-fashioned to lead the magazine; she often wore conservative, Chanel suits with a signature pearl necklace and slicked-back chignon to work and public events. Another theory proposed it was the former editor-in-chief’s last cover that caused her firing. If it went to plan, the June 1966 issue would have been covered by model-of-the-moment Donyale Luna. Tall, thin, and with a beautiful face, the American-born model was the living embodiment of the Swinging ’60s. She was also one of the most prominent Black models to work in the high fashion industry. For a fashion-forward publication like Vogue Paris, Luna was a perfect choice.

The cover was shot by the equally cool French photographer William Klein, who was a favorite of Charles-Roux. But when the issue was sat on news kiosks, a White model captured by photographer Marc Hispard appeared on the cover. The abrupt change was said to be due to the editorial board’s worry of advertisers revoking their accounts in response to a Black cover model.

As she was adjusting to her new life as an unemployed editor, Charles-Roux was unknowingly on the cusp of the biggest moment of her writing career. The same year of her firing, she was awarded France’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt. The prize was not for any of her magazine work. Instead, it was to acknowledge her newly released novel, Oublier Palermo (1966). According to the New York Times, the book was the first novelized story with an American setting to win the award.

Charles-Roux crafted the story after attending a workshop held by novelist Maurice Druon. She wrote during her free time and sourced inspiration from her day job. Her former employer addressed the novel, backhandedly explaining, “We are very proud of Edmonde and we have always admired the way she writes. She should be grateful to Vogue. She might never have written the book if she had stayed.”

Charles-Roux included another mention of the fashion industry in her second book Elle, Adrienne (1973). When the time came for her to draft her third text, the author decided that a nonfiction story was her next move. She continued to be inspired by fashion and took on the life of then-living designer and icon Coco Chanel. Despite Charles-Roux’s experience in the French fashion and literary world, and her penchant for the designer’s suits, Chanel was not interested in anyone interpreting her life. 

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When Chanel refused to speak to the author, Charles-Roux sustained. “Chanel’s famous nostrils flared. She blew smoke,” she later informed The Times. “She would not supply information or photographs. I knew I would have to do it on my own. She would never talk to me again.”

This may have been a blessing because, as Charles-Roux explained in the biography, the fashion designer often told romanticized tales of her early life to deter from the actualities of her past. When Chanel and Her World was released in 1976, readers dived their noses into the book to discover the true story of one of the world’s most successful and mysterious fashion designers. Chanel’s response was, as expected, silence.

Although the book was successful, writing about a famed, powerful, and living person is a significant risk for a nonfiction writer. This would have been especially perilous for someone like Charles-Roux, who had already experienced a public controversy. But the mores and goings-on of the elite were far from a foreign concept for her. She came from privilege, born in 1920 Neuilly-sur-Seine, France, to a wealthy and influential family of businessmen and politicians.

Young Edmonde did not stay long in France; herself, brother, sister, and mother followed their father/husband Francois around the world. He served as an ambassador of France, which required the family to live in Cairo, Istanbul, London, Prague, St. Petersburg, and Rome.

WWII brought Charles-Roux and her family back to France. There, the teenager experienced the most dangerous careers she would ever take on as a war nurse and ambulance driver. She assisted the French Resistance and was wounded twice during battles. Her bravery would later be awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honor.

Once the war ended, and her wounds were healed, Charles-Roux found a job through a Marseille shipowner who was investing in a new publication called Elle. Starting in 1946, she wrote content for a female audience and supplemented her portfolio with freelance work at France-Soir and Vogue Paris. Like the reader, she was experiencing a new France that was healing from the trauma of war, and she was a part of the first generation of French women to gain the right to vote. Her writing and editing reflected this new era for her country’s women and was the reason why she was hired in 1948 by Vogue Paris.

In her later years, Charles-Roux continued her writing. She wrote novels and nonfiction, including two biographical volumes on Swiss explorer Isabelle Eberhardt. In 1983, Charles-Roux became a second-seat member of the Academie Goncourt and president in 2002.

Despite experiencing a diverse and successful writing career, it was not her sole focus. Charles-Roux lent her time to photography and in her marriage to politician Gaston Defferre, who spent thirty-three years as the mayor of Marseille. Her life as the mayor’s wife and former fashion editor sometimes crossed. When a law was passed in 1982 that prevented French politician wives from receiving free clothing from designers, Charles-Roux praised the mandate. “One doesn’t need free clothes to do the work we do. The tradition of free clothes is not normal, and it is good to put the whole thing straight from the beginning.”

Although she often said, “The artist must be dangerously alone,” Charles-Roux had an active social life that was collected from the many jobs and roles she took on. She hobnobbed with the French literary scene, rallied with socialists, and attended glittering parties held by the fashion industry. When Charles-Roux passed away in 2016, all of those corners of French society came together to remember the writer.

Those wanting to learn more about Edmonde Charles-Roux’s life should check out Jean-Noel Liaut’s biography, Elle Edmonde.

Ajita Wilson’s Jet Set Style

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Viewers spending their quarantine on Netflix may come across the documentary, Disclosure, which highlights the experiences and exclusions of trans people in American media. Among the interviewees in the documentary is the movie star Laverne Cox. She discusses both her own experience in the industry and others who influenced her career. One name she mentioned was film star Ajita Wilson, an American actress who mesmerized worldwide audiences in the 1970s. 

Tall and beautiful with flawless hair and makeup, Wilson was a fashionista during her stardom. Her style blended minimalist, form-fitted clothing with layered necklaces, a tower of bangles on both wrists, and a set of thin, golden hoops dangling from her ears. According to academic Matt Richardson, Wilson’s taste mirrored what Dr. Tanisha Ford calls soul style, an aesthetic that blended fashionable expression with the 1970s Black Power movement.

Although not featured in high fashion magazines of the time, Wilson did get the chance to be Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” in 1981. Caught mid-stroll on a beach, Wilson sported beaded braids, a berry-colored bikini, and Roman-inspired jewelry. She may have been the first Transgender woman to be given the honor.
Not much is known about Wilson’s early life, except that she was born in Brooklyn on May 26, 1950. Her film career began in the 1970s in New York City. Once she crossed the pond, Wilson acted for some of the top directors in Europe in softcore and hardcore films. In 1987, a car wreck ended her life at the young age of 37.

To see Ajita Wilson’s Jet feature, check out the August 20, 1981 edition on Google Books. To learn more about her contribution to film, read Matt Richardson’s “Ajita Wilson: Blaxploitation, Sexploitation, and the Making of Black Womanhood.”

Ruth West, The Woman Who Transformed Pam Grier Into Foxy Brown

Ruth West was the premier designer for some of the top performers of the 1970s. Famous names like the Ann-Margret and the Jackson family would step in and out of her Hollywood storefront to be fitted in eye-catching looks for on and off the stage. 

West built this reputation by crafting wares that were not only stylish but functional. “… When you get something tailored … and the sleeves start coming off onstage- well. Ruthie’s stuff always stays together,” commented Billy Griffin to Ebony Magazine in 1977.  Aside from clothing performers in glittering garbs, she also designed the iconic looks for Pam Grier in the 1974 film, Foxy Brown.

West learned how to craft her first stitch by quilting with her grandmother as a child. As she grew into a young woman, she built her eye for design in a still-life class at Washington University in St. Louis. This combination of form and handiwork led to West finding sewing work for a local designer. There, she created multiple best-selling looks for the brand. 

Although West’s talent was a financial benefit for the designer, her boss encouraged her to venture out to California and create a name of her own. She took the advice and left for the Golden State. As in St. Louis, the California-based West found herself crafting designs under a designer’s name. She knew her worth, so she quit her job and established herself as an independent designer. This meant taking a deep pay cut and building clientele from scratch. 

Amid this career change, West bought a charity raffle ticket with her last $15. That philanthropic spending proved to be a fruitful purchase. She had the winning ticket, a trip to Hawaii. A friend bought the trip from West and she used that money to make a down payment for a storefront that would become the International Costume Company. Within her first year, she made $41,000 and started her path in becoming a designer to the stars.  

To see the original photographs and profile of Ruth West, check out the May 1977 edition of Ebony Magazine.   

Yva, A Pioneer of the Fashion Nude


Before Helmut Newton was snapping his signature erotica, he was once an assistant to German fashion photographer Yva (1900-1942).

The uniquely named photographer was born Else Neulander in Berlin to a working-class Jewish family. Twenty-five years later she became Yva and opened a photography studio in the fashionable Kurfürstendamm district. Through a modernist perspective, she captured surrealist compositions of stylish women and artistic nudes. Yva’s work was so eye-catching that Berlin’s fashion elite sought out her photographs for their publications and advertisements.

Dancer Tatjana Barbakoff, 1929

Yva’s career ended after the political rise of the Nazis. In 1942, she and her husband were arrested and sent to a death camp. A set of stolperstein (stepping stone) have been placed in front of their former home at Schlüterstraße #45 to honor the couple’s legacy.

For more on Yva, check out Yva: Photographies 1925-1938 by Elisabeth Moortgat and Marion Beckers or Fashioning Jews: Clothing, Culture, and Commerce by Leonard J. Greenspoon.

Dorothy Donegan’s Sequined Statements

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Dorothy Donegan (1922-1998) was an American pianist and singer who specialized in jazz, blues, and classical music. She is best known for her animated performances on the stride piano and owning Club Morocco in Los Angeles.

Just like her lively piano playing, Donegan’s on-stage attire was attention-grabbing. She wore curve-hugging, intricately decorated gowns that mirrored the fashions worn by Hollywood starlets. She didn’t skimp on her beauty routine either. Her hair was styled in curly or voluminous bobs that were often accented with a flower or turban.

Born in Chicago, Donegan performed in jazz clubs at a young age. During these shows, she developed her stage attire. “My mother would get me a pretty good dress, you know. Then, you could get a whole outfit for $15,” the singer said to Jeannie Cheatham for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program. “The shoes were $2 or $3. We’d go to Rothschild’s. I didn’t know a thing about Neiman Marcus, ‘needless markups.” 

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In 1945 Donegan received a call from Hollywood. “They (MGM)  paid our way there and gave me I think $3000 a week … Gene Rodgers and I played against each other. He was a very good pianist. Cab (Calloway) was directing and shaking his hair.” 

An example of her style is seen in a 1944 performance with Calloway and his band in the musical comedy film, “Sensations of 1945.” Donegan wears a long-sleeved gown with a deep V-neck and slightly squared shoulders. The white coloring of the dress is contrasted by gold sequins dotted at the neckline and in spirals around her wrists, which accentuates her piano playing.

Despite being a famous musician, Donegan often challenged sexism in the male-dominated jazz industry. “There shouldn’t be a separate role for women and a separate role for men. They either can perform or they can’t.”

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Although this may have shaped public opinion of her as difficult or overbearing, the musician knew her talents and worth. Her persistence was mentioned in a February 9, 1961 edition of Jet. The passage reads, “Jazz pianist Dorothy Donegan and her retort to the New York Roundtable Club owner after he suggested ordering some elevated shoes for her to compensate for the high ceiling Dorothy complained about: “How about some elevated money?”

As she entered her later years, Donegan combined her signature razzle-dazzle with streetwear. When she performed at the White House in 1993, she wore “a silver coat and a Chanel copy baseball hat,” and “a bugle beaded jet top and a black sequined skirt” with a bangle bracelet around her left wrist.

When not performing in the 1990s, Donegan received a National Endowment of the Arts “American Jazz Masters” fellowship (1992) and an honorary doctorate from Roosevelt University (1994). In 1997 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away at the age of 76 in 1998.

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Throughout her career, Donegan faced hardships for being an opinionated woman in a male-dominated industry. Instead of giving up, she continued to shine with the help of some sparkle.