Name to a face

Sometimes appearing six or seven times in the same edition of a high-fashion glossy, June Duncan from Liverpool was one of the leading models of the 1950s. But until now her story was little known

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“To be a successful photographic model, one need not have beauty, but good bone structure and an unusual face are far more useful,” wrote June Duncan in her unpublished memoirs. Flick through a copy of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Tatler or Harper’s Bazaar from the early 1950s and you’ll most likely come across that striking bone structure on its aging pages. Credited will be some of the most high-profile photographers of the decade – John French, Eugène Vernier, Hans Wild or Noel Mayne – but Duncan will not be, as was the norm for models in the post-war era of ultimate femininity.

Despite working extensively as a high-fashion model throughout the 1950s Duncan’s story is little known, even locally in her hometown of Liverpool. An exhibition at Lady Lever Art Gallery in nearby Wirral now seeks to rectify that. Alongside costumes of the era, Model Image is a display of 90 photographs, taken between the 1930s and the 1950s, which chart her life from Liverpool child actor to glamorous cover girl.

“Not being in this queenly clan, I had to keep my place at the top by interpreting the things I wore.”

“I had never heard of June when her sister Barbara got in touch with the Museum of Liverpool a couple of years ago,” says curator Pauline Rushton. “She sent them some information about June – photographs and a copy of the unpublished memoirs, which is really just her recollections. My colleagues referred it to me and that’s when I saw this great collection of photographs that I thought would make a great exhibition.”

Familiar with Lady Lever’s archive of vintage fashion magazines Rushton says she recognised Duncan instantly. “It struck me that these images we’ve got are not online – they’re not out there. Although she was prolific – and sometimes she appears in print six and seven times in one edition – nobody’s trawled them and put them online. I now have a big archive of my own.”

Duncan was born in 1924 in Mossley Hill. Little is known of her family but her memoirs reveal a comfortable upbringing. She recalls servants who cared for her as a child and summer-long holidays with her paternal family on the Isle of Man, and mentions that her mother attended Liverpool University in the early 1920s. She could dance before she could read and as a child became familiar with the spotlight on the stages of Liverpool’s theatres.

“She was quite a nervous child and quite clingy to her mum, so she was advised at age three to go to dance classes as a way of giving her confidence,” says Rushford.

“I sat cringing beside my mother as the other children waltzed, galloped and polka’d up and down the room, ending the lesson with ballet exercises,” wrote Duncan about her reluctance to join in the classes. But once she got over the initial shyness she found she had a natural talent. “By the age of four I had passed two ballet exams with honours.”

From a dance school Duncan moved on to attend Elliott-Clarke Performing Arts School – reputed in Liverpool for producing professional dancers and still going today. She won competitions there and, as a result, singing and dancing parts in local theatres.

Like many of her peers, she chose to join the war effort. With much effort, she began working in the Women’s Royal Naval Service at 17. “I tried for the third time to pass my medical for the Wrens, having failed due to being underweight,” she wrote.

“She was naturally very skinny and lightweight,” says Rushton. “She was a dancer, so very graceful and quite birdlike, but very tall – about five foot 10. When she started modelling she was a 32-inch bust, a 19-inch waist and a 32-inch hip.”

But Duncan was not immune from the self-criticism that afflicts models today. Although pragmatic in tone, she wrote: “Some girls were ravishingly beautiful but they had to have every finger and eyelash posed for them. Not being in this queenly clan, I had to keep my place at the top by interpreting the things I wore, and acting out dozens of poses created from within myself.”

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She credits herself with stamina too, writing: “Not many models liked posing for fashion artists. The work was a great physical strain, because one had to hold a pose for hours without moving. I enjoyed this branch of the profession and met some marvellous and talented people.”

When the men returned from war there was an active effort to encourage women back into the home, but Duncan broke with convention and headed to London alone to finish her training for the stage, with hopes of becoming an actor. She attended classes while living in actor’s digs and in 1947 joined a dance troupe at variety venue the London Casino. It was hard work, with two shows nightly and three on Saturdays and eventually she decided the stage was not for her. By 1948, aged 24, she began modelling, taking a short course she described as “a complete waste of time and money”.

“It entailed walking round with a book on my head… we were taught how to undo coat buttons, remove a jacket and carry gloves, bag and umbrella.”

Eventually, through renowned modelling agent Jean Bell, Duncan secured work and by 1951 was modelling clothes, furs, stockings, shoes and cosmetics in the biggest fashion periodicals of that time – which still are today. Travel was suddenly a part of her life.

“Paris twice a year was a must for models,” she wrote. “The clothes were out of this world, but one had to be terribly thin to fit into them… I went into most of the haute couture houses. It was an exotic world, dedicated to the adornment of women.”

But it was hard work too. “There were lots of bits and pieces to prepare for photographic sittings,” wrote Duncan. “One’s underclothes had to be spotless, shoes polished and well heeled. Gloves and jewellery neatly packed in one’s case and the right skirts or hats for the appropriate job. The magazines, of course, provided all these things, but on other sessions we had to provide our own.”

It was not only meticulous work but physically demanding and sometimes lonely. “It was seldom one had anything but sandwiches to exist on all day when working, and at night I was too exhausted to start cooking. People imagine that models lead a glamorous and exciting social life, but when I started, I knew no one in London and spent many nights alone.”

“It’s a thing models say today,” says Rushton. “It looks glamorous on the outside but today it’s a lot of sitting in hotel rooms and on planes on your own. June had the same experience except she was in a bedsit on her own. She was away from her family in London – she wanted them to be nearer to her.”

Although she worked hard and prolifically Duncan acknowledged her career was in the hands of the all-powerful photographers who she said could “make or break a model”. She counted herself lucky to have had some “marvellously creative photographic sessions, and some hilarious ones too. Without these photographers I would not have been so successful.”

Moreover, Duncan disclosed, she wasn’t well paid. “I never made any money out of modelling – no more than two guineas an hour or 10 guineas a day.” This was better than the average worker but her work was not regular.

Her modelling represented the epitome of 1950s femininity – demure with cinched waist and strung pearls – but even when she married in 1956, at 32, Duncan did not conform to social expectations and give up her career for a life of domesticity, and she did not have children. She continued to model under her maiden name, only giving up, she wrote, when she believed she had “gone over the hill”.

“She became a receptionist at Harpers Bazaar, and then she got a job as an assistant fashion editor with them,” says Rushton. “But she couldn’t take it – the tight schedules that fashion editors were on – and she talks about the drama in the office. She just felt as though it made her ill so she gave up the job on doctor’s orders. I think it was what we’d call stress today.”

Duncan moved into retail, working in a leather shop in Dover Street, London before retiring with her husband to Sidmouth, Devon, where she became a theatre critic on her local paper. Her husband died in 1987 and she moved back north, to Cheshire, to be near her sister. Duncan died, aged 90, in 2014. Her sister Barbara has assisted the exhibition through conversations with Rushton, but is in poor health and was unable to attend the opening.

While her career had its pitfalls, Duncan evidently enjoyed the cachet of appearing on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair. “What mattered above all else was the prestige of the magazine,” she wrote. “Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if I dreamed those heady days at the peak of my career in the glamour and fashion world of the 1950s.”

Model Image is at Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight until April 2018 (

‘An impressive type of woman in pre-feminist britain’

Julie Summers, Liverpool-born historian and author of Fashion on the Ration: Style in the Second World War, says Duncan’s tale of independence is extraordinary for its time

From the perspective of today, when supermodels are known by their forename alone and are usually more famous than the photographers who create their image on the front covers of our fashion magazines, it seems extraordinary that in the 1950s it was the other way round. The fashion photographers of that era were kings and queens. They could make or break a model’s career and they even held the fashion editors in their thrall.

There is a story from this era when Norman Parkinson announced to Vogue’s editor, Audrey Withers, that he wished to fly two helicopters over the Houses of Parliament, one for him and one for the model who would be leaning out over the gothic spires below. Money was no barrier to Parkinson’s dreams. Fortunately the savvy Withers had the sense to call the House of Commons and was told that air space above Parliament was restricted. The shoot could not go ahead. It is a light-hearted example but it is telling that in all the correspondence about this episode, the model’s name was not mentioned.

June Duncan belonged to an extraordinary post-war era when the world was still licking its wounds after the most destructive war in history but the seeds of hope in the future were beginning to grow green. She represented an impressive type of woman in post-war pre-feminist Britain who would not be cowed by the government’s determination that a woman’s place was in the home. Through force of character, and undoubted natural beauty, she succeeded in carving out and above all maintaining a career in the tough world of male-dominated fashion for over a decade. It is an inspiring story and all the more so because, although her face is familiar to many, we only now learn her name.


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