In June 1950, four of the US’s top models flew to Australia to showcase American fashions in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. They included Carmen Dell’Orefice, just 18 years old but already something of a veteran, and Andrea Johnson, ten years her senior, for whom this would be a kind of swan song.
Carmen has become a fashion legend, Andrea has sunk without trace. Other than a few photos, there’s almost nothing about her on the Internet. So, this is my best effort to provide a back story for the clutch of photos of Andrea I have in my collection and ensure that she isn’t forgotten just yet. They come, via two different sources, direct from Andrea’s estate.
Andrea Johnson, supermodel
Back in the 1940s when Andrea Johnson does most of her modelling (she was born in 1922), the business is in its infancy and dominated by a handful of agencies. Andrea works for two of them. She is represented by John Robert Powers before moving to Ford Models, set up by Eileen and future-US president Gerald Ford in 1946. At some point in the 1940s she leaves to set up her own agency, Figure Heads, with offices in NYC at 141 East 40th Street. Her husband, Claude Travers, five years her senior, is a partner and director of the firm.
During the forties, Andrea is one of the 12 most photographed models in the US immortalized by Irving Penn in his famous 1947 group portrait. The following year she’s part of another famous group portrait, this time modelling an extravagant ballgown by Charles James for Cecil Beaton. Beaton also photographs her for the covers of two issues of Vogue magazine – January 1, 1945 and May 15, 1946 (you can find both at Getty Images). It goes almost without saying that, like Lisa Fonssagrives and unlike Jinx Falkenburg, Andrea is a high-fashion rather than a sports model.
Her modelling date books reveal that she works with pretty much all the leading fashion photographers of the era: Richard Avedon, Erwin Blumenfeld, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Fernand Fonssagrives, Paul Hesse, Horst P Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Constantin Joffé, Karen Radkai, John Rawlings and, intriguingly, Salvador Dali. Magazines commissioning the shoots include Harper’s Bazaar, House & Garden, LIFE, Town & Country and Vogue.
The Australian fashion tour
In the mid-20th century, models aren’t celebrities like they are now. But there is still interest in them, as this article in LIFE magazine, in which Andrea Johnson gets a mention, demonstrates. While Andrea goes pretty much under the radar in the US, she and her companions get plenty of coverage in the Australian press when they visit the country in July 1950.
The American Fashion Parades, as they are dubbed, are organized by Nieman-Marcus in collaboration with the Myer Emporium and David Jones (two Australian upmarket department stores). The rationale is to promote US fashion in the light of moves afoot to reduce the trade barriers that have inhibited commerce between the countries since before World War II. It calls to mind The Fashion Flight of 1947. Vice-president Stanley Marcus regards the American Fashion Parades as one of the most important his corporation has staged and points out that:
We’ve had two fashion shows in Mexico, but I can tell you this – we attach more importance to this show than any we have ever held. … French fashions still may be the world’s most chic, but American fashions generally are better suited to Australia.
The American Fashion Parades showcase the latest American creations in cocktail dresses, evening gowns, suits, sportswear and beachwear. Also on display are a range of accessories: hats, shoes, gloves, handbags and costume jewellery for evening, daytime, and sportswear. Brands include Elizabeth Arden, Hattie Carnegie, Adrian, Tina Leser, Irene, John Frederics and Delman.
This is how the models are introduced to the Australian public in the June 3, 1950 edition of The Daily Telegraph:
They are known as the “most-photographed girls in the world.” …
… Blonde, svelte Carmen [Dell’Orefice] is the favorite model of British photographer Cecil Beaton, who has described her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She holds several New York swimming and diving championships.
Pert brunette Margo [Price], besides being one of the highest-paid models in New York, is a skilled movie photographer. She plans to make a film “documentary” of her Australian tour for television showing on her return to the United States.
Striking, shapely Andrea Johnson disproves the saying that blondes are beautiful but dumb. She’s one of the most sought-after mannequins in America and in her spare time she runs her own model agency with 30 girls on her staff.
Glamor girl and fashion expert Ruth Hancock, of Texas, will be in charge of the American beauty contingent.
The Australian press report that they are taking a cut in their earnings during the trip. Back home they command fees of US $25 dollars an hour and average US $100 dollars a day.
The models are in Australia for a bit more than a month. During that time, they work alongside eight Australian mannequins, who have competed for the honour. Their schedule looks like this:
- Monday, 17 July – Leave New York.
- Wednesday, 19 July – Full-dress preview in Dallas, then on to San Francisco to catch a PanAm flight to Australia.
- Saturday, 22 July – Arrive Sydney and travel on to Melbourne.
- Saturday 29 July – Fashion Parades begin in Melbourne.
- Saturday 12 August – Fashion Parades begin in Adelaide.
- Monday 21 August – Fashion Parades begin in Sydney.
- Saturday 26 August – Fashion Parades finish.
When the models depart, Margo and Ruth head back to the US, while Andrea and Carmen go to France for sittings for Vogue Paris before returning home.
Andrea Johnson, artist and entrepreneur
On the way to Australia, the models have a brief stopover in Honolulu, and perhaps that’s when Andrea falls in love with the city. At any rate, that’s where she goes to live when she retires from modelling in the early 1950s. And there she embarks on a new career, working closely with another artist to design fabric prints on which to base a line of island casuals, and funding it with a bit of modelling.
It seems that Andrea is quite an entrepreneur. Having set up a modelling agency and a fashion business, she goes on holiday to Big Island and ends up buying an old coffee farm in the area of Honaunau. She turns the ground floor of the house into a ceramics studio, which she christens Holualoa Coffee Mill Art Center. The remaining space she uses as storage for her extensive collection of antiques and collectibles. She also opens a retail studio in Captain Cook, selling plaster castings for walls and gardens.
She dies in her late 70s after a battle with cancer.
Want to know more about Andrea Johnson?
I’m indebted to John-Michael O’Sullivan (who is working on a biography of Barbara Mullen) and Cynthia Nespor (who helped to dispose of Andrea’s estate) for their help in researching this piece. The best source online is the National Library of Australia’s Trove, where you will find multiple reports of the American Fashion Parades.