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Happy birthday, Jean Shrimpton

All hail the Shrimp, youth culture's first fashion pin-up

What do you see when you think of London in the 60s? Mary Quant miniskirts, Carnaby Street, the Beatles, David Bailey, and Jean Shrimpton – a Buckinghamshire farm girl who became the face of a decade. Today, the Shrimp turns 71.

Let's be frank: as the baby boomers of the 50s and 60s grew up, got respectable jobs and became the establishment they fought so hard against, so have their youth icons – Shrimpton among them. Forty-eight years ago, the BBC would have never put on a show about a woman who dared to wear a dress 10cm above the knee at the Melbourne Cup. Last year, it devoted an entire TV movie to her (We'll Take Manhattan, starring Karen Gillen). 

In 2013, it's hard to imagine a geometric shift dress or a messy ponytail as being particularly outrageous. But Jean Shrimpton was radical, even revolutionary, for her time. Even the idea of Jean Shrimpton – the working-class daughter of a self-made builder, hoisted onto a global platform and proclaimed the new face of youth culture – was radical.

In fact, youth, as we know it now, did not exist – and the idea that being young and fabulously creative could be a cultural commodity in itself was laughable. The British class system was entrenched in all levels of society. Fashion was the exclusive province of wealthy debutantes, the kind who patronised dressmakers and looked to Paris couture. The art department of Vogue, as historian Robin Muir puts it, was run by "almost exclusively tweed-wearing homosexuals who treated women like porcelain dolls".

The height of femininity was a wasp-waisted Cecil Beaton type, immaculately groomed in hat and gloves. Shrimpton, with her gamine frame and a "who, me?" glint in her eyes, was anything but. 

Then came Young Idea Goes West, the Vogue editorial that propelled Jean Shrimpton and its photographer, David Bailey, to fame. Eschewing the posed artificiality deemed necessary for ladylike fashion, Bailey captured Shrimpton careening through Manhattan game arcades and peering through rusting chain-link fences. Diana Vreeland saw genius in both straight away. "But they are adorable," the fashion editor reportedly cried. "England. Has. Arrived." 

Vogue published 16 pages, interspersing the pages with images of Coke bottles and other Pop Art symbols. It was 1962, but the Sixties, as we understand it, had just begun – and within a few years, Shrimpton had become the world's first bona fide supermodel. 

"In terms of personal style, Jean didn’t have any," David Bailey once said. "She just dressed in any old rags. Most of the time she looked like a bag lady." If you watch the archival footage of Shrimpton at the aforementioned Melbourne Cup, you can see what he means. By this point, she's the highest-paid model in the world. She's wearing a shift dress which, by today's standards, looks positively conservative. But there's something scruffy and unpolished about her: bare legs, the flyaways escaping her ponytail, the raggedy, drooping hair bow. 

She hadn't intended on causing such a fuss; she'd only turned up in such a short dress because her dressmaker had run out of fabric. But as a result, she ended up launching a worldwide craze for the mini. Maggi Eckardt (the one in the turban) is a 60s model too, but she looks as if she was finished with lacquer. They might as be from two different planets.

Shrimpton just didn't care about turning up in PR-approved style. Yardley found this out the hard way: when the beauty brand hired her as a spokesperson (she was paid £70,000 for it, a small fortune in those days), they discovered Shrimpton at personal appearances, advising teenagers to leave their hair and skin alone instead. She was insouciant, cheeky but never starry, and didn't care a jot for fame. In her biography, she recounts how Steve McQueen marvelled at her talent during a photo shoot: "'You just turn it on and off'. I shrugged. 'It’s just my job'."

These days, Shrimpton lives in Cornwall, where she owns and runs the Abbey Hotel. She abruptly retired and retreated to the West Country in her early thirties, and has stayed clear of the limelight since. But her spirit lives on in images like the ones in the 1990s that Corrine Day shot of a young Kate Moss. In fact, in a Guardian interview, the Shrimp had this to say about Moss: "I like her. She's a free spirit. Somewhere in herself she's honest. She's a naughty girl – but you've got to have a few naughty girls." You could say the same about Shrimpton.