The autobiography of Mary Léon Bing


As promised, over the next month or so I intend to review many of the new fashion related books that have been published recently (and not so recently). Call it an extended holiday round-up, if you will.

First up is what equates to an autobiography by former Rudi Gernrich model (and now writer), Mary Léon Bing. The book, Swans and Pistols: Modeling, Motherhood, and Making It in the Me Generation is a wonderful read, and is – I daresay – something of a guilty treat for me. In fashion history, Bing is primarily known as a model for designer Rudi Gernreich (though Peggy Moffit is more often remembered). Both women can be seen in this video, titled Basic Black. Bings’ experience in the making of this short film is mentioned, but no great insights provided, on pgs 99-100.

Those doing research on the 1960s and 1970s world of fashion will find Swans and Pistols helpful in setting the scene and providing a cultural snapshot.  Though fashion is not the focus of the book, there are some insightful sections. (Though maddeningly, and often true of autobiographies, dates are not regularly included). True to its name, the book is very clearly written by someone of the “me” generation. It’s introspective, personal and feels real – while at the same time reminiscent of fiction. Bing is a wonderful story teller.


Photograph by Dennis Hopper, Gernreich design modeled by Mary Léon Bing.

Of particular note, is Bing’s description of a fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute just prior to Bing’s aligning herself with Gernreich.

The Great Event was (and remains) the annual Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s Spring Gala, in which costumes from the museum’s archives are shown by popular models to an audience. . . . This was usually a one-change-only show because the antique clothes were so fragile they had to be handled with extraordinary care. The dressers, who worked in the archives, wore white cotton gloves to extract eac article from its nest of tissue and the models knew they must stand as still as mannequins and allow themselves to be dressed entirely by others, like sixteenth-century royalty. No smoking, no food, no drinks in the dressing area. . . . My single change, for which I had fittings at the museum the week before the show, was a floor-sweeping dress from the period following the American Civil War. . . . One of the girls from my agency, a tall, blade-thin blond with whom I’d worked several shows, was wearing a bias-cut slither designed by Vionnet in the twenties. She gave me a fast once-over and told me I looked like Scarlett O’Hara at the end of the movie. Then she leaned in as close as she could get to all those furbelow’s and whispered something that would change the course of my modeling career: ‘Rudi Gernreich wants a model who looks like a spy.’ (79)

While an intern I the Met, I saw photographs of live models at their ‘fittings’ in historic clothes from the 1960s and remember being appalled by the idea of people wearing the clothes. Reading this passage made me no less concerned about the state of the clothes after they had been worn.

In another instance, Bing describes wearing a dress for the cover of Time Magazine. “Now years later, disparate memories pop up like spikes on a fever chart: . . . Getting into the same hot-pink knit dress with its clear vinyl inset from throat to bikini line I’d worn on the cover of Time (at the newsstands that week) and going with Rudi to a performance of Hair, where we were invited to come up onstage during curtain calls.” (99)

Time magazine, December 1967 with Bing, Gernreich and Moffit; Image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute of two dresses donated by Bing and Gernreich’s longtime companion Oreste Pucciani.

Equal time is given in Bing’s descriptions of her celebrity friends, lovers, family members, as well as the role drugs played in her life (the amount of cocaine, pot and other drugs should come as a surprise to no one, given the time period). It is the story of her life – told from the inside out. I would highly recommend it, not just to those whose interests lie in the world of fashion and fame, but to anyone interested in a good story. For some other ideas about the book, venture over to this article by Sheila Lennon, which summarizes a number of reviews that have thus far appeared for Swans and Pistols: Modeling, Motherhood, and Making It in the Me Generation.

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  • Christina Johnson November 25, 2009 10.47 am

    Oh I can’t wait to read this!

  • Heather Vaughan November 25, 2009 01.14 pm

    I thought about you a lot while I was reading this book Christina – you’ll love it. (For those who don’t know, Christina Johnson has done a good deal of research on the Gernreich archive at FIDM Museum).


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