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The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman, Model, Muse, Spy

My bedtime reading for the last month has been something of a guilty pleasure: Rather than making me sleepy, it keeps me on the edge of my seat and is a fascinating true tale of a real-life bond girl with brains, independence, and beauty.

The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman – Model, Muse, Spy by Jean-Noel Liaut, translated by Denise Raab Jacobs (Rizzoli, September 2013) is the deftly told story of the world’s first bi-racial model (Javanese and Chinese), who was also a spy, and who was openly bi-sexual, and who also served time in WWII concentration camps, and was influential in the career of artist Francis Bacon.

Her work within the world of Fashion (with a capital F) is detailed here in riveting and creative narrative, and much of that time is in my favorite time period (aesthetically): the 1920s and 1930s. From the designers she worked with, to the Parisian socialites who became her friends: She was an It girl, to be sure.

Toto worked for a brief six months for Chanel in 1930 as a house model, appearing in just one show for the 1930-31 fall/winter collection, “Which featured sober antelope coats and fluid evening dresses with backs that evoked peacock tails.” (24)

She quickly went on to work for Marcel Rochas, and following that Mainbocher (who would become her favorite designer). She even became a ‘jockey:’

The term used for a young woman–model, actress, or socialite–who wore their ‘colors,’ representing them [designers] in Parisian society. And Toto was everywhere: at the opera, at the Longchamp and Auteuil racecourses for the pesages, in nightclubs such as Chez Bricktop and at galas hosted by Jean Patou.” (26)

Toto Koopman models a gown by Augustabernard for photographer George Hoyningen-Huene in Vogue's September 1933 issue.

Toto regularly wore clothes from the most important designers of the 1930s: Chanel, Vionnet, and Schiaparelli. “Always drawn to eccentricity, Toto added quirky accessories, such as gloves with red lizard skin between the fingers, intentionally made to look like diseased skin–definitely Schiaparelli” (47-48)

She also worked steadily with some of the worlds most famous fashion photographers: including George Hoyningen-Huene, Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton. She first worked with Hoyningen-Huene in 1932, and he considered Toto an ideal model for the designs of Vionnet, Augustabernard, and other designers focused on neo-classicism.

The dresses hugged the curves of the body like a second skin, making it impossible to wear undergarments. To avoid indecency, Toto powdered her breasts and pubic area so that the fabric would not cling to those parts of her body.” (39)

Her work with Honingen-Huene appeared in Vogue often, and she even appeared on the cover. Outside of the long hours at the photography studio, Toto would spend little time with the other models – except for Lee Miller. The pair would remain friends and Miller’s surrealist sense of humor amused Toto. Some of Toto’s other friends included some giants in the Paris social scene. Women who shopped at Cartier and Schiaparelli, and who threw eccentric parties at a time when surrealism (and eccentricity) ruled. Bettina Jones, Roussy Mdivani, Salvador Dali, and Jean Cocteau were among her social set.

The Many Lives of Miss K: Toto Koopman – Model, Muse, Spy is a fascinating read, not only for the sections pertaining to fashion, but also for the historical context they provide for this time period. Despite the glamorous aspects of her life, there are some parts of this book that detail the hard, cold facts of The Resistance, World War II, and Concentration Camps, and while difficult to read it makes the story of Toto Koopman that more amazing, intriguing, and thoroughly fascinating. I’d encourage any fashion historian interested in the war and interwar years to pick up a copy.

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