Barbara Cushing Mortimer Paley, known as “Babe”, was born on July 5th 1915. Though all the Cushing’s married well and gained popularity in society circles, Babe made her mark as a style icon.
After making her official debut during the Great Depression, Babe was often featured in the society pages, alongside other members of prominent and wealthy New England families.
Paley worked as a fashion editor at Vogue, and married oil heir Stanley Grafton Mortimer Jr. in 1940. In 1941, Babe received the title of the World’s second best dressed woman, after Wallis Simpson, in TimeMagazine, and was also added to the best-dressed list in 1945.
Her marriage to Mortimer Jr. ended in 1946, and in the same year she met William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. Though Paley craved entrance to New York’s high society, and certainly had the money to match his ambitions, he remained shut out. Babe was well connected, and adored; paired with Paley’s substantial wealth, they made a fine match and were married in 1947. Together they lived an idyllic lifestyle, spending their weeks in their apartment at the St. Regis, designed by Billy Baldwin, and their weekends at Kiluna Farm in Long Island. The Vogue editor also kept a fine circle of friends, including Truman Capote who noted Paley as one of his “Swans”; a selection of society’s elite and most glamorous women. Capote once said, “Babe Paley had only one fault, she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” Truman was said to be her one true confidante, until their friendship ended after she read excerpts ofAnswered Promises, which aired the dirty laundry of New York society.
Vogue once commented that Babe had a “special talent for wearing clothes.” She gained access to designer clothes and often received gifts in exchange for her coveted status. She was known to buy entire haute couture collections from fashion houses such as Givenchy, though she often paired expensive clothing and fine jewelry with inexpensive costume pieces. Oscar de la Renta recalled her style stating, “Whatever she wore, she wore in a way you would never forget.” She kept her place on the best-dressed list fourteen times before entering the Fashion Hall of Fame is 1958. Her beauty signature was her alabaster skin paired with a fiery red lip. Later in life she let hair her turn grey rather than using dye to cover it, a statement that was heavily copied by other American women. In all accounts of her style, Babe Paley’s manner of dressing has been deemed elegant, effortless, aspirational and crisp. She favoured twin sets, prim skirts, silk scarves, and pearls: all customary tools for any would-be society darling.