“Well, you have to live,” Hjördis Niven wrote in 1960, “and when I saw Leja (one of the two large Nordiska Kompaniet stores in Stockholm) advertising for models, I went along. I was so scared and nervous that I felt as if I was dying. And when I found I’d been accepted, I was not one iota less nervous. In fact I was the opposite!”
“On my way out of their elegant premises, I was horrified at what I’d gotten myself into. How could I do such a job? How would I ever be able to fit into such an environment? How could I be so selfish that I could think I could wear clothes in a way that people would want to buy them? I felt that all of their well-groomed salespeople were scoffing at me as I hurried down the stairs.”
“And then it happened. Just as I set foot on the pavement and let out of sigh of relief, I stumbled and fell into the street! They say that pride goes before a fall.”
“The next day I started my new profession as a model, and began a life that would lead me along unimagined paths.”
In 1941, despite her terror and embarrassment, Hjördis was taken on by the Leja store as a student model, and promptly sent to Stockholm beauty specialist Åke Stenberg, who was asked: “to take care of the alienated young provincial girl and put some zest into her.”
“I remember a very shy girl, with loose hair and a worn beret, clutching an oilcloth bag under one arm.” he recalled in 1948. “Her boss, Mrs Stjernström, sent her to me to learn how to apply make-up. I found, to my great surprise, that this really beautiful girl hadn’t got a clue about how pretty she was. She didn’t understand at all how to present herself, and had very little self-confidence.”
“From the first moment, I found out that the modelling profession is not as rosy as many girls imagine,” Hjördis wrote. “First of all, there is the endless practising, which can finish off anyone who isn’t as strong as a horse. Then, while you’re a student, there are a thousand and one other tasks that you have to help with. So, you always have to give 100%, while remaining neat, tidy and on your best behaviour. It takes a lot of energy.”
“However, my job also included making fashion drawings of existing designs. That was something I loved, and hoped I could return to after my finishing my studies.”
“One thing I escaped learning was how to stand and walk properly, as I’ve always had good posture. Also, I didn’t have to slim myself down to be thin enough to display clothing – quite the reverse!”
Life on the bun
“My mother and Hjördis were very tight, as they grew up together,” according to Ann-Marie’s daughter Anette. “They moved to Stockholm at the same time, from the north of Sweden.”
“By now, my sister Ann-Marie had also come to Stockholm,” Hjördis concurred. “She had a place as a photography student, and a small salary – I didn’t have one at all in my first month at Leja. We lived together in a small room in Vasastan. It was wonderful to feel free, independent and self-sufficient, but what we felt most of all was hunger.”
“We never could afford to eat more than one meal a day, and sometimes not even that. Mostly, we lived on buns, and I can assure you that if you have nothing else to eat you will not get fat on buns. Whenever the opportunity arose we ate like wolves, but it didn’t happen very often, at least not enough to put on weight.”
According to Aftonbladet: “Hjördis Genberg was the youngest of a big crowd of kids who grew up in the small Östrand community outside Sundsvall. Reports from her simple home say that Little Hjördis’ appetite was the biggest of all. Her huge appetite became a difficult enemy when she travelled to Stockholm and became a model.” Though perhaps only when she had enough to eat.
The dreaded first show
Eventually, the time came for Hjördis to step out from behind the scenes at Leja:
“The moment I’d dreaded since starting at Leja. My first display. I was terribly nervous, but I knew that the first dress I’d be showing was wonderful, a dream in tulle. It suited me very well, and that reassured me to some degree.”
“The first time she modelled she was terrified,” Åke Stenberg remembered, “and I had to explain to her at least ten times how pretty she was, and that it would surely go well. And it did, among all the models, it was Hjördis who drew the most attention.” However, according to Hjördis, not for all the right reasons:
“I started my walk down the stairs and through the seemingly endless halls. I followed the others’ moves, slowly turning around so that everyone could see the dress from all sides. I looked at the customers’ faces. They looked amused. Some were even laughing. I was beside myself, desperately looking at (fellow model) Kim Andersson, and trying to copy her. It was terrible that I was doing something so wrong, but what was it?”
“I didn’t know what to do and just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. Then, thank goodness, Mrs. Stjernström came to my rescue. She quickly drew me to the side and corrected something on my attire. And when I discovered what it was, I just wanted to die!”
“The petticoat had got caught up at the back and there I was, hovering around and trying to look like a dream, while virtually naked from behind!”
“Once again, I had experienced how short the step is from the sublime to the ridiculous. And that’s probably not a bad lesson. You learn to see things in their correct proportions and it is a great help in life.”
Fear of other models
“From early on I felt at ease with the customers. I connected with them, and felt their positivity and friendliness when I showed off the clothes. On the other hand, when I started working I was terribly afraid of the other models. They all seemed so self-assured and superior. They always knew exactly what they were doing, and how they would do it, while by comparison I was hesitant and uncertain.”
“One girl who was a good friend, and helped me from the beginning, was Kim Andersson. She was the top model in Stockholm, and knew the job like the back of her hand. I was more behind than most – the others were almost all city girls, while I came from the northern countryside and couldn’t even apply everyday make-up properly.”
“I’ll never forget watching Kim while she put on her make-up before a show. I was full of wonder and admiration at how skillfully she made herself look so glamorous. I asked if she would show me how to do it. She laughed. ‘I do it because I have to,’ she said. ‘I don’t look like anything unless I make myself up properly. You, however, don’t need to do anything about your appearance – you are good enough as you are.'”
“Her words were a great encouragement for me, and she did actually teach me a lot of make-up tricks, which I greatly benefited from.”
If you look at the photo of Kim Andersson, you can clearly see the influence she had on Hjördis – probably for the rest of her life. Kim later set up a modelling school, ‘Kims Stil’, which was attended by Hjördis’ nieces Pia and Mia Genberg in 1959. I’ve seen both Kim Andersson and Hjördis Genberg described as ‘Sweden’s first supermodel’.
Confidence, vanity, and self-esteem
Hjördis quickly found her confidence, and discovered a natural talent for making herself look her best at all times.
“Rarely have I worked with such a patient model,” Mrs Stjernström told Housewife magazine in 1948. “I don’t know if it was because she liked to see herself in beautiful clothes, but she was never too ‘tired’ to try them on.”
Despite Kim Andersson’s gracious assistance, Hjördis confessed: “I’m afraid I did not always have the same humble attitude towards my colleagues, due to my growing confidence, vanity, and self-esteem.”
“Once, we were to be photographed modelling dresses at Djurgården (an island park-land in Stockholm). There were five girls, and I had the immense good fortune to be allocated a fabulously beautiful and stylish dress. When I put it on I was so pleased with myself that I couldn’t take my eyes off my reflection. I ran from mirror to mirror, announcing: ‘Oh, I look so good!'”
“This should have been enough to annoy the other girls, no matter how nice they were, but when we got to Djurgården, things got worse. The three photographers mainly focussed on me, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The other girls certainly felt, and rightly so, that I was absolutely unbearable.”
In July 1942, Aftonbladet described Hjördis as: “The leading lady among Leja’s models. She only started a year ago as a student, and has advanced very quickly.” (This is the earliest media reference to Hjördis that I’ve been able to find).
“Trying on dresses all day is tiring,” she told the journalist. “All dresses sewn in the studio must be tested on fashion models, as well as any purchased from abroad or during peak seasons. And customers always wish to see new collections demonstrated. Sometimes our legs and feet are so swollen that we can hardly get home at night. I’m lucky to have a one month vacation coming up.”
The ripples from the war surrounding Sweden were also a factor in the models’ workload. The threat of impending clothes rationing in the autumn of 1941 caused the public to “buy as never before.”
“However, I love beautiful clothes, and the modelling profession is the best there is,” Hjördis declared, before limping off to pack her bags for her break.
Next page: Hjördis in the city, 1942-1943