The Genteel
February 28, 2021


"The Trinity": Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. Source:
Dorian Leigh model
Dorian Leigh. Source:

No other public figure seems to capture a generation's zeitgeist as successfully as a model does. Dorian Leigh was the presiding glamour star of the 1940s and 1950s. Twiggy and her "Bambi" look caused a sensation in the already-swinging sixties. The Trinity - Christy, Naomi and Linda - defined the power of the nineties. And judging by her 23-year-long presence in the fashion world, our homage to the icon, model and muse, Kate Moss, continues.

Exploring the model phenomenon appears to be both in vogue and in demand. A new exhibition, Mannequin - le corps de la mode (Models - the body of fashion), staged by Musée Galliera at Les Docks - Cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris (until May 19, 2013) is revisiting the history of fashion photography from the late 19th century to present day, observed from the perspective of the model. The exhibition surveys transforming bodies and silhouettes reflected in over 120 photographs, magazine extracts and films, captured by prominent fashion photographers such as Henry Clarke, Helmut Newton, Corinne Day and Juergen Teller. It's a journey from inanimate window mannequin to anonymous display girl, then to catalogue star and eventually supermodel and muse.

A very young Kate Moss for Calvin Klein.

It's easy and convenient to say that a model's primary role will always be to sell fashion, yet it would be a gross understatement, considering just how significantly the job description has transformed over the decades. Mannequin aims to emphasise this exact point: that models are "an essential player in the diffusion of fashion"; a figure "for who and by whom fashion was created"; and a product of "the contradictions of an industry torn between creation and commerce, one of whose principal activities is to produce images."

Above all, the model is an embodiment of the cultural zeitgeist. In his 1995 best-selling exposé, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, Michael Gross aptly framed this notion, referring to the supermodels of the nineties: "[They] are icons, emblems of an industrial society that is ever more accomplished in the replication and use of selling imagery. Though they exist in an apparently superficial milieu, models are metaphors for matters of cultural consequence like commerce, sexuality, and aesthetics...Designers and photographers and fashion magazines create stories to sell products. Models are the stars of those stories."

Since the book's publication, and the industry shake-up it caused, the fashion world continues to dissect and analyse the subject; before Mannequin in Paris, the popular Model as Muse: Embodying Fashion exhibition was staged in 2009 by the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The institute's head curator, Harold Koda, shared his opinion of the model's influence to More Intelligent Life: "A truly stellar model can sum up the attitude of her time - becoming not only a muse to designers or photographers, but a muse to a generation." 

It's easy and convenient to say that a model's primary role will always be to sell fashion, yet it would be a gross understatement...

So, if we look at the model as a screen onto which our fantasies, ideals and realities are projected, and which in turn, projects them back to us, the follow-up question is: Who has defined the 2000s so far, and what do these top models say about the world we live in today?

The excess of the nineties spilled over into the first half of 2000s, and was then amplified by globalisation and the Internet boom. This dawn of new possibilities and opportunities was reflected in the lavish and exotic models of the early millenium. Briefly, it was a period of the Victoria's Secret model "ideal," marked by lean, long-legged bombshells: Gisele Bündchen, Adriana Lima, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum.

The next turning point came when Gisele, Tyra and Heidi left behind being angels and began branching out, growing into television stars with their own shows and fashion empires (America's Next Top Model premiered in 2003, Project Runway in 2004). As Gross noted about this period in his "The Last Word" chapter (included in the 2011 re-release of Model), the fashion industry became obsessed with celebrity culture: magazine covers belonged to actresses (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vanessa Paradis), singers (Katy Perry) and reality TV stars (Kim Kardashian).

The financial crisis of 2008 triggered a global recession that brought the American and European economies to the verge of collapse, and the fashion industry down to its knees. Lay-offs, cut-backs, closures, re-strategising and rescue plans (Fashion's Night Out was born) marked the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Fashion editorials felt darker, more raw and more urgent. Covers, campaigns and runways were dominated by austere, serious and somewhat haunting faces. Natalia Vodianova, Sasha Pivovarova, Agyness Deyn, Mariacarla Boscono, Daria Werbowy and Freja Beha Erichsen featured as prominently across luxury brands as they did fast fashion ones.

Charlotte Free for
Vivienne Westwood at LFW.

At about the same time, global communications and social media exploded, throwing another curve ball at the fashion industry. It ushered in greater freedom of expression and transparency - originating mainly and heavily from self-crowned style authorities and bloggers - but also from the models themselves.

Coco Rocha is undoubtedly fashion's reigning social media queen. Via her TumblrFacebook and Twitter accounts, she has exposed the industry's dirty and unjust tidings such as eating disorders, weight pressures, photo retouching faults, and the industry's preference and use of teenage models. This might have ended a model's career in another era, but Rocha not only called for change in the industry (she worked closely with CFDA and its 2007 Health Initiative and guidelines for the modelling industry), but also successfully proved her earning potential without ever posing semi- or fully nude.

While it may be too early to tell who the model of this generation is, some names and tendencies are already solidifying. The new decade is marked by the desire to rebel, rave and abandon - possibly reeling from the burdens of the global economic crisis and technological and environmental pressures. A non-conformist, in-your-face attitude is personified by a new crop of models: Alice Dellal, Cara Delevingne, and particularly the pink-haired newcomer, Charlotte Free. It sure does smell like teen spirit; but this time around it's fueled by EDM instead of grunge.

As the spirit of the times continually evolves, waiting for a comeback of the supermodels of yesteryear is futile. But reflecting on the model's changing role remains a worthwhile endeavour that often says more about us and the society we're living in, than about the model herself.



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