Fashion: Dressed for maximum exposure: As a model Lee Miller imprinted a unique style on the Thirties and Forties. And then she turned and shot back, says Lisa Armstrong

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YOU MAY already have noticed that Thirties and Forties-style clothes are cutting a dash in the shops - by the autumn they'll be an even stronger force. That may be the outcome of one bleak era identifying with another. But it is also directly attributable to one woman who cut such a swath through pre- and post-war artistic, intellectual and fashion circles that 50 years later, her style is still influential.

Renowned for her 'snappy dressing', Lee Miller's hallmarks included slender, elegant long skirts, headscarves tied under the chin or knotted on top of the head, floaty print blouses or dresses, and a few unexpected, quirky touches such as the green varnish she liked to paint on her toe-nails. She alternated this feminine armoury with rugged walking boots, masculine tailored trousers or jodhpurs and waistcoats, which she wore on the lengthy desert expeditions she organised for her friends - all items that are strongly evident on fashion's current agenda.

Lee Miller was never famous on the scale of latter-day fashion muses such as Catherine Deneuve or Audrey Hepburn. But through a combination of good timing and extraordinary looks she was noticed - and captured for posterity - by famous artists such as Horst, Hoyningen- Huene, Man Ray and Picasso, which is how, even without the benefit of mass media coverage, she became an icon for those in the fashion world - designers, photographers and stylists - who have the power to disseminate new trends.

She was born in 1907 in Poughkeepsie, New York. Perfect genes conjoined to produce a woman who seemed to have everything: looks, wit, brains, talent and the ability to walk away apparently unscathed from the smoking ruins of passionate relationships. Throughout her life men risked reputations, fortunes and sanity for her, and not just any old men. Jean Cocteau so admired her that he cast her as the female lead (only a classical statue, but it was art) in his film The Blood of a Poet.

When she was 20 a stranger saved her from being knocked down by a speeding car in New York. Her saviour turned out to be Conde Nast, the powerful publisher, who was so taken with her that he hired her as a Vogue model and later encouraged her when she began experimenting behind the camera. In 1932, Man Ray, with whom she had been living in Paris, threatened to commit suicide when Miller ended their affair (fortunately for the world he contented himself instead by expunging his emotions in Observatory Time - The Lovers, his mournful painting of a giant pair of elongated, thin lips - Miller's - floating surreally against a mackerel sky).

Next, her brother Erik sank everything into running a photographic studio with her in New York, only to see her waltz off to Egypt with Aziz Eloui Bey, a wealthy businessman to whom she was married for four years. For his part Aziz not only endured her endless peccadilloes, but helped fund the holidays on which she indulged in them.

She finally settled down, in her way, in 1938 with Roland Penrose, a British surrealist artist, and spent the next 40 years with him in England, turning their homes in Hampstead and the country into artistic and intellectual crucibles to which the likes of Picasso, Max Ernst, Leonora Carrington, Marcel Duchamp, John Houston and a Who's Who of journalism and British politics repeatedly returned. All this and she didn't even have good teeth.

Like many great beauties, Miller was cavalier about her looks. In the Twenties she shingled her hair even shorter than was the fashion, prompting Cecil Beaton (whom she later despised for his egotism and anti-Semitism) to liken her to a glorious 'sunkissed goat boy from the Appian way'. During the war she willingly exchanged the easy gracefulness of her US- style clothes for a crumpled, and not always clean, soldier's uniform. She was also a ferocious drinker - an occupation that in later years ravaged her looks.

Still, Miller was more than a decorative appendage. Thanks to Man Ray, Horst and her own dedication, she became an impressive photographer. Even her early commercial compositions, whether scent bottles for advertisers or accessories for Vogue, exhibit a delicate, detached elegance, often with a surrealist's eye for the absurd, the witty and the macabre (she appalled Horst by arriving at his studio one day with a breast on a dinner plate, which she had carried through the streets of Manhattan. She had been watching a mastectomy operation at a hospital and had persuaded the surgeon to let her 'borrow' it for a shoot).

From her father, Theodore, an industrialist and avid amateur photographer (he took numerous portraits of Lee naked and whenever he had the opportunity inveigled her model girlfriends into posing nude for him), she inherited a mania for gadgets. It was she who, in 1929, together with Man Ray, stumbled across the ground-breaking solarisation technique (a way of developing photographic negatives so that the subject matter is outlined with a dark halo).

However, it was only with the outbreak of war that she began to have a real regard for her own work. Having badgered Vogue into appointing her as its war correspondent she miraculously gained accreditation to accompany soldiers to the front (the only female photographer to do so), sent back thousands of excoriating words to accompany her pictures and frequently scooped her male rivals. She was one of the few photographers present at the liberation of Dachau, but her organised, satirical coolness was most haunting when the situation allowed for some black humour - as when she photographed an opera singer melodramatically gesticulating against the ruins of Vienna's opera house, or posed in Hitler's bath for what became one of her most famous pictures.

A boredom threshold of about 30 seconds meant she inevitably found peacetime an anti-climax, but if her attention span was brief it was also undivided. In rapid succession she became a dedicated gardener, mother, expert on classical music (this one was a mystery since her friends said she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket), and cook. It was this last passion that saved her from the mental illness that threatened to drown her, and culminated in her final and grandest incarnation: when Roland was knighted in 1966 she became Lady Penrose, gracious chatelaine.

She could be maddening and egocentric. But as Harry Yoxall, managing director of Vogue after the war, said: 'Who else has written equally well about GIs and Picasso? Who else can get in at the death of St Malo and the re-birth of the fashion salons? Who else can swing from the Siegfried Line one week to the new hip line the next?'

And what other cook-come-photographer-come-gardener coined a style that 50 years on still looks good?

'Lee Miller's War', a collection of her photographs and writing by Antony Penrose, is published on 30 July by Ebury Press, pounds 35. An exhibition of her war photographs is at the ICA, 12 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1 from 30 July to 30 August.

(Photograph omitted)

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