When I look at at early portraits of my mother taken in the 1950s I’m always shocked at how closely she resembled Jane Russell — a tribute to her styling and cosmetology skills, not her genes. She looked like Jane because she worked at it, in the same way and for the same reasons that so many girls today look like Britney or Beyonce or Selena.
Mom came of age in the late 1940s and 1950s and like many women of that period she fretted endlessly about her ‘figure’. Not her weight, her shape.
This was a time, remember, when a woman’s figure was her calling card and often her ticket to success, more important than a college degree in those pre-lib days. Smart young urban women like my mother and her friends eschewed ‘careers’ and took sales or secretarial jobs to earn enough to dress themselves for society.
The era gave them many iconic figures to admire and emulate. But while men and the media seemed besotted with Marilyn and Bettie and (later) Jayne, my mom and her girlfriends adored Liz Taylor and, above all, Jane Russell, who passed away yesterday at age 89.
There was something natural about those two buxom beauties; they had shapes that, with the right foundation garments, were achievable by many average girls.
Throughout her life, my mom never failed to comment on a woman’s ‘figure’, even when such remarks sounded awkward and anachronistic. Perhaps because she knew how hard it was to maintain the artifice, for her a woman’s shape provided insights into her character, her breeding, her station.
Again, Jane Russell was her benchmark in this rather superficial way of sizing people up. She admired Jane long after her screen career had faded and her shape softened, as much for her ballsy conservatism or her charitable work as for her pinup-quality glamour. But for her, the two were indistinguishable; that classic silhouette was simply the packaging, the visual manifestation of the inner bombshell.
(Likewise, she anguished over Elizabeth Taylor’s endless scandals and disgraces, as if Liz had somehow betrayed her bountiful birthright, that awesome shape.)
If my mother were still with us, she would have been on the phone to me yesterday, gushing about Helen Mirren at the Oscars (“What a figure!”) and lamenting the loss of Jane Russell. Mostly, she would wish that Jane be remembered and appreciated not for her body, but for the exceptional package she carried throughout her life. A true bombshell, inside and out.
With that in mind, we offer the photo gallery below from Jane’s storied life. We’ve chosen some less-familiar images, depicting the screen legend in swimwear, lingerie and a few burlesque poses. Enjoy!