Barbara Mullen, who vaulted from a job in a New York beauty parlor to the pinnacle of the genteel modeling world of the 1950s, despite a beanpole figure and a gaptoothed smile that defied the narrow beauty standards of the day, died on Sept. 12 at her home in Albuquerque. She was 96.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, Lori Katz.
Ms. Mullen was 5 feet 9 inches tall and had a 20-inch waist — a figure that would have fit better with the waif look of the 1990s. Emerging in the postwar 1940s, she was a far cry from the ideal set by voluptuous Hollywood stars like Rita Hayworth.
In her later years, Ms. Mullen often said that she never thought of herself as beautiful. Early on, fashion’s string-pullers seemed to agree.
Upon meeting her, Eileen Ford, the founder of the Ford modeling agency, which would represent Ms. Mullen for years, informed her that she had a terrible profile. Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, deemed her “a big, ugly Irish girl.” When Ms. Mullen met the photographer Lillian Bassman in 1948, serving as a stand-in for a model who did not show up for a shoot, she called her “the replacement girl,” adding, “This girl is a monster.”
By the early 1950s, however, beauty standards within the industry had started to evolve, and Ms. Mullen was at the vanguard of that evolution. “There came to be a group of mannequins in the French tradition of the belle laide” — a term that translates to “beautiful ugly” — Jessica Daves, a former editor of Vogue, wrote in her 1967 history of American fashion, “Ready-Made Miracle.’’
“Barbara Mullen,” Ms. Daves added, “was the first of these to be accepted as a top mannequin. Her eyes were slightly too prominent; the proportions of her face were not those of classic beauty. But the proportions of her body were made for modern clothes. Her tiny head, long neck and delicately elongated torso were the essence of the new elements.”
Eventually, Ms. Bassman, who spent a decade shooting Ms. Mullen for Harper’s Bazaar, starting with the Paris couture collections of 1949, would declare her her favorite model.
“She came into the studio, with her shoulders down, and her head down, and her coat too long,” Ms. Bassman said in an interview done in conjunction with a 2009 exhibition of the photography of her and her husband, Paul Himmel, “and you looked at her and thought, ‘Oh my god, this girl could never be a model.’” But, Ms. Bassman added, “Put her under the lights and she would just bloom.”
Barbara Elise Mullen was born on June 3, 1927, in Floral Park, N.Y., on Long Island, the youngest of two daughters of Matthew Mullen, a bank clerk, and Izma (Shirley) Mullen, a switchboard operator and seamstress.
Ms. Mullen was 18 and working as an assistant at a beauty salon in Queens in 1945 when she took a job as a model sporting the latest fashions for moneyed shoppers at the Bergdorf Goodman department store.
She got her break two years later, when Vogue called her in for a shoot with the photographer John Rawlings to model a pink tulle dress that had been cut for her wispy figure and did not fit other models.
At first, she was nervous. “I’m not shy now, but I was then — and the camera didn’t talk back,” she said in a 2013 interview with the British newspaper The Observer. Still, she added: “You stepped into those wonderful couture dresses and you were taken out of your everyday element. We were ordinary girls, but you felt elevated.”
The resulting shot of her peering over her shoulder while seated on a green sofa, accompanied by the caption “The new beauty is part attitude,” gave her exposure in a bible of fashion, and other work soon followed. By the early 1950s she had become a go-to model for Harper’s Bazaar and many other magazines, working with celebrated photographers like Richard Avedon, Karen Radkai and Toni Frissell.
“My favorite model was Barbara Mullen,” the celebrated photographer William Klein, who worked with her in the late 1950s, said in a 2012 interview with Financial Times. “She was a tough Irish American living in Brooklyn, and she had a foul mouth.” (Mr. Klein’s geography was inexact: Ms. Mullen in fact had spent her early childhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before her family moved to Woodside, Queens.)
Represented by the powerhouse Ford agency, she began to cultivate a continental elegance in manner and speech befitting her perch near the top of her profession, Michael Gross, the author of the 1995 book “Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women,” said in a phone interview.
Even so, Mr. Gross said, “she wasn’t the era’s equivalent of a supermodel. She wasn’t Dovima, she wasn’t Jean Patchett or Suzy Parker.”
Ms. Mullen did not achieve name-brand recognition outside industry circles in part because of her “chameleon quality,” John-Michael O’Sullivan, a journalist who is writing a biography on her, said in a phone interview. “In an era when models still did their own hair and makeup, Barbara proved to have a mastery for reinvention.”
With her peak modeling years drawing to a close, Ms. Mullen moved to Switzerland in 1959 and opened Barbara’s Bazar, a boutique, in the Alpine ski village of Klosters. It proved an early showcase for designers like Kenzo and Emanuel Ungaro and lured patrons like Greta Garbo, Deborah Kerr and Princess Margaret.
Ms. Mullen leaves no immediate survivors. Her first husband, James Punderford, died in 1955. Her second husband, Fredi Morel, whom she married in 1962, died in 2019.
In a 2010 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Ms. Bassman gave further tribute to Ms. Mullen. “There are models that are not models but muses,” she said. “She had everything marvelous: a beautiful neck, grace, the ability to respond to me.”
Interviewed for the same article, Ms. Mullen recalled: “I moved very well in front of the camera. My arms, my legs — I seemed able to do anything with them — I felt absolutely wonderful when I moved with Lillian. It was like being free — it was like being in heaven.”