What does a model do?
image: Monika Jagaciak
When you think “model,” who do you imagine?
Young? Thin? Tall? Today, these are the characteristics we almost universally associate with fashion models.
In a general sense, the word “model” means “a thing or person to be imitated.” Think of the scale models used in architecture, for example. As applied to humans, the term was used to describe artists’ models, men and women whose bodies were “imitated” in a sculpture or a painting.
In the 20th century, this term came to also describe fashion models. The use of fashion models evolved from the use of scale models, actual miniature dolls that were used to showcase new styles. But like artists’ models, fashion models were chosen to represent a particular vision of human beauty, one that clearly changes with the times and the vision of the designer.
I believe we can see the role of fashion models in two ways:
- The first is to model what the clothes might look like on the wearer.
- The second is to present an idealized form of a woman in the clothes, thus modeling what the wearer should aspire to.
Most companies today choose the latter approach. They stick to a status quo of beauty norms, knowing that most of their female customers have already been pre-conditioned to find thinness, youth, and I would say even light skin desirable.
image: Monika Jagaciak
Thus you have a vicious circle. Advertising creates (or maybe just cherry picks) particular beauty norms, and then constantly reinforces them to the public. Once the public is conditioned, there is no incentive to change the ads. Beauty becomes rigid.
Is Beauty Oppressive?
But does it make sense to go the other direction completely? To reject the idea of beauty all together?
No matter what type of woman is chosen to model a piece of clothing, she will be idealized in some way. Makeup, lighting, location – all of these create a picture that, if not quite realistic, does tell a story.
We could show clothing on average women pulled off the street. We don’t have to give them professionally done hair and makeup. We could use the fluorescent lighting that most of us live with in offices. We don’t have to ask them to pose, or even stand up straight. We could leave clutter lying around in the background. Just like real life.
But this isn’t really what modeling is about either. It meets the first criterion, of modeling what the clothes will look like on actual people. But it doesn’t tell us anything about the designer’s vision. It doesn’t tell you what the clothes are about. It doesn’t inspire or influence or say anything new.
Is it possible to blend the two criteria? Can we represent more women, while at the same time creating something that looks “beautiful”?
I believe we can. Because diversity is beautiful.
I think of it this way: back when models were purely artists’ models, they represented the beauty ideals of the day, as interpreted by the individual artist’s vision. Think of the exactly proportioned bodies of sculptures of greek gods, or the voluptuous hips and small bust of a Boticelli.
But today, in the 21st century, I believe many of us have progressed beyond the idea that there is only one way to be beautiful. We can recognize beauty in curvy hips without rejecting the beauty of a petite and boyish figure. Sure, we may identify more with or be naturally more attracted to certain people. But the idea that there is only one version of “beautiful” is outdated. And good riddance.
So if that’s true, if that is the world we live in now, doesn’t it make sense for that to be represented by the models we see? Can’t we simultaneously show clothing on women who represent us and bring out their beauty?
What do you think? Can diversity and beauty ideals co-exist? Or is the very idea of beauty always exclusionary?
Note: No body shaming language in this discussion, including disparaging remarks about thinness.
(PS: Next week, I’m going to share the process we use to find and hire our own models, so stay tuned for the nitty gritty.)