Karlie has over 3.5 million; Cara has more than 22.6 million and Kendall has in excess of 41.6 million. In an industry that nowadays too often measures demand by Instagram followers, it is hard to believe that less than a decade ago models couldn’t have cared less about the social media platform; in fact, it didn’t even exist.
Zooming in to the age of blink, Elizabeth Wissinger’s recent work, This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour, sheds light on the exclusive industry that continues to lure us in. Having explored the rise of ‘glamour labour’ in The Business of Glamour, Wissinger tells me how the trends of the future can only fully be grasped in light of the past.
Lucy Slater: In your book you look at modelling through the 20th and 21st centuries; do you think that we can better understand the model of today by looking at them in this context?
Elizabeth Wissinger: It is very important to contextualise what we see today in terms of its past precedents. For example, it helps us to understand why models are so thin. While designers will tell you they need a good ‘clothes hanger’ and marketers will tell you they need an ‘aspirational’ look, I argue that the thin model is a historic phenomenon that became the body in fashion within a very definite conjuncture of events; the flapper rage, the fascination with mechanisation, and the clean lined aesthetics of futurism.
Similarly, it is easy to think that superstars in the front row, like J-Lo and the Kardashians, were the first links between celebrity and fashion but, in fact, linking fashion and fame is nothing new. Until the 1920s, when fashion modelling became a profession in its own right, socialites, and fashionable stars were the models of their day.
LS: Did you find that the life of the model has become more complex since the digital revolution?
EW: Yes and no. Yes, in so far as the model needs to be more available in more places and now has less control over their time. While a 1950s model could orchestrate her public appearances, today’s model runs the risk of being photographed every time she leaves the house. Creating a social media persona is also something that models did not previously have to worry about. The skill level in modelling has changed from a concrete, applied ability to do one’s make-up up, hair and styling, and know how to hold still for two minutes straight – to being told just to do what ‘feels’ right, which is something harder to access, to pinpoint, as a skill to acquire.
At the same time, the modelling life may be more demanding, but the moment of being photographed is arguably less so, with digital film facilitating multiple takes, Photoshop to fix blemishes and no real need to know the history of pose or the artistry of gesture that might have been expected in the 1950s. As I described in #NoFilter: Models, Glamour Labour, and the Age of the Blink:
“In the all-images-all-the-time brave new world of the Internet and social media that characterise the age of the blink, image-makers’ efforts to get noticed absolutely had to hit the mark, but the mark was ever more elusive… Despite the fact that fashionable images of extreme slenderness and pore-less perfection could be achieved only through technological manipulation, this new digital unreal created a tension between the fashion images in circulation and the real people they supposedly represented.”
LS: How has the development of technology and the ‘age of the blink’ changed the way we think about body and self?
EW: In our ‘selfie’ society there is more emphasis on surface appearance than during the time when ladies were expected to exhibit good character. In those days, a young lady in step with the times would carry a book containing hints about good comportment, tucked among her skirts, rather than a bag full of make-up and a selfie stick.
The body has become a surface to be worked on, which is never good enough, and in fact, is only good when it is being changed or pushed or improved. What was once considered ‘natural’ beauty, in the 1970s, has been replaced by the worked, over-enhanced beauty of the Botox generation. The body is a project - a thing; separate from the self, yet definitive of the self.
Elizabeth Wissinger is a professor with the Masters' Program in Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Words: Lucy Slater