Musing about Fashion

NPR’s story about the ‘Models as Muses’ fashion show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art got my attention yesterday. The idea is that models are “muses” for entire generations.

It’s good to be reminded that models as cultural icons didn’t exist 60 years ago, that ‘super’ models didn’t exist 30 years ago. And, it’s interesting to note that although fashion photography poses and styles remain much the same over the years (see this review, which argues, with images as evidence, that much of fashion photography is derivative) and body standards haven’t changed significantly, either (slenderness, with and without curves, rules the day), models used to range in height much more in the past than now; one major model of the 1950s, Dorian Leigh, was 5’4″.

The curators in the NPR interview note that in the 1920s, models were tall and angular. Post-World War II fashion poses , in the 1940s and 1950s, exemplified “rarefied, haughty sophistication.” Look, but don’t touch. In the 1960s, models were photographed in sensual and sexy poses, with come-hither looks. The 1960s was also the decade of models like Twiggy, the “lanky, androgynous fashion icon.

In the 1970s, female sexuality was “essentially unleashed” with “models posing in sexually aggressive ways.” An example is Lisa Taylor “in a 1975 shot by Helmut Newton, essentially inverting the male gaze.” She sits with her legs wide open, looking at a headless man with “a sense of entitlement”, which outraged people and caused them to cancel their Vogue magazine subscriptions.  (You can see the image if you scroll down a ways in Jezebel’s negative review of the exhibit.)

In the 1980s, we began to know models by name — Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, “the ultimate hood ornaments of 1980s excess. … The models [were] sometimes more important than the clothing.” This is obviously true now, with TV shows like the CW’s “America’s Next Top Model,” TVLand’s “She’s Got the Look,” Bravo’s “Make Me a Supermodel,” TLC’s “A Model Life”, and probably others.

In reaction, after “the perfection and apotheosis of the supermodel” in the late 1980s, came the mannerist and “sloppy elegance of grunge” of the 1990s, with models like Kate Moss (also short by modeling standards, at approximately 5’7″), Kristin McMenamy, and later, Alek Wek, who together “really expand the idea of what it meant to be beautiful.” The curator describes this period  as “a complete breakdown of the normative ideals of  fashion and beauty.”

This seems to be rather overstating the case, as the models’ bodies and faces, which are meant to epitomise ideal beauty, are very thin, rather androgynous, with ‘attenuated’ limbs and torso, and not unlike Twiggy’s 30 years earlier.

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