The Model Persona: Do We Need to Go Backwards?

The modelling industry of the nineties was notably different to the industry that we know today. Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, and Claudia Schiffer were considered fashion royalty, and so the nineties supermodel ‘big five’ were born, appearing on countless magazine covers, runways and advertisements, to encapsulate a fantastical industry and a lifestyle that many women of the age dreamed about.

In this sense, the level of success reached by these women was as much to do with their persona and the way that they appealed to their generation as their beauty itself, a transitional appeal evidenced in Versace’s recent SS18 show, in which supers Carla Bruni, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen returned to the catwalk, proving that when it comes to these models, age really is just a number.

Additionally, we can look back even further back, to model of the seventies, Beverley Johnson - notably the first African-American model on the cover of Vogue. Before and alongside modelling, she was an award-winning swimmer studying for a law degree and this was appraised in the article.

During the late nineties, however, we can note that there were significant changes to the industry, whereby modelling became less concerned with personality and more a matter of cut-throat competition: detrimental mentally and physically for the majority. Brands began to seek the ‘celebrity’ personality to advertise and sell their products rather than the model, an approach which began with American Vogue’s transition to the use of celebrity cover stars. Most other influential magazines have since followed suit and we now see models credited almost insignificantly, mostly in small print at the bottom corner of the page.

Nowadays, as a result of it being the responsibility of the ‘celebrity’ to attract readership and press, we could take it that stylists, directors and agents look solely to a model’s physicality: one to fit the specific brand ‘dimensions’ rather than a personality that will sell the brand. Such dimensions, in part, originated from the dominance of Prada, who introduced a specific type of girl in their editorials: slender, pretty, young and white. The success of these campaigns meant that the approach was viewed by many other fashion houses as a ‘safe’ formula. Now, when flicking through the latest issue of British Vogue, it is striking that the ethnicity division of models is about seventy percent white.

Young girls who fitted these criteria were welcomed into the industry without any consideration of age, or mental readiness. The desirable girl was yet to go through puberty: an unachievable body shape for the readers of magazines of follower of shows. The industry is quick to discard girls as they develop, and to pick the next generation of young girls from a wide pool of hopefuls. The power in the modelling industry is held by big companies who, in the majority of cases, are more concerned with profit margins than fostering creativity, recognising individuality or creating an industry of fantasy.

I would say that we have a lot to learn from previous decades in regard to the criteria valued at model castings. Instead of pedantic concern over measurements, weight, height, hair and skin colour, girls should be chosen primarily for the evocations that they translate to the audience. If this were more notably the case, then racial quotas and hiring of underage girls would be damaging aspects of the industry left in the past. Models should be celebrated for the presentation of their persona to the audience off the page, screen or on the catwalk, allowing girls and boys reading about them or watching them to be inspired to buy into the fashion world for these reasons alone.

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