Inside the Collection

Carmen and Mr John

Photograph of Carmen Dell'Orefice modelling Starry Halo
Carmen Dell’Orefice models Starry Halo, by Mr John of New York, c.1955. (A9467-11/26/16)

Recently identified in the MAAS collection are twenty early career images of fashion icon Carmen Dell’Orefice modelling hats by celebrity milliner, Mr John of New York (1902-1993).

Still modelling at 85, Ms Dell’Orefice is widely acknowledged for her elegance and interpretative skill. She has appeared in the 2012 HBO documentary, About Face: Supermodels Then and Now , Bill Cunningham, New York (2011) and, more recently, on the cover of L’Officiel magazine and on Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style blog.

Carmen Dell’Orefice was discovered in New York at the age of thirteen, modelled for Salvador Dali at fourteen, and by the time she was sixteen, in 1947, made her first appearance on the cover of American Vogue. The photographer Erwin Blumenfeld then introduced her to Eileen Ford and pronounced her ‘a star’. The young model appeared on the cover of Vogue three more times before travelling to Australia for the David Jones American Fashion Parade in August 1950. In 1953-56 she was modelling for celebrity milliner, Mr John of New York.


Mr John of New York


Photograph of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney modelling Roses of Romance
Mr John, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney wearing Roses of Romance and Mr Peter Brandon, 1953. (A9467-11/17/6)


Mr John (aka John. P. John, 1902-1993), self-proclaimed ‘Emperor of Fashion’, created hats for the rich and famous for almost sixty years. His clients included Wallis Simpson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Onassis, Princess Grace of Monaco, Mrs Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and the Australian soprano, Marjorie Lawrence. His hats appeared in Hollywood films, worn by Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931), Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932), Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Born John Pico Harberger in Munich, he immigrated with his parents to the USA at the end of World War 1. He later studied medicine in Lucerne and art at the Sorbonne in Paris. As a young man he joined his mother’s Madison Avenue millinery business, Madame Laurel. In the late 1920s he formed the John-Frederics partnership with Frederic Hirst and in 1948 he established Mr John Inc. with his business partner, Mr Mathias Peter Brandon Ammann. Although best known for his millinery work, Mr John also made clothing, furs and accessories for men and women.

Mr John’s fame in the millinery world of the 1950s and 60s was compared by the New York Times to that of Christian Dior in the realm of haute couture. His marketing reach extended to Australia and on his list was Madame Louise Lamoureux, who ran a Sydney fashion house specialising in embroidery and hand-beading. Mme Lamoureux donated her archive to the Museum in 1983, including a collection of press kits and photographs from Mr John of New York, dated 1950-63.


Naming the hats

Mr John’s knowledge of art, history, literature, music and popular culture informed all aspects of his creative practice. From 1952 his collections were themed, often with reference to historical figures, well-known artists or current events. His Coronation of Spring and Summer collection of 1953 was inspired by Queen Elizabeth II’s accession to the throne. Mr John also gave individual names to his hats, possibly a source of inspiration to both clients and models.

Photograph of Carmen Dell’Orefice modelling Garden Party
Carmen Dell’Orefice models Royal Garden Party, by Mr John of New York, 1953. (A9467-11/17/2)


The eccentric milliner loved exotic birds and kept an aviary in his 70th Street apartment. The photograph of Birds of a feather, (also the name of a 16th century proverb) features Carmen Dell’Orefice with Mr John’s favourite pet parrot, Zipper.

Photograph of Carmen Dell’Orefice modelling Birds of a Feather
Carmen Dell’Orefice models Birds of a Feather, (with Zipper) by Mr John of New York, 1954. (A9467-11/1/5)


Overheard in an Orchard shares its name with an 1859 poem by Elizabeth Cheney about a conversation between a robin and a sparrow.

Photograph of Carmen Dell’Orefice modelling Overheard in an Orchard
Carmen Dell’Orefice models Overheard in an Orchard, by Mr John of New York c. 1955. (A9467-11/26/14)


An enduring career

“I’ve always considered myself a silent actress. The story line is what a photograph is all about … “

Carmen Dell’Orefice is widely recognised for her individual style of modelling. Early training in dressmaking, ballet, swimming and art may have contributed to her skills in visual communication. Australian designer Peter Alexander has likened her method to that of a Hollywood actress. Ms Dell’Orefice has worked with many notable photographers, including Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst and Norman Parkinson and acknowledges the importance of these collaborations in developing her craft. She describes her career as ‘a total fantasy, to explore shape and form and colour’ and attributes her success to understanding the synergistic dance between photographer and model, a silent language of communication, ‘like being psychic with each other.’

Today Carmen Dell’Orefice is at the forefront of changing attitudes to older women and has stated that her job now is to help redefine ageing. In a recent interview with Harper’s Bazaar magazine she said:

I’m going for 105, then I’ll see if I want to change professions …

Carmen and Mr John comprises a selection of fifteen black and white vintage gelatin silver prints, photographer/s unknown, from the studio of Mr John of New York and is on display in the Level 4 Executive Corridor (part of the MAAS  Centre for Fashion) until May 2017.




Kathy Hackett

Photo Librarian 04/11/2016

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