Models in History: The Model and the Origins of Couture

I. Model as Mannequin 

Couture could not be what it is without its models. And the historical emergence of couture in the West is tightly linked to the invention of the ‘model,’ the subject who wears the clothing for sale. Originally, they were known as ‘house models,’ reflecting their close proximity to the couture ‘houses’ that had begun to emerge in Europe toward the second half of the 19th century. 

Marie Vernet Worth, the wife of the early couture designer Charles Frederick Worth, is often said to be the first true model in history. Clients would visit Worth in his salon, where they could see his wife demonstrating his designs, which were then tailored by Worth to the customer’s specification and sizing. 

Fashion historians often situate Worth as the ‘first couturier,’ pointing to the size of his house and the volume of clientele as indications that he had succeeded in transforming his tailoring enterprise from a local business into a regional and even national determinant of what women ought to wear. And yet, with hindsight, the story becomes more complex. As what enabled Worth to transform his tailoring business into a broader stylistic movement was not only the size of his clientele, or the virtue of his designs, but Marie Vernet Worth’s body, which afforded his customers a new way of seeing and buying clothes. 

The catwalk is one of the central material institutions of couture. For couture houses today, it is the essential way that design is communicated to the public, and models are its fundamental agents. In salons like Worth’s, there was, of course, no runway to walk down. However, it is not hard to see how the incorporation of living models transformed the experience of buying clothes. Suddenly, customers were able to see clothes in motion, to gauge the way they fell against the human form in all its complexity. In this way, the first models, who were treated scarcely better than inanimate objects, had agency in shaping the emergence of couture. In a sense, they were its condition of possibility, the living means by which clothing was brought from the back of the house into the mobile space of the public sphere. 

Before Worth, mannequins had been the primary means of displaying clothes. They had been in use since the 15th century, but it was not until the mid-1800s that female mannequins came into use. At the same time, Worth was experimenting with using human beings to display his clothing. In this early context, models were afforded little respect or pay. They were treated not unlike houseworkers and their work was certainly not understood to rise to the dignity of a profession. Fittingly, it was in this time that the idea of the ‘designer’ itself, with all of its onomastic power, was taking shape. At the end of the 19th century, the designer towered over the model, who was seen as little more than a vehicle for the projection of his name.

Owing to the origins of modeling, and revealing much about its social dynamics, models in the early 20th century were still often referred to as ‘mannequins.’ In many ways, they were treated as little more than mechanical backdrops upon which the clothes could be projected. At the same time, however, the social aspirations of women in the West were being refigured through the suffrage movement, and by rising numbers of working women. This context set the stage for the transformation of the model from a mere mannequin to a human agent—in the 20th century, modeling would emerge as a vocation, a style of life, a professional future. Perhaps the most important ingredient of this shift was the rise of photojournalism. 

II. Modeling as Vocation

While photography had been practiced since the 1840s in America, its place in media was limited by the difficulty and expense of the shooting process. In the 19th century, photographic forms like the daguerreotype required subjects to sit for long periods of time before shots could be properly exposed, and the physical setup required by the camera limited the mobility of its operators. The resulting situation limited the incorporation of photography into fashion, making it impossible to deliver the in-person experience one might have had in Worth’s couture house, where the fluid complexity of cloth could be appreciated more deeply against the shifts of the human form. 

The invention of the 35mm Leica camera in the 1930s transformed the process of taking photographs and set the stage for the rise of photojournalism. Compact and portable, the new cameras allowed photographers to capture many more shots, from many more diverse angles and states of mobility, than had been possible before. At the same time, the invention of flash bulbs opened up the potential for more varied and complex imagery. 

When Roland Barthes published The Fashion System in 1967, the so-called “Golden Age” of photojournalism was already nearing its shutter, as the cost of running magazines was outpacing their revenue. Still, Barthes took photojournalism and the production of clothing images in advertising as his guide for understanding fashion. Reflecting on French fashion, he suggested that photographic advertising was the essential symbolic medium through which the fashion system was constructed. People come to know fashion, he argued, through their immersion in networks of images, images that are not seen in isolation, but in relation to the system as a whole.

At the center of these images was the figure of the model. As photojournalism became the medium through which high-status women shopped for clothing, the models they saw as they flipped through those pages became central figures of culture in their own right. Like the designer, whose name had become synonymous with the branding and selling of clothes, the model began to be seen in a different light, no longer as a mannequin, but as a moving figure whose name possessed a power of its own. 

As photojournalism cast the model in a new light, the idea of a ‘trained model’ emerged to further distinguish the active agents of modeling from the mannequins that preceded them. Modeling schools emerged to discipline the posture and movement of aspiring models, establishing a corpus of standards and expectations that began to circumscribe the work of modeling within a new discourse of professional standardization. In the process, models made more money but also found themselves subjected to more narrow expectations. People who might have modeled in the early 20th century found that their bodies no longer matched the rigid standards set forth by schools.

The history of modeling encloses a story about agency and its contradictions. For a time, models were seen as little more than inanimate objects. The process of transforming modeling from a simulation of the mannequin’s inanimacy into an active vocation, was partly political, partly technological, and no doubt partly human, in the sense that it relied on the determination and sordid effort of its pioneers. At the same time, it abides with a common thread in other stories of professionalization from early 20th century capitalism; the vocation became a source of agency, but it also became enmeshed in new structures of power, new organizations of knowledge production that disciplined the body in new ways.

The strictures and expectations that surround the model have acquired a concreteness, a salience in the 20th century that they never possessed in the 19th century. Where the earliest couture designers had no standardized measurement requirements and called upon women of various sizes, the designers of the 20th century would pore over measurements, adopting increasingly narrow aesthetic expectations in their model selection. In many ways, the story has important lessons about the tension between the agency of individuals and the determining force of social and economic structure. 

Return to the Gone Library for more research on the history of modeling. This article marks the beginning of our Models in History column, which explores the influence of ideas and people in the history of fashion modeling. 

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