At the end of the first episode of Netflix’s Halston, the American designer (convincingly played by Ewan McGregor) welcomes an unnamed buyer into his showroom and unveils his latest creation: a collared shirt-dress made of Ultrasuede, a synthetic fabric that mimics the feel of suede. Halston claims this poly blend can withstand the elements and seamlessly transitions from day to night — making it perfect for a woman on the go.
The buyer turns out to be Barbara “Babe” Paley (Regina Schneider), a tastemaker and society mainstay. She buys a dress in every color.
Though this scene in Halston isn’t wholly accurate (Halston didn’t invent Ultrasuede, but he did put it on the map), Paley did indeed play an important role in Halston’s career.
The real Paley was extremely stylish and, according to those who knew her, “perfect.” Writer Truman Capote once said of the American socialite: "Mrs. P. had only one fault: she was perfect. Otherwise, she was perfect.” Below, an overview of Paley’s professional life, and her relationship with Halston.
Paley was once an editor for Vogue.
Paley wasn’t just a fashion investor or bystander — she also had a direct hand in shaping the trends of the time. She was hired as a fashion editor for Vogue in 1938, a position she held for almost ten years. She left Vogue upon marrying her second husband, William S. Paley, in 1947, though she remained known for her style and elegance.
“She was looked at for not just how she dressed, but how she behaved, her manner of speaking ... [or] her manner of gesturing,” said Vanity Fair special correspondent Amy Fine Collins. “It was just part of this extreme elegance that was reflexive with her.”
She was regularly featured on “best dressed” lists.
When it came to personal style, Paley held herself to a high standard. In 1941, she was listed as the second best dressed woman in the world by Time. By 1958, she was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, and was later named the Super-Dresser Of Our Time in 1975 by Eleanor Lambert. Even decades after her death, she’s still regarded as a fashion icon.
She wasn’t the only one who invested in Halston’s early career.
The Netflix series shows Paley as primarily interested in Halston’s Ultrasuede shirt-dress, but she was in cahoots with the designer before then. And she wasn’t the only one: fellow celebrities and fashionistas like Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy-Onassis, and Catherine Deneuve all helped the designer’s eponymous label when it seemed on the brink of collapse early on — before the Ultrasuede garment came on the scene.
Her life was as glamorous as it was tragic.
The Paley seen in pictures is poised and opulent, but her life was also plagued with scandal. Her husband Will was notoriously unfaithful to her, and she suffered for it. She was also a frequent figure in the tabloids, who exploited her image as socialite and fashionista. A heavy smoker throughout her life, Paley died of lung cancer at age 63 in 1978.
As Collins said for Vanity Fair, “In the lists of these best dressed women, over and over again we find an element of tragedy to their glamour. Maybe that’s part of what makes the glamour … there’s kind of a shadow there along with all the shininess and prettiness and flawlessness.”
Stream Halston now on Netflix.