08/24/2011 02:18 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011

What Makes a Fashion Icon?

What makes a fashion icon? The determining factors have changed since the 30s and 40s when Millicent Rogers was a wealthy beauty with a sense of style that left an enduring mark on the fashion world. Millicent Rogers was a beautiful Standard Oil heiress, so while her access to couturier clothes is easy to understand, her long-lasting appeal was about more than money.

There have always been women with money, but not all of them had Millicent Rogers' eye for style and the taste to go along with it. In addition, at 5'7" she had a long, lean body to rival that of any model, so she could very powerfully project her own fashion sense. Attractive society women, as a browse through Harper's Bazaar, Vogue or Town and Country in the 30s and 40s will quickly illustrate, frequently modeled top designer clothes for magazines. It was a time before ready-to-wear fashions could popularize styles in a season, and high fashion, haute couture, depended almost wholly on leading fashion designers.

Millicent's money, looks, and sense of style were a potent combination. Her self-awareness at 17 when she wore a little black dress, Chinese headdress and lacquered nails to a debutante party suggests she always knew that she had this power. Moreover, she was fond of bending the rules, always a welcome trait in trendsetters. Hers was not the sensationalism of a Lady Gaga, who plays for a large public audience, but in her time, Millicent had an exhibitionist streak suited to her world and social station. Her friend Diana Vreeland remembered the young Millicent at a debutante ball at the Ritz in the 1920s in New York. Millicent began the evening wearing a black silk dress with a bustle and train by the popular French designer of the day, Patou. On the pretext of having sat on some ice cream, she excused herself and returned wearing a robe of looped taffeta. Later she claimed that she had spilled coffee, and went off to change her clothes again, re-appearing in another enchanting fashion. The fashion world then, like now, grooved on the legend of these episodes

As Rogers' photo history shows, she had a penchant for stagey costumes that ranged from Greek empresses with flowing tresses to flamenco dancers with spit curls. It was not until the 1930s that Millicent began to take her role in fashion up a notch and develop a distinctive personal style.

Her particular style began to be noticed when she returned from Europe after living in Austria where she had taken note of Tyrolean fashions -- the dirndls, aprons, and hats of the local townspeople. She was exacting enough to go into Innsbruck and sketch the 19th century costumes that she saw in the museums, then ask the St. Anton village tailor to replicate them per her instructions -- and modifications -- when she got home. She commissioned local seamstresses to fashion jackets, dresses, peasant style blouses, quilted skirts and hats that she mixed with the high fashions of Paris designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Mainbocher. This was a time in fashion when stylesetters like Wallis Simpson (for whom the Prince of Wales forfeited the British throne), bought luxury items, including nightgowns, and expected two or three fittings before the items fit appropriately.

Millicent's Tyrolian variations were widely noted when she returned to the United States in 1938 and the fashion editors who had merely taken note of her when she appeared in their debutante and society notices now snapped to attention. She incorporated a peasant style into high fashion and became a sensation. "Byzantinely beautiful, independent in taste, she has a real sixth sense for clothes," Vogue purred over her in the January issue of 1939, adding in the same issue that she was "as soignee on skis as she is in her town clothes."

She was pioneering a freedom of style, to amend rather than follow the dictates of fashion, that would be hers through life. It was somewhat audacious for a woman to create rather than follow fashion commands in this period, when designers and fashion editors largely told women how and what to wear. Being well-dressed amounted mostly to following the rules. Largely through Millicent's example and fashion evolution, the freedom to personalize style would become the hallmark of a deeper and more lasting American approach to fashion, especially later, during her tenure in the American southwest. It was her knack for integrating into high fashion certain unrefined elements, whether Tyrolian peasant touches or Navajo Indian pieces, that set her apart. She not only had the magic touch to put together disparate pieces, but she had the bold spirit to do it in the first place. She pulled it off. She became an icon.