If you have read our article about technical innovations , you should already know that fashion and its various techniques have always existed — ever since the Neanderthal man. Models for painters and sculptors too have long been around. Fashion models, however, only surfaced once garments started to be sold. They are now one of the most watched phenomena and continue to fascinate everyone all around the globe, some of them even having millions of followers on social media.
So let’s go back in time to discover the origins and evolutions of a captivating social concept…
The word “model” comes from the Latin “modulus”, which meant “small measure” or “standard”. Indeed, models used to be seen as standard representations of objects or people.
In French, the word for “model” is “mannequin” and its etymology gives even more knowledge about the origins of fashion models. “Mannequin” comes from the Dutch “mannekijn”, a word used to designate “little men”. Since women were not allowed to go out in public during the Middle Ages in the region of Flanders, squires and pages — young noblemen — were the one wearing and displaying new fashion creations to the rest of the court.
“LA POUPÉE MANNEQUIN”
As you probably know, France has played an enormous role in the development of fashion and was — still is — a world reference thanks to the savoir-faire and sense of style that the country has always shown.
In the 16th century, French craftsmen started creating dolls for the children of aristocracy. A few decades later, these “poupées” — French for “dolls” — were named “poupées mannequins” and started being used to promote French couture around the globe. Potential clients could receive these dolls, see garments from up close, touch the high quality fabrics and place an order.
The poupées continued to evolve. With always more details and more worldwide notoriety, they even were called the “Parisiennes” as Paris was already the capital city for fashion at that time.
The poupées mannequins were the preferred method to showcase clothes, up until around 1750 when the first wooden dress forms — human size- appeared. But at this point, still no lively models…
Charles Frederick Worth was a French dressmaker who still is considered to be one of the founders of modern “haute couture” as we know it today. In 1858, he asked his wife, Marie Vernet Worth to model his creations, and thus launched the beginnings of modeling as a profession. Marie Vernet Worth wore her husband’s garments as a full-time job, in public, to attend various mundane events. As Charles Frederick Worth’s business grew, she started to train other women to model as well and their Paris fashion shows rapidly became eagerly awaited representations.
The first fashion models did not have to meet strict beauty standards : they showed diversity in terms of physical appearance in order for designers to show variety in their creations. In France, they were even called “sosies”, which means “doppelgangers”, because they had to make the customers identify with them.
However, the modeling activity was accepted for Marie Vernet, as Worth’s spouse, but for other women, modeling was dishonoring : indeed, they made a living from their bodies, which was rapidly compared to prostitution. The contempt was not even justified since models wore black sheath dresses underneath the garments in order to be perfectly modest and to show no skin.
THE BEGINNING OF THEIR RENOWN
It is at the beginning of the 20th century that models finally started to know the fame that they have today. In 1923, the first modeling agency was founded in New York City and in 1928, the first modeling school was built in the United Kingdom. Models finally were allowed to give the garments a little bit of character. Their careers could be composed of more diverse tasks such as walking for fashion shows or posing for illustrated magazines.
Paul Poiret, a renowned French fashion designer defined models as “women who should be more than women”. This illustrates the beginning of models being the reference for beauty standards. In the early 20th century, the criteria were slim and slender bodies with small breasts and hips. Of course, as all trends, this evolved a few decades later. Models displayed hourglass silhouettes with thin waist and larger breasts and hips. The 1940’s marked the birth of the first “big names” : Barbara Goalen, Bettina Graziani and Lisa Fonssagrives booked highly-paid deals and were the three names on everyone’s lips. For example, Lisa Fonssagrives appeared on more than 200 Vogue covers and was the first model on the cover of the Times. This was the tipping point : models became enviable.
MODELS BECOME MUSES
Customers stopped wanting models to look like them : they wanted to look like the models. As early as the 1950’s — not the most feminist decade — Suzy Parker was the first to earn more than 100 000 $ per year, a tremendous amount of money for that time. Lauren Hutton was the first model to land an exclusive partnership with a beauty brand — Revlon — which has made exclusive contracts with brands become the goal for any model.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, models inspired all types of artists. Some photographers required big names for their photoshoot and artists for their masterpieces — Twiggy was a highly-requested model and Andy Warhol worked with Edie Sedgwick for example.
Before the 1970’s, models were separated in two categories : fashion show models, who walked the runway and cover-girls who were photographed for magazines and advertisements. In 1972, Ralph Lauren shook these rules up by hiring advertising-looking models for his fashion shows. This is when models’ careers started to have even more range and visibility. At the same time, there also was room for a little bit more diversity : the first black models gained popularity. You have surely heard about Donyale Luna or Grace Jones : huge names in the fashion and art industries. Some of them — Naomi Campbell and Iman included — even obtained the “Supermodel” status.
THE SUPERMODELS ERA
Supermodels were highly-paid — think multi-million contracts — and worldwide famous models. In the fashion industry, the term has not been used to describe other renowned models than the 80’s and 90’s ones. The group is quite restricted but I am sure that you at least know the “Big Five” : Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer, who even gave her own definition of the word — “in order to become a supermodel one must be on all the covers all over the world at the same time so that people can recognise the girls”. They stole the show everywhere they set foot, especially with Peter Lindbergh’s now iconic photography [insérer la photo]. Supermodels were symbols of health, sexiness and success : Elle Mcpherson’s nickname was as simple as “the Body”.
THE CULT OF ANOREXIA
In the 90’s and early 2000’s, beauty standards changed once again and society valued being thin and skinny as the ultimate goal. Models such as Kate Moss were all the rage thanks to their naturally slender bodies, but the trend started becoming unhealthy as she was praised for having a natural “heroin face”, as women were encouraged to look child-like and as more models were displaying clear signs of anorexia. “James Is a Girl”, a New York Times essay from 1996 about James King — a model — highlighted the terrible working conditions, the psychological consequences, the over employment of underage girls and the constant exposure to drugs, alcohol and inappropriate behaviors.
As sad as this era was, it enabled true, and hopefully sustainable, change in the modeling industry.
MORE RIGHTS AND DIVERSITY
Nowadays, big names in fashion display and advocate for more diversity : Winnie Harlow books contracts with brands such as Puma or Diesel and shows that difference is beautiful. Riccardo Tisci has also closely worked with Lea T., a transgender model, and called her his muse many times.
Ashley Graham is at the forefront of the plus-size models engagement, she shatters boundaries and has even made the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2016. In France, a law was passed restricting models with medically proven anorexia from working, and forcing brands to specify it when an ad has been Photoshopped. It is a slow process but the cult of extreme thinness in fashion is coming to an end.
More and more associations also see the light of day. Models have long been under the strong influence — even control — of their mother agencies, since they are compelled to sign with them in order to be able to work as a model. One of the most noteworthy associations is Model Law, created in 2017 in France by Ekaterina Ozhiganova and Gwenola Guichard, former models. They have created a manifesto with the goal of ending abuse and poor working conditions in the modeling industry. It has already been signed by 271 fashion stakeholders.
With the growing influence of digital in our current world, many models’ careers are launched and boosted thanks to social media. The influence of Gigi & Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner or Emily Ratajkowski is immeasurable.
Designers and artists are also getting more and more creative : Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) models have recently been all the rage. Lil Miquela, a 100% digital model even has an Instagram account scoring millions of followers. She lands huge contracts with brands such as Ugg, Samsung or Calvin Klein.
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