Marit Allen: 'Vogue' fashion editor and costume designer on 'White Mischief' and 'Brokeback Mountain'

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.

Sandy Boler

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore