Monday, 22 September 2014

Models Never Talk

Over the last few years, I've become more and more fascinated by fashion models. There they are throughout fashion history, the medium through which a designer presents the clothes to the consumers, but them models rarely get studied in their own right (Caroline Evans' The Mechanical Smile is one of the honourable exceptions).

Instead they can be seen as instruments for the designer or the photographer to convey their vision. Think of Paul Poiret's instruction, "do not talk to the models, they do not exist," Their mute beauty creates a canvas onto which we can project our fantasies and also our fears: remember the blame that was laid at the feet of the models in the size 0 debate?

I was therefore really interested to hear about a presentation put on by Paris' Palais Galliera curator Olivier Saillard in Paris, titled "Models Never Talk" (pictured above, and at the top of the post). It featured seven French mannequins who had worked for the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Rei Kawakubo and Thierry Mugler during the 1980s and 90s. From their memories, Saillard put together a script, which the models themselves acted out, dressed in black leotards and tights, reminiscent of the black tabards that had to be worn under the garments shown by the very first models in the late 19th century.

Through their performance, according to this report in the NY Times at least, they not only showed how couture felt and moved, they also showed how they walked and how cut and footwear could change the way they walked (remember The Mannequin Glide from even further back in modelling history?). It's interesting in itself the show was reviewed in the dance section of the paper. "Models are an important part of fashion history,” Saillard is reported as saying by “They are important to a fashion designer’s process. But suddenly, when they’re on the catwalk, they’re silent."

Sarah Grant on World of Difference, via

This week, I came across another example of models talking, a 1978 TV programme called World of Difference: The Models that's back up on the BBC website thanks to their current Sound of Style season. The programme contrasts the experiences of Cherry Marshall, a model in the 1940s and an agency owner in the 1950s and 60s who I wrote about here, with those of Sarah Grant, an Australian model working in London in the 1970s (and who, more recently, modelled for Chanel in Sydney aged 60 according to this article).

The film is well worth watching for many reasons, including a brilliant appearance from Norman Parkinson. But it's also great in charting how much modelling changed over that 30 year period, from the upper class gals with their cut glass accents (I did not expect Cherry Marshall to sound like that) and their ladylike demeanour, to personalities, nudity and the storytelling of the 1970s and that we take for granted in editorials today. “I regret that the glamour has gone," Cherry Marshall says. "That your average model girl today doesn’t look like a model. You pass her in the street and she could be anybody. I think that’s a shame.” 

Both Saillard's show and this TV programme prove the point that when a model talks, you can learn something new, and different, about the process of fashion than you might get from fashion designers or journalists. Perhaps that shouldn't need to be stated. But, as articles such as this one remind us, there's still a lot that models need to speak out about.

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