28 October 2008

Part Three: The Changing Show

Apologies in advance for the hefty post, I had a lot to cover and it was quite hard to condense, even to this length (currently just over 2,000 words).

It is a curious truth that whilst the broad encompassing concept of
'Fashion' has been historically documented and discussed, with many books written on the development of high heels, corsets, haute couture and 'fashion trends', one core piece of the puzzle behind this evolving and broad subject has never quite been touched upon. When asked about his glaring omission, Valerie Steele, chief curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, stated that "The topic of fashion shows remains to find its historian." I personally find it strange that it is only seldom that this issue is pointed out, considering the importance of Fashion Weeks worldwide, with their role in literally announcing the future of fashion in our time.

Modelling is a concept inherent within our contemporary fashion industry. It is no understatement that everything from upcoming trends to the global economics behind the fashion industry are formulated by a miniscule number of men and women designing their artistic collections to show to the world in a matter of minutes down a catwalk. The eyes of the media are literally focused on the clothing the models carry down that runway, yet this focus also inevitably brings the models themselves into focus. The clothes and designs these men and women display during these shows become marvellous concepts and inspirations, and for the lucky few actual outfits, becoming exemplars of the height of our concepts of fashion, style and beauty. Yet another subconscious, yet more often than not quite glaring, result is that the models themselves, or to be more precise their bodies, are also held up in becoming this contemporary ideal of beauty.

Fashion Models are thought to have originated from one woman in mid-nineteenth century Paris. This woman was Marie Vernet Worth, the wife of the 'Father of Haute Couture' (click for previous post) Charles Worth. Oddly however, despite the huge success of Worth and his wife, modeling did not increase during this early period. During the late ninteenth and early twentieth century modeling was not seen as an acceptable profession, as such they were respected as individuals, merely being seen quite literally as living mannequins.

Views were however to change in 1924, when French fashion designer Jean Patou decided to exclusively use white American women to model his clothing. His decision was made in an attempt to allow his clients to identify more with his designs, given that his major clientele base was that of wealthy American women. This decision would prove in helping the profession to become more socially acceptable, with the stigma behind it quickly dying down. Indeed this change was cemented with the openings of modeling agencies in both England and America shortly after, where the women contracted were far from the slender and tall models we see today.

(Interestingly Jean Patou would also help in creating another dramatic change in the fashion industry, more accurately the concept of branding and creating a consumer base. Following the Wall Street Crash, the House of Patou found that the sale of Haute Couture understandably fell dramatically. As a result of this decline, Patou decided to keep the House afloat through the sale of luxury perfumes. Through these sales, the House that was seldom able to sell luxury clothing, was able to provide cheaper snippets of the exclusivity their brand held. This is still the case today where the majority of high end brands make the majority of their money through the sale of cosmetics and perfumery, and other such 'smaller' goods.)

Following the Great Depression, the onset of another global event would help shape the fashion industry, which began with the September 1939 invasion of Poland under the orders of Adolf Hitler. In June 1940 the Germans would advance onto France and with the help of the Italians the country would fall in a matter two weeks. During the 1930s the Haute Couturiers of Paris would display their collections on their chosen models, and it was from these displays that the concurrent American fashion market for a specific season was materialised. However once Paris was under the control of the Axis, it became impossible for the Americans to visit and seek their inspiration. This led to much concern as it was uncertain whether the American fashion industry could continue without the input of French Couture. However in 1943 a well known fashion publicist by the name of Eleanor Lambert organised an event known as 'Press Week'.

Press Week was an opportunity for editors to view and write about the American fashion designs. The journalists and editors actually stayed on site, which was originally simply a hotel, which allowed them to view each and every show in order with little need to rush between tents and events as is the case today. Interestingly the buyers were not present at shows, having to view the collections later on, however this exemplifies the core importance of writing and discussion about the American designs above all else. This development of an 'American style' was also helped along by the lack of the French Couture influence, which allowed for the designers to work on their own fresh ideas and sartorial techniques.

Interestingly, during this period the models were often deemed as 'short and stocky', such as those chosen by Cristobal Balenciaga. However during the war 'ordinary' looking models were chosen to walk with a smile in order to boost the overall social mood of the time. This also allowed the modeling industry to grow to encompass a greater variety in models and looks. These models were not paid a great amount at the time, however a certain number of more publicised models began earning incredibly large amounts for their work.

Arguably one of the first ever 'Super' models is thought to be Lisa Fonssagrives, who appeared widely in shows and in high fashion magazines from the 1930s to '50s. However another model would appear in the 1970s, more widely respected as the first supermodel, earning the title of highest paid model, making around $2,000 a day. This model was Janice Dickinson, who was shot for the covers of some of the most famous European fashion magazines of the time, including Vogue and Cosmopolitan. During the 1960s and 1970s various other models would gain access to her highly regarded fashion company, namely Twiggy and Cheryl Tiegs. Models were gaining social popularity, with popular photoshoots and interviews in magazines exposing their 'glamourous' lifestyles, whilst also allowing to humanise them, essential to gaining wider fame and popularity.

The supermodel era was to expand into the 1980s and 1990s, with names such as Claudia Schiffer, Elle Macpherson, Crindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell. By this time, these models were regarded far more as general celebrities, so to speak. However by the advent of the 21st century and our current times, the era of the supermodel was to decline, with the advent of famous celebrities becoming branding tools. The popularity of singers, actors and other celebrities meant that they were also employed into fashion campaigns, essentially declining the need for supermodels, although arguably there are still a number of these.

As previously mentioned, the models came, along with the clothing they wore, to encompass the contemporary ideal of fashion and beauty. As such, recording the trends in 'model type' is also key to understanding our current concept of 'beauty' in mainstream media. It has already been noted that the period during World War Two saw the rise in 'ordinary' looking models in order to help buyers easily identify with the clothing and popular silhouettes during a tough period in the history of the fashion industry.

The recurrence of the 'Gibson Girl' (click for previous post) ideal, the personification of the ideal of beauty, of the early twentieth century, in the form of the Pin Up in the 1950s had a major impact on the modeling of fashion. The original Gibson Girl ideal was used when the Swan Bill corset, the last of the actual corsets, was in fashion, it promoted an exaggeration of the female form, a highly curvaceous body with cinched waist and an ephemeral beauty with upswept hair. In the 1950s this ideal returned however in a far more natural state, as designers such as Coco Chanel used more 'ordinary' shaped models in reaction to the threat of clash during the Cold War between the US and Soviet USSR.

The rise of the slimmer models would arguable begin the the late 1950s in a London subculture. Gathering influence from the migrant cultures of Jamaica, the musical history of the African Americans and British Beat music, the 'modernist' influence would rock the fashion industry of the 1960s. During the 1960s this influence was shortened by the media to 'Mod' and used as a general term for all things fashionable. The design aesthetic under this influence called for slimmer models, and this would continue to be an influence through the fashion industry. This was helped by the 'mod revival' in the UK during the late 1970s and in America in the early 1980s.

The trend for thinner models continued into the 1980s, however one event towards the end of the decade was to have an unprecedented social and historical impact on the world as a whole. On 9th November 1989, a concrete wall that signified the literal barrier between two opposing ideologies was torn down in Berlin. Germany would be reunified on 3rd October 1990, and this in turn would lead to the end of USSR in 1991. Gorbachev would help to dissolve the Soviet Union and end the Cold War, a period that had made up much of and help define the latter half of the 20th Century.

With the end of the USSR and their policy of heavily regulated borders, the West would gain an insight into the previously hidden East, followed by the migration of people from East to West with the promise of a better life. This would have a hige impact on the fashion industry, exposing new concepts of beauty to the West. However what this new ideal was not an Eastern ideal, it was rather an ethnocentric ideal. It was the creation of a new concept of beauty, taken from the East, from a Western viewpoint. The new ideals of modeling would be developed by this enthocentric analysis, seeing an untapped beauty, hidden in the rough and waiting to be discovered. It was if anything an ideological reevaluation of beauty and a new standard for models.

This impact can still be seen today with a prevalence of young Eastern European and Russian models, helping to form a new standard for modeling, that of 'unusual' beauty, in light of their past hidden from Western eyes and influence due to the political climate.

It is an odd fact that models are held as the ideal of beauty, given that their primary function is to model clothing. They are specifically chosen to wear designs, in order to allow the world's media and fashion industry to see the movement of clothing and see the functionality behind it, essentially how those garments can be worn. It is curious in that the models are there to wear the clothes, which is the main focus, the model ideally, should not detract attention from the garment. Therefore logic would dictate that the model would have to be an 'expected' look, in order not to interfere with the display of clothing. This would suggest that the models can not be the ideal of modern beauty, as it is the clothing that primarily retains the attention, not the looks of the model. It is only secondary commentary that discusses the body shapes and looks of the models, and usually only to criticise those, as the debate highlighting the excessive thinness of current models shows. As the name implies they are there to 'model' the clothing, therefore could the world's most beautiful women truly do this without detracting attention from the garments, or more accurately welcome comments of the garments 'adding' to their own beauty?

Currently playing: On The Rock - Mavado / I Feel Like Dying - Lil Wayne / Caterpillar - The Cure



  1. quite an amazing post. this one you should really get paid for doing. such extra-ordinary change in the whole fashion industry over the ages.

    Very educational and lovely post.

  2. This is fascinating. I knew of Worth and his wife's work for him, but I never really gave a thought to catwalks and their beginning.
    Will you be the first historian to publish a work on fashion shows...?

  3. i completely admire your knowledge on the history of fashion and models! and i think that the models beauty definitely adds to an outfit.


  4. Thank you for another great post, Dapper! I really enjoyed this one:)


  5. You have a way with words, I love your articles. By the way, I thank you for the vlogging, you inspired me to get into making them myself! :)

    xo/ fashion chalet

  6. wow, janice dickinson was pretty, actually. i can't believe it ;)

  7. such a pretty pic of Dickinson, lovely and educative post--great read.

    Ps: thanks for the compliment :)

  8. well-researched and well-written! it's fascinating how body ideals change over time, and the ideal model look too.

  9. Facinating & educative... fashion world is never boring indeed!
    This is one long GREAT post!!

  10. oh what a long post I really really like the beginning, but I have to read the rest later on, because I have no time´right now... I'm looking forward to it :)

  11. great post. perfect way to spend my lunch break.

    love your writing.

  12. Looks like it found its historian.

  13. Amazingly insightful post, supermodels just intregue me so much, thanks for shedding some more light on them!

  14. This is such an intriguing topic, DK! There is definitely a dearth of info. on this subject, and you are just the fashionista to fill the gap. You may just be the next ALT!!
    Keep up the inspired writing, darling :)


  15. thanks for the comment on WWT! Don't worry, I have a few more posts up my sleeve...

  16. you said earlier that u were gonna do this...n i said to myself *i'll wait n save thE post n read it when i have free time* so, thats wat i'll do.. and come back with a real/proper comment...heheh

  17. Wonderful posts... I really admire your knowledge of fashion world :)

  18. This is fine work. I wonder about the influence of models over time; I suppose the more we see a particular face, the more influence s/he has on the clothes, and not the other way around. I think with models appearing in so many places, in so many forms of media, the old definition of "model" ceases to exist. What do you think?

  19. I don't know to which extent I agree on the model's face correlation with the clothes...
    I think it mostly influences a "look" and that goes to the streets
    think Moss and waifish thin-ness
    Tyra and the giant boobs
    Gisele and the beach hair

  20. So will you be writing a series on how 'men's fashion' started?

    Great stuff.

  21. Amazing post you made! Can't wait for more, it's very interesting. :)

  22. nice post,
    crazy about that janice cover

  23. Amazing post my dear!you are right,there is a plethora of books on fashion history but i have not come across any on the genesis of the Model.i find it fascinating how the body types of models has dramatically changed over the decades with the ever changing trends. Good ol' Janice Dickinson is always reminding everyone how shes the first super model hehe
    great post.

  24. This is an incredible piece of work, DK. I don't know the current world of fashion actually deserves this kind of fine observation and dissection. Maybe I'm being a real cynic.

    We have super and top models and people do get used to their faces and certain looks (even when designers try to display their own art). It's good and bad I guess. Good in a way because they add familiarity and make fashion easy to understand. Bad because we only see their faces..

  25. you always do such great informative posts.

    but one thing, janice was more of a late 70s to 80s time model.

    she was absolutely beautiful back then, but i still think she's a tad delusional with being the 1st supermodel.
    twiggy had her own lunch boxes for crying out loud!

  26. funniest thing about janice, i was flipping through the channels this morning to get to the weather channel and i saw janice on one of those morning people's court shows!! apparently, she was being sued by one of her models from her agency for defamation of character.
    the judge ruled in janice's favor. but it was a pretty random thing to see, esp. since i had been thinking about her since this post.

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