Dumb Show

Twiggy and Justin

by Thomas Whiteside
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 122, 14 of photographs pp., $4.50

There is little point in insisting that each book one examines reflects the Zeitgeist. The temptation, nevertheless, is there—especially in the case of so minimal a subject as Twiggy and Justin, an account of their visit to New York in the spring of 1967. Twiggy, you will recall, is a photographer’s model, very young, very thin, British working class, inarticulate, an occasional reference point (by virtue of her short hair and flat chest) for the decline of sexual differentiation in the world today. Justin de Villeneuve is her creator and manager, somewhat older, shrewd, a symbol in his way of the rise of the working class. Last year they came to America to more fully exploit Twiggy’s international commercial possibilities, and the media made a fuss about them for a while—hard news having been harder to come by that year than this. Thomas Whiteside was one of the people who followed Twiggy and Justin around, later reporting on their activities at some length in The New Yorker. Book length, as it now turns out. Why would Whiteside want to write about them, one wonders? As Twiggy might say, “I dunno. Ask ‘im.”

I suppose Whiteside intended to demonstate, through a kind of journalism verité, how a popular idol is created by commercial interests and sustained by artificial news-making until that moment when the great populace (here, the American adolescent) rises to embrace the new heroine and reach for the products she endorses. This might have been a moderately useful, if familiar, essay had the cult of Twiggy materialized in America—but it never did, although one would not know this by reading Whiteside’s book.

TRUE POPULAR CULTURE HEROES, like good popular songs, have about them something melancholy—a quality of temporality which never can be altogether ignored. They mark with precision a time, a place, a way we were. It is exactly the ephemeral nature of their success that touches us, making them seem mythopoeic. The long-haired rock musicians are already growing bald. Bardot fades before our eyes. Twiggy, however, did not have that air at all. For us, she had merely lack of substance.

The Twiggy phenomenon as an object of mass fixation actually existed only in England where it began and where, I have been told, it is still more or less extant. Something to do, I believe, with the loss of empire and the reverse caste system that the British young have been toying with for a while. In America, however, the excitement remained largely in the minds of the grown-ups; the fashion writers, the editors, the merchandisers—those people who imagine that they create style. The children here, who like things more raunchy, were not impressed by this innocent London shop girl who talked lovingly of her Mum and Dad and lived at home. Further, Twiggy had the look of a waitress in a diner in Nashville, the face of the Anglo-American poor in the hill country, the quality of a …

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