The socialites of yesteryear helped pave the way for today’s influencers who are famous for just being, well, famous. Also known as “It Girls”, many were born into wealth, and while some were career-driven, other massive stars of the social scene were simply professionals at making public appearances who set the fashion trends of their day. So prepare to be dazzled: it’s time to look at the characters the world couldn’t take their eyes off of.
If it can be said that socialites reflect the fashion of their time period, then London-raised Jane Birkin was certainly that for the hippie era of the late ’60s. It can also be said that she made lasting imprints on the film, fashion, and music industries, an impressive feat that’s even rare for the subjects of this list.
She was known for her musical and romantic relationship with legendary French pop artist Serge Gainsbourg (with whom she had her daughter, actress and singer-songwriter Charlotte Gainsbourg), and her roles in films such as Blowup, Kaleidoscope, and Slogan. These days, however, the British actress is probably best remembered for her impact on the fashion industry with her promotion of the “Birkin Bag,” leather tote bags which the French fashion company Hermès named after her.
As a small child, Gloria Vanderbilt was in the cutthroat crosshairs of what many called “the trial of the century,” with both her mother and her aunt battling for custody of both her and her fortune. She was the heiress to the Vanderbilt railroad fortune who immersed herself in the worlds of art and fashion, most famously designing an immensely popular brand of jeans in the 1970s as she hobnobbed with the rich and famous.
Gloria was associated with some of the leading men of her day, such as Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. It’s even been speculated that author Truman Capote based his main character (later portrayed on screen by Audrey Hepburn) on the life and style of Gloria Vanderbilt herself. Later in life, she gave birth to the well-known CNN talk show host, Anderson Cooper.
Though many socialites seek out businessmen of power, Pattie Boyd had a different kind of taste. She was drawn to musicians, a statement reflected by her longstanding marriages to guitar heroes George Harrison and Eric Clapton. In fact, there was famously quite a bit of drama between the three of them, with Beatles guitarist and songwriter Harrison learning that his wife Pattie and Clapton had secretly been seeing each other.
But while Pattie does have a reputation for being the ex-wife of the two rockers, she was also well known in the modeling industry. She simply has that prototypical look that exemplifies the sense and style of the Swinging Sixties, and her frequent appearances at events throughout London in that era cemented her socialite status.
Eva was the youngest out of the three Hungarian-born Gabor sisters, all of whom were widely known for being socialites in mid-20th century America. Although all three sisters were very famous, Eva is renowned in her own right thanks to her particularly successful film career, and her memorable portrayal of Lisa Douglas in the popular ’60s comedy sitcom, Green Acres.
You may even recognize her as an animated Disney character, voicing Duchess in The Aristocats and Bianca in The Rescuers. That being said, her lifestyle otherwise certainly bore all the signs of her being a socialite, from appearances at high-brow events to her strong influence in the fashion world. This influence is especially apparent in her success as an entrepreneur, where she marketed beauty products and clothes.
The ’60s were a time of liberation from outdated societal norms, and it presented opportunities for creative types to express themselves and pave the way for future generations. Beginning her professional life as a teenager, Twiggy was one of those “It Girls” whose modeling career influenced millions of people who came after her.
She was one of the first models who endorsed the now-common pixie cut, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Twiggy went on to venture into a music career, and managed to find her way behind the scenes in so many creative corners, so much so that she appeared on the cover of one of David Bowie’s albums, and it’s said none other than Paul McCartney wrote several songs for her.
NEXT: These socialites and their tastes in fashion and art ended up defining their eras.
Know how modern-day Instagram models are given free products simply to advertise them on their pages? Socialite Babe Paley was the embodiment of this concept back in the ’30s and ’40s, with world-class designers offering her clothes so long that she adorned herself with them for everyone to see. This helped the designers, and naturally helped Babe to be considered one of the most fashionable and best-dressed women of the time — someone who simply had to be seen.
But like many socialites from her own era or otherwise, her style wasn’t without a nice dose of strangeness, often boasting an unconventional swag that influenced a whole generation of oddballs. As the late fashion designer Bill Blass remarked: “I never saw her not grab anyone’s attention.”
Looking from an outside perspective, Princess Lee Radziwill pretty much had it all. But sometimes living three inches from greatness can be harder than observing it from afar. Being the youngest sister of Jackie Kenndedy Onassis, an immensely famous figure, Lee’s competitive fire had a tendency to break out.
She had a free spirit and a strong ambition to succeed in the film and writing industry, and gained her title of nobility thanks to her marriage to a Polish prince. On her own, she was an international socialite who influenced the world with her great fashion sense and bumped elbows with the greats of her time, famously trailing the Rolling Stones on their infamous 1972 North America tour.
Down in the murky corners of Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory in the late ’60s one could find a wildly experimental band of mad geniuses he managed, called The Velvet Underground. Within their number for a short period of time was Nico, the German singer whose frosty, ethereal, heavily-accented voice can be heard on some of their records.
Born Christa Päffgen, while she’s known for countless songs such as “These Days,” “Chelsea Girls,” and “Femme Fatale,” she was a huge influence on the fashion world as well. To be honest, anyone who was in cahoots with Warhol must have had something going for them, and Nico certainly had an aura about her. Nico considered herself to be a bohemian, leading a nomadic life that was certainly idealized in that free-thinking time period.
Nancy “Slim” Keith was a fashion icon and socialite on the New York scene, primarily in the ’50s and ’60s. She epitomized the American “jet set,” which described people whose primary purpose was to travel all around the world and simply socialize at high class, exclusive events.
Although she had a massive fashion influence on the world, when she was named 1946’s “Best Dressed Woman in the World”, she scoffed at the title, calling it “empty.” Slim Keith was formerly married to Howard Hawks, director of such classics as the original Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She unwittingly inspired Truman Capote’s writing, lived for a period with Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, and helped propel actress Lauren Bacall to stardom.
Long before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry left the Royal Family, ages before the conflict between Diana and Camilla, there was the socialite who caused a king to lose his crown. Born to a leading Baltimore businessman, Wallis Simpson was one of the first American socialites of the 20th century. Her marriage to Britain’s King Edward VIII and the scandal surrounding his twice-divorced wife caused his unprecedented abdication from the throne in 1936.
Following their departure from England, Wallis Simpson and her husband went into exile at their chateau in France, hosting decades worth of lavish parties and galas with some of the leading American and European socialites of their era. Wallis and Edward’s complex relationship with Queen Elizabeth II can be seen over several seasons of the TV show The Crown.
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If there’s someone who could give Eva Gabor a run for her money, it’s her older sister Zsa Zsa. As far as influence goes, Zsa Zsa was also a giant figure in terms of fashion trends. Simply seeing her picture in the newspaper would be enough to turn heads, and clothing designers certainly benefited from that kind of promotion.
The winner of Miss Hungary in 1936, this socialite’s undeniable appeal meant naturally men as well as women were drawn to her — and she actually got married a total of nine times throughout her life! In her autobiography, she wrote, “All in all — I love being married. I love the companionship, I love cooking for a man.”
Rock ‘n’ roll was about plenty of things that had nothing to do with music itself. Touring musicians who were weary from the road and wired on illicit substances often traveled with doting young women who were all too happy to keep them company. In the ’70s, one of these such woman was Sable Starr, the “queen of the groupie scene.”
A socialite of a decidedly different ilk than her forebears, from her daring outfits to her wild lifestyle at a young age, it eventually got to a point where the party followed her, instead of the other way around. “I always liked getting into trouble,” she later said, which might explain why she reportedly had relationships with such legendary rock stars like Iggy Pop, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and many others.
They say that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and perhaps that saying can be made apparent in the case of Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. She started her career strong, making six figures as the director of show productions for well-respected fashion company Calvin Klein.
But around the time of her relationship with John F. Kennedy Jr., Carolyn quit her job, and that’s when her reputation got a bit skewed by the media. She started to become an easy target for the paparazzi, who were hellbent on documenting every fight they went through, and every outfit she’d wear. That said, over the years she’s garnered almost mythic status as a bonafide socialite and fashion icon of the ’90s.
It can possibly be posited that Patricia Kennedy Lawford, sister of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was one of the very first feminists. Not necessarily in a loud way, her actions subtly told a story that in retrospect was clearly decades ahead of its time. When she was young, she held a dream to one day become a film producer, even though opportunities for women in the field were scarce at the time.
Her father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., wholeheartedly believed in her, saying, “Pat is the one with a head for business. She could really run this town if she put her mind to it.” Eventually Patricia achieved her dream, becoming a producer for an NBC cooking show called I Love To Eat. She entered legend status through her marriage to English actor Peter Lawford, which brought this socialite into close contact with the Hollywood Rat Pack and their antics.
Heiress to the Woolworth fortune, there was a profound duality in Barbara Hutton’s life. On the one hand, she was considered to be one of the wealthiest women in the world. On the other hand, she was said to have been constantly grappling with the effects of her truly difficult childhood, one defined by a neglectful father and a mother who took her own life when Barbara was four.
It’s been claimed that this emotionally stunted upbringing made it hard for Barbara to maintain marriages throughout her life, which ranged from actor Cary Grant to European counts and princes. And yet, on the outside she was the belle of the ball. The press portrayed her as the “lucky” one, and in that sense she was truly a socialite in everyone’s eyes. But her other nickname of “Poor Little Rich Girl” more accurately described her life.
NEXT: The iconic glamour of these socialites remains inspirational to this very day.
To be the eldest out of the three Gabor sisters is truly an honor, especially since it means heading the clan of socialites who conquered Hollywood. Like her sisters, Magda was married a handful of times — six to be exact. Her fifth husband, actor George Sanders, had actually previously been married to her younger sister Zsa Zsa!
But even though Magda was the eldest sister, soaking up the splendor of high society for all it was worth, her career had less of a focus of being an on-screen actress, as she only appeared on the big screen once, in 1937’s Modern Girls. But from a social standpoint, Magda Gabor was just as popular as they come, rounding out the trio gracefully.
The daughter of wealthy business owner Marjorie Merriweather Post, Dina Merrill was born into the General Foods fortune. But though she enjoyed her life as a socialite in the company of high society, she decided that wasn’t enough for her. Dina decided to follow her dreams, first through modeling, eventually making her way into the film industry.
With all of her connections, it wasn’t that hard for her to break into these platforms, and she soon became as much an influential figure as anyone. She also created successful beauty products, some of which were made particularly for people with sensitive skin.
Veruschka von Lehndorff, known better as simply “Veruschka,” came from a wealthy and respected family. Her mother was a countess and her father a respected army official. But despite their status, things weren’t exactly sunny in their lives. A member of the German Resistance during World War II, her father was killed after attempting to assassinate Hitler, which resulted in Veruschka’s family being homeless.
But her fortunes eventually turned around when Veruschka was discovered by modeling agencies in love with her unique look. She wasn’t perceived as the typical model. Veruschka had a very offbeat style, and actually was known for directing her own photoshoots. Her fame would later expand worldwide, and through her career and socialite status, she found herself working with world-class artists such as Salvador Dali.
When considering the impact Edie Sedgwick had on those around her, consider monumental pop artist Andy Warhol’s reaction when he first laid eyes on her at a party in 1965. According to author and magazine editor Jean Stein, who co-wrote a biography about Edie’s life, “Andy sucked in his breath and said, ‘Oh, she’s so bee-you-ti-ful,’ making every single letter sound like a whole syllable.”
It was artistic love and admiration at first sight, but the heart of this feeling wasn’t superficial. Edie was the living embodiment of the ’60s underground counterculture, rife with rebellion and liberation in her every action. This clash reflected a rough upbringing and an abusive father — but although she wore this pain on her sleeve, people claimed that it seemed to make her more appealing.
Talitha Getty was a Dutch actress and model from the ’60s who went through substantial hardships growing up. Given that she spent part of her childhood in a Japanese prison camp with her mother, her subsequent success in the world is nothing short of inspiring.
Her husband was famous philanthropist and oil heir John Paul Getty Jr., and the pair of socialites were notable figures in the ’60s Swinging London scene. In the fashion world, she was known for influencing the style of “hippie-chic”, an elegant counterculture trend that can be seen displayed most notably in a famous rooftop photo she took in Marrakesh, Morocco.
Janet Lee Bouvier was trained on how to be a socialite by her father. He taught her how to climb the social ladder by marrying up. Her first husband was John Vernou Bouvier III, a stockbroker and socialite in his own right. Together, they became the parents to 20th century icons Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.
John was wealthy, but his fortune was dwindling. Eventually, Janet would end up remarrying another stockbroker, Hugh D. Auchincloss, and having two more children with him. It was throughout this marriage that she spent most of her days as a public figure at various high-class events — even more so when her daughter married John F. Kennedy.
It seems that so many of the most iconic socialites faced similar contradictions in their lives. On the one hand, they possessed riches beyond measure. On the other hand, behind the scenes, they often had personal struggles. Doris Duke, the billionaire heiress of a massive tobacco fortune, didn’t see the appeal of living in the spotlight, yet it almost always seemed to follow her.
Back in the ’40s and ’50s, long before social media even existed, perhaps she was experiencing a taste of the personal overexposure that was yet to come for leading socialites. But whether she enjoyed it or not, Duke’s taste for luxurious items and fashionable articles of clothing wasn’t lost on America — and they were certainly influenced by her.
Peggy Guggenheim lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle decades before it even existed. You simply couldn’t be at the highest end of society without knowing her in some capacity. She also involved herself with some of the leading avant-garde artists in interwar Paris. When asked why she married Surrealist painter Max Ernst, she responded, “Because he’s so beautiful and because he’s so famous.”
However, Peggy herself also came from a great deal of wealth. Her father Benjamin Guggenheim was one of those first-class passengers who tragically went down with the Titanic. Making a name for herself as both a socialite and an art aficionado in her own right, Peggy’s incredibly prolific art collection became one of the most important galleries of early 20th century art.
She’s certainly not the first name that comes to mind when you think of the word ‘socialite.’ But for a stretch of her career, it seemed like Jane Fonda could be found literally everywhere, and was the lady to keep your eye on. Considering she’s still out and about making movies and shows, appearing on magazine covers, getting arrested for climate change protests, and giving interviews on talk shows, she’s not stopping any time soon.
Indeed, Oscar-winner Jane Fonda has been around for quite some time, and back in the ’60s her icon status was even spicier. She was the exact ‘It Girl’ that all other ‘It Girls’ wished they were, from her commanding presence on movies like Barbarella to her exercise video Jane Fonda’s Workout, which became the best-selling VHS tape of all time.
Already at the age of 18, Madeleine Astor was one of the leading socialites of her day. Together on a honeymoon in Egypt and Paris with her husband, millionaire John Jacob Astor, the couple decided they would return home to America by way of a grand adventure. They wished to board the Titanic as first-class passengers, which promised to be one of the most exciting and luxurious experiences of its time.
Of course, we all know what ended up happening on that fateful voyage. Madeleine’s husband and his valet went down with the ship. Madeleine herself, who was actually five months pregnant at the time, ended up surviving the cataclysmic shipwreck. Eventually, after a period of seclusion in her widowhood, she became even more wealthy and famous, and found new love.