Marit Allen: 'Vogue' fashion editor and costume designer on 'White Mischief' and 'Brokeback Mountain'
Saturday 01 December 2007
Marit Allen, fashion editor and costume designer: born 17 September 1941; Fashion Editor, Vogue 1964-73; married 1966 Sandy Lieberson (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1983); died Sydney, New South Wales 26 November 2007.
Tiny, precise, almost ethereal, Marit Allen burst on to the London fashion scene in the early Sixties like a shooting star. As an editor at Queen and Vogue magazines, she revolutionised fashion journalism, and was responsible for setting up many of the images of Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, Penelope Tree and Marianne Faithfull that came to define the era. She was equally successful in her second career as a costume designer, working with some of the greatest names in the film industry, including Nicolas Roeg, Ang Lee and Stanley Kubrick. The director Mike Newell described her as "a tiny delicate creature, like a fairy insect with jaws of steel. Once dug in, nothing would deflect her."
As both fashion editor and muse to a new generation of designers, Marit Allen was integral to the London fashion world of the early Sixties. Not only did she commission photographers such as Norman Parkinson and David Bailey to take photographs for her fashion pages, but she often modelled for them too. She was the first fashion editor to write her own caption "How to bowl a maiden over" for Queen magazine, and with her double-page spread by Helmut Newton for Vogue a few years later, featuring a white girl in a huge Afro wig entitled "Afrodizzyaction", she set the pace for a career of visual wit, invention and originality. Mary Quant described Marit's life as: "One long project, she was always doing something exciting" and lamented her death with the conviction that "she would have gone on pouring out ideas."
Marit Allen was born in Cheshire in 1941, the older daughter of Roger Allen, the landlord of a hotel in Lymm, and Aase Grimsmo. From her Norwegian mother, an extravagant and beautiful woman with wonderful red hair, Marit inherited a love and understanding of craft and design and an individual way of looking at the world around her. At the age of nine, she was sent to boarding school where her clothes red woollen stockings, an emerald-green felt skating skirt and a double-breasted scarlet jacket marked her out from the crowd. She later drew on memories of her headmistress and history teacher in designing costumes for Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire (1993).
After a period studying in France at the University of Grenoble, Allen arrived in London where she first worked as a lift girl at Jaeger in Regent Street, before landing a job as a trainee on the fashion desk at Queen in 1961. The magazine, owned by Jocelyn Stevens, was in its heyday; its editor was the legendary Beatrix Miller who was to have a strong and lasting influence on Allen. Allen thrived at the magazine where, with Caterine Milinaire, she created the mould-breaking fashion feature "About Twenty".
In 1964 she was lured to Vogue, where a young David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton were forging their partnership and a new magazine was emerging. At Vogue, where Beatrix Miller became editor in 1965, she developed the "Young Idea" pages and formed lasting relationships with a host of talented designers, among them Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale, Zandra Rhodes, Barbara Hulanicki and Bill Gibb. She also used the up-and-coming photographers Ron Traeger, David Bailey, Lord Snowdon, Helmut Newton and Sarah Moon, and worked closely with Vogue's art director, Barney Wan.
Allen also influenced more established members of the fashion elite, managing to persuade Cecil Beaton to photograph Twiggy on a mantelpiece. She took inspiration from the new generation of Pop artists such as Peter Blake and Allen Jones and retailers including Michael Rainey and Biba. Her ideas came from street life and advertising hoardings, from King's Road boutiques, punk and Pop and Op art.
In 1966 Marit married the American agent and film producer Sandy Lieberson. A few years later, in 1969, an extraordinary photograph of Marit by David Bailey was published in his book Goodbye Baby & Amen. Marit stares out of the page, her tiny, exquisite, delicate face calm and composed. She sits totally naked and nine months pregnant. For Mary Quant this was "a total breakthrough, courageous and important. It was the way she did it, with no hint of exhibitionism, generous, outgoing and complete." This was decades before the Demi Moore picture in Vanity Fair which created such a furore.
Through her husband, Allen had developed friendships with several film directors and she now began her first forays into the industry. As a fashion consultant on Kaleidoscope (1966) she commissioned Sally Tuffin and Marion Foale to design the costumes for Susannah York. In 1973 she designed the costumes for Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. Roeg said: "She made costumes that brought characters to life. I'll never forget the moment she brought a pair of woolly gloves for Donald Sutherland to wear on set. He looked at them and something clicked in his head. From that moment he never went out without them." It was Roeg who gave Allen her first job as a fully fledged costume designer, on Bad Timing (1980). By 1983 she was the mother of three children and divorced from Sandy Lieberson, but was launched on a new career in cinema.
Allen went on to design costumes for more than 30 films, including White Mischief (1987), about the decadent "Happy Valley" set in colonial Kenya, for which she received a Bafta nomination. Allen trawled London in search of period clothing, and travelled to Glasgow on the trail of an original moss crepe dress; even the bra which Greta Scacchi wore was a 1940s original. On set she was no less thorough, washing a pale linen suit worn by John Hurt in a solution of local mud to give it an authentically worn look.
More films followed, among them, Stalin (1992), The Secret Garden (1993), Dead Man (1995), Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and La Vie en Rose (2007). Mike Newell, who chose Allen as costume designer for Love in the Time of Cholera (2007), was amazed at the way she immediately understood what he wanted to do and "seized on the best idea". She would stop at nothing to get just the look she wanted: "She was very good at character and understood how to expand a character with the right frock."
One of her closest working relationships was with the award-winning director Ang Lee, with whom she worked on the American Civil War film Ride with the Devil (1999) and the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005). He said: "Marit Allen wasn't simply the best at what she did; she was simply the best a human being could be. She clothed her characters not to cover them with a preconceived image, but to liberate them to express everything she dreamed they could become. Her talent, her passion, her professionalism, all expressed a basic, fundamental kindness, a concern for human feeling and expression in all its forms."
Marit Allen died suddenly in Sydney where she was starting work on a new film, George Miller's adaptation of DC Comics' Justice League of America.
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