Thursday, 14 February 2013


Visit a hairdresser, don’t powder too much – and wear as little as possible. In this extraordinary piece from our archive, an icon reveals how a lady should behave in front of the camera

Written by The Hon. Nancy Mitford
The Hon. Nancy Mitford was one of Britain’s best-loved authors – and the granddaughter of The Lady’s founder, Thomas Gibson Bowles. She wrote several memorable essays for the magazine, this being one of them. It  rst appeared in The Lady on 10 April 1930.

An experience which befalls most people sooner or later is that of being photographed by a professional in his studio. The desire to be reproduced three-dimensionally is as old as the human race, and comes, no doubt, from an unacknowledged craving to ‘see ourselves as others see us’. But, whereas our ancestors had to rely for their portraits upon the expensive and often unsatisfactory work of the draughtsman, we have in the modern camera the means of producing not only an exact likeness, but often a work of art as well.

It is noticeable that people about to be photo graphed are always at great pains to explain that their motives for taking this step are both noble and unselŽfish. They never say, ‘I wanted a picture of myself,’ but imply that countless friends and relations are clamouring for one, and that it is for their sakes alone that an unpleasant ordeal is to be faced. Nobody ever admits to liking the process. Quite the contrary. They will come away saying, in tones of exaggerated horror, ‘My dear! Worse than the dentist!’ or, ‘Well, that’s over! Sooner face a mad bull any day!’

The truth, of course, is that all women, and most men, thoroughly enjoy the whole thing. To begin with, every photographer worth his salt is a born ‹ atterer; and few human beings really dislike being told that their nose is almost perfect Greek and will show to wonderful advantage in proŽ le, or that in certain lights they are practically indistinguishable from Lady Diana Du’ -Cooper.

Also, it is an undeniably fascinating thought that the face, after being held in certain positions for a few seconds, will be thus immortalised, and that the resulting picture will gaze from countless pianos and mantelpieces upon the friends who have so constantly demanded it. (I will not even mention those monsters of unfeelingness who stick the portraits of their acquaintances in an album. Such iconoclasts could never rank as true friends.)

Whatever, then, the reasons, real or alleged, for doing so, we can, I think, safely assume that the reader – whom, for the sake of argument, we will also assume to be a lady – will, at some time in her career, be taking steps to have herself thus reproduced in black and white. May I then, dear Lady, venture to throw out a few suggestions as to how you should prepare yourself for this not important event so that the result may be even more dazzlingly satisfactory than might otherwise have been the case? But, before I begin, let me implore you to choose a really good photographer. That is essential.

Anything but the very best in this respect is false economy. It is better to be taken properly once in your life than to fritter away time and money on constant experiments with the second-rate. A bad photograph is very much worse than useless. Choose, therefore, what you consider the best photographer – you can see portraits by countless diŽ erent ones in all the weekly illustrated papers – and go to him, regardless of expense. (If you commit a murder, swim the Channel, or gain some similar notoriety, complimentary sittings from grand studios will rain upon you. If you are comparatively unknown, it will be necessary to pay for your sitting.)


Having selected your photographer, the next step will be to make an appointment with him, preferably upon a day when you have no other engagements, so that you can arrive at the studio fresh from the hands of hairdresser and manicurist. The actual sitting will take anything from one to two hours, and will be a most exhausting aŽffair.

You must now decide what clothes you intend to wear, and here I am obliged to say the fewer the better. Do not misunderstand me, dear Lady. It is no immodesty that I suggest. I only mean that, for those who are not constantly being photographed, a head alone, or a head and shoulders, often makes the most satisfactory picture.

If you are taken at full or threequarter length in some distinctive dress of the present fashion, it will look unbearably ugly and dowdy by the time a few years have elapsed. I therefore advise you to wear either a day frock with a very simple neckline, or an evening dress with shoulder straps. Fancy dress is sometimes very becoming; but, generally, a head quite alone will be found to make the most successful composition. I need hardly add that it is fatal to wear a hat. Nothing dates so quickly.

When the hour of your appointment is at hand, refuse with vigour the kind eŽ orts of those who would accompany you, and set forth alone – bearing with you the dress that you intend to wear together with hairbrushes, combs and cosmetics. On arrival at the studio you will probably be shown straight into a dressing room, brilliantly lighted, and with adequate mirrors, where you will be left to make your own preparations. This is, for you, the most important part of the whole aŽ air; the success or failure of the photograph depends very largely upon how well you can make up your face.

The chief thing to remember is not to powder too much. A rather shiny face comes out far the best. Your cheekbones and eyelids must be de nitely very shiny indeed, so use a greasy rouge for the former and some blue and silver paste for the latter. Paint your mouth as much as you like, always keeping to its original shape.

When you are quite ready, you will be escorted to the studio, where the artist is waiting to make your acquaintance. (Many of the best photographers are women; but we will assume that this one is a man.) He will certainly engage you in conversation for several minutes before attempting to start work in order to study your face and make you feel at home. If you were a child, he would be springing about pretending to be a kangaroo during this time. As you are grown up, his tactics will probably be less abandoned but also duller.

When at last he begins to pose you, do all in your power to help him. Remember that, although it is his business to put you into really becoming attitudes, he cannot hope to succeed without a great deal of assistance from you. If you have ever studied your face carefully and critically in the looking-glass – and it goes without saying, dear Lady, that you have done so – you probably know better than a man who sees you for the  rst time, which positions are likely to prove successful. So don’t hesitate to discuss it with him.


At the same time, remember that, although you may fancy yourself in certain poses, it is a mistake to insist upon them. The photographer must consider the whole composition, that he alone can see in the  nder. Don’t bother to be very natural; it is not an informal snapshot, but a carefully considered portrait that you are wanting, and a little a­ ection often helps to secure a good result. This is why it is important never to take a friend with you. They are so apt to spoil a really good pose by giggling or saying: ‘Darling! What a soulful expression!’

A good photographer, seeing you in an attractive position, will take it quickly without stopping to wonder whether you are being a­ ected or not. A bad one nearly always starts o­ by saying, rather nervously: ‘and what is your most natural attitude?’ – a question which would make most people sti­ff and awkward at once.

By remaining calm and cheerful, and by your good nature in holding each pose for as long as he wishes, you can be of inestimable help to the photographer, and the pictures will have every chance of being really successful. And when, some three weeks later, the proofs arrive at your home, you will be able to indulge in an orgy of enjoyable Narcissism as you pore over them to select the very best for circulation among those who have so long and so loudly demanded ‘a really good photograph to remind me of you’.

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