Fashion modelling has existed for more than four centuries. Books of engravings — illustrating ancient, foreign, and contemporary fashion — became available with the invention of printing in the mid fifteenth century. In the seventeenth century, wooden dolls dressed in the most popular styles were sent to wealthy women in major European cities to entice them to purchase popular styles. The dressmaker of Marie Antoinette continued to exhibit her handiwork in this manner up until the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, the first fashion magazines, highlighting creations for royal courtiers, appeared and the fashion plate, or picture dedicated to showing the very latest mode, came into existence. Eventually, the term ‘fashion plate’, would describe both a fashion illustration and a woman who ostentatiously purchased fashionable costumes. Fashion photography made its début in 1840 and ultimately replaced line drawing as the dominant way to depict current fashions.
In the 1850s, Charles Worth popularized the use of live models to sell clothes when he encouraged his wife to wear his creations and show them off to his clientele. The use of live models continued, and the runway (or ‘catwalk’) appeared in 1914 at a Chicago fashion exhibit. The runway allowed customers to inspect clothes while being entertained by extravagant fashion spectacles created by the hottest names in couture.
Modelling agencies (businesses that arrange contacts between models, designer, and sellers) owe their existence to the ingenuity of John Robert Powers, an out-of-work American actor of the early twentieth century. Powers realized a profit could be made by matching up attractive men and women with photographers and advertising companies. Modelling agencies, like Elite, Ford, and John Casablancas, still dominate the world of fashion. The twentieth century also witnessed the creation of the ‘supermodel’ — the highly paid paragon who displays not only coveted fashions but an enviable lifestyle as well.
The influence of modelling reaches far beyond the world of fashion. Many argue that female models do not serve as good examples for women to follow. The rail-thin appearance of many models has been cited as a factor contributing to eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Critics directed bitter attacks against the ‘elegantly wasted’ look (often achieved through extensive use of drugs) in vogue in the early nineties and embodied in the body of Kate Moss.
Male modelling has not been studied as extensively as female modelling. The research that has been done suggests that in the last three decades, with the increasing fashionability of sportswear for men, physical fitness and good health have become important ideals for the male body. Thus male models are not held up to the same standards of beauty and thinness that have dominated female modelling.
Karol K. Weaver
See also fashion; female form.
"modelling, fashion." The Oxford Companion to the Body. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/modelling-fashion
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