Exploring the modelling industry throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour by Elizabeth Wissinger provides readers with an insightful deconstruction of one of the world’s most glamorised professions.
Entwining intensive research with extensive interviews from model castings, runway shows and photo-shoots, this original analysis examines the truth behind the people who so captivate and enthral us all. I caught up with Wissinger to discuss models, media and what she argues is now the key to fixating our fascination – “glamour labour”.
Lucy Slater: What is “glamour labour”?
Elizabeth Wissinger: In brief, it is the work to live more colourfully, beautifully; to be the hero of your own show. Engaging in glamour labour is to work to look like, and be like, your tightly edited, selfie’d, highly-filtered image in the flesh.
“Glamour labour is both the body work to manage one’s appearance in person and the online image work to create and maintain one’s ‘cool’ quotient - how hooked up, tuned in, and ‘in the know' one is. Glamour labour is dual pronged and involves both embodied and virtual work on one’s image.” – This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour.
LS: Are you hoping that this book will in some ways ‘de-glamourise’ models for your readers?
EW: Yes, I think the book goes some way towards deconstructing the inner workings of the glamour machine. Shows like America’s Next Top Model go some way towards this goal as well, but it seems the public remains rampantly hungry for this type of deconstruction, as if driven by the hope there might still be some magic left after the curtain is pulled aside. Showing how much work goes into achieving a glamorous fashionable image and life might also help readers come to a better understanding of why their own lives don’t look like Karlie Kloss’s Instagram feed. The book is also aimed at helping people become more cognisant of the way they give their time and energy to networks that profit from their attention without paying them back in any real way.
LS: What are your thoughts on the ever-increasing need for individuals to promote themselves as a personal brand? Would you argue that this is an extension of the way models must now live?
EW: Yes, I would argue that the push for self-branding born of the casualisation of work, the rise of cultural industries, which exploit the desire to work (such as unpaid fashion interns), and freelance culture, has pushed more people to feel the need to embrace glamour labour.
At the same time, fashion’s permeation of everyday life continues to introduce fashion to new audiences (as if we didn’t have enough access already, there is a new all-fashion-all-the-time channel, M2M, coming out on Apple TV). These new recruits might engage in glamour labour not only to seek or keep employment, but also to feel like they belong, or matter, in a world where it is not easy to stand out.
In the digital age, not only has the street become a runway, and the phone our photographer, but the construction of our online presence and ‘brand’ increasingly resemble the kinds of promotional activities that were demanded only of models and other media celebrities. Personal branding is now the quick way to telegraph a message about who we are. What is lost, though, is deep, personal engagement and the time to get to know the full range of someone’s qualities or attributes.
LS: The rise of social media outlets such as Instagram and Snapchat has enabled fans to feel involved in the lives of models and celebs – is there such a thing as overexposure or has this notion become obsolete?
EW: I would argue that the notion has become obsolete. Kate Moss’s temporary slip into infamy a few years ago is a great example. She lost a few campaigns, only to come roaring back next season. What’s key to remember, however, is the careful construction of this exposure, the work that goes into looking like “I just woke up this way.” Over exposure seems to be the only kind of exposure that matters in the digital age.
Elizabeth Wissinger is a professor with the Masters' Program in Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY.
Words: Lucy Slater
Photography: Part of the series 'Study of Pose' by Steven Sebring