Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Coathangers from Hell: the tricky business of what to call models

I've just come back from a week at my parents. My stays there are always characterised by some binge reality TV watching, and this time I got to catch up on the latest series of Naomi Campbell's fashion modelling competition. That it's a programme about modelling is not referred to in the show's title – instead it’s simply called The Face. The avoidance of the word ‘model’ is nothing new: there have been frequent attempts to supplant or reinvent the description ‘model’, and its French equivalent ‘mannequin’, at times when the modelling industry has wanted to improve its image. But how much difference can simply changing a name ever make?

Caroline Evans' brilliant The Mechanical Smile explains how the history of the term 'mannequin' goes back to the late eighteenth century, when the French press wanted to describe a new phenomenon: the women employed within fashion houses to display clothes. They christened them les demoiselles de magasin–mannequins, or sometimes les demoiselles-mannequins. Aside from being the word for the wax dummies previously used to exhibit clothes, mannequin was also slang for an empty-headed, insignificant or contemptible person. It was, of course, this shortened version that stuck.

Mannequins outside Lucile Ltd, Paris, early 20th century, via

In North America, ‘model’ was used instead, a description also conflating the women and inanimate objects. In fashion houses, the ‘modele’ was the prototype of each design, which would then be worn by a ‘model’. The word carried additional implications. Speaking to an American audience in 1895, the French singer Yvette Guilbert, a former mannequin, explained: ‘we look upon mannequin and model as different things. The first means to try on dresses before customers, but a model in France is a girl who shows her figure before everybody, especially sculptors and painters.’

As Guilbert suggests, modelling had a particularly unsavoury reputation in its early years. Until mid twentieth century, society’s perception of actresses, artist’s models and mannequins was fairly indistinguishable. Betty Trask’s 1933 romantic novel, Mannequin, features Flip whom, ‘in the modern, mysterious manner … appeared … to have been painter’s model, not to mention mannequin, cabaret dancer, dancing instructor … all apparently pretty nearly simultaneously.’ Flip is fairly upstanding but, during this period, it was common for women without money or respectable employment to state ‘model’ as their occupation.

Norman Hartnell and his models, 1930, via

Models held a particular fascination in Britain in the 1920s and 30s. Other examples of romantic fiction published during this period included A Mannequin’s Romance, A Mannequin’s Marriage and A Mannequin’s Mistake. All have a plot centred on the heroine defending her honour, proving she’s not like her mannequin counterparts. Their reputation perhaps explains why the first British agency, Lucie Clayton’s Charm Academy, founded in 1928, avoids both the word ‘mannequin’ and ‘model’ entirely, or why Annabel of Noel Streatfeild's Clothes Pegs was so eager to describe herself as a 'model' instead.

Given its associations, it’s unsurprising that in the 1930s and 40s, when modelling became a business in its own right, the industry leaders attempted to (in modern terminology) rebrand. When John Robert Powers moved his modelling agency – the world’s first – from West 46th Street, in the heart of New York’s Theaterland, to upmarket Park Avenue, he abandoned the word ‘models’ in favour of ‘long-stemmed American beauties’. Clyde Matthews, his contemporary, used the virginal ‘Matthews Madonnas’ instead, while another agent, Harry Conover, created ‘cover girls’, a description that lives on through the cosmetics line he licensed under that name. In her biography Bronwen Pugh - Balmain's catwalk star of the 1950s - describes herself as a 'model girl' because of the 'tawdry undertone' implied by the word 'model'.

Paul Poiret and his mannequins, via

If model and mannequin could be derogatory, nicknames – such as ‘clothes-pegs’ or ‘clothes horses’ – were even worse. Employed to display the vision of a fashion designer or photographer, models cease to be seen as individual women. Designer Poiret commanded, ‘do not talk to the models, they do not exist,’ while the 1940s photographer Victor Keppel simply stated: ‘I regard a model as a tool, not a human being.’ This attitude continues: a 1990s Daily Mail article (who else?) described the model as ‘a coathanger from hell’.

‘Model’ as a description also remains: there is no real equivalent, unless the woman is at the very top of her profession. The word ‘supermodel’ was used as early as 1943 when agency owner Clyde Matthews predicted a glorious future for the industry: ‘The model will be … not just an attractive doll, but a living, speaking, acting, charming woman of international society … She will be a super-model’. Today, modelling has legitimacy and social currency undreamt of seventy or a hundred years ago. Supermodels are expected to be not only living and speaking but also instantly accessible on social media, to have their own businesses and, yes, TV shows, such as The Face.

Yet many distasteful aspects of the modelling industry remain, not least because it promotes a specific beauty ideal. The need for models to be ‘clothes hangers’ and its responsibility for promoting eating disorders is rightly frequently scrutinized. Grubbier aspects of the industry are well publicized: last month, the musician Chris Brown, infamous for assaulting his girlfriend Rihanna, announced he was starting his own model agency, while the fashion photographer Terry Richardson’s alleged abuse of young models has been fashion's worst kept secret for several years.

From these depressing examples, it’s obvious why the modelling industry may again want to attempt to rebrand. ‘Anti-Agency’, a new London agency recruiting on ‘personality, rather than portfolio or measurements’, is being heralded as the possible future for modelling. But, back in the 1940s, Clyde Matthews was suggesting something very similar. As its history shows, it is the wider industry that needs to change. Most importantly, the women who do the work should not be insulted, overlooked or deliberately ignored – whether we call them models or mannequins or something else entirely.

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