the elusive “perfect” look

Models in between shows, S/S ’13, New York.  Photo credit: Tommy Ton for Style.com.

“It’s that damn Hansel – he’s so hot right now!”
- Mugatu, from Zoolander (2001)

Spring/Summer ’13 fashion season is in full swing, and the glittering mobs of fashionistas have taken over the World Wide Web again, from style blogs to Vogue’s newly revamped Style.com (featuring new “instant” runway shots in real time and bigger, sleeker slideshows!).  At the visual center of all this frenzy are the models themselves, strutting their way down the catwalk and flitting past street style photographers in uber-cool model uniforms with their runway hair and makeup intact.

Browsing through the shows, I’m realizing that I barely recognize the models’ faces anymore.  I’ve only been following the shows since 2008, but the shelf life of models seems to be astonishingly brief.  (Abbey Lee, Sasha, Bambi, Kim, Tao, Hannelore — where are you?) Of course, a select few of the “older” models — obviously a relative term, since models seem to age out around 23 — have gone on to bigger things such as acting, designing, heading major brand campaigns, or (as in the case of one of fashion’s more distinctive figures, Sasha Pivovarova) immersing themselves in other artistic pursuits. Not that any of this matters to the non-fashion-follower, to whom the models can seem virtually indistinguishable and interchangeable:  they’re still shockingly thin, tall, young, and overwhelmingly white (even though NYFW has admittedly just been declared the most racially and ethnically diverse ever).  And good luck if you’re trying to keep up with the male models, who are even more anonymous and subject to a higher turnover rate than the women.

Such burning issues have been on my mind ever since I read Ashley Mears’s Pricing Beauty:  The Making of a Fashion Model (2011) a few weeks ago. Mears, a sociologist at Boston University and a former model who used many of her own experiences as fieldwork, carefully characterizes her work as a study of how “questions of…cultural value gets translated into economic values.”  Indeed, Pricing Beauty is far less a gossipy insider look into the modeling world (although there are certainly some juicy tidbits) than a sustained critical analysis of the so-called “look” itself.  “Beauty is neither in the model nor in the beholder,” Mears asserts. “The value of a look lies in social relationships and cultural meanings that can be studied systematically.  There is, in fact, an economy to this quality called beauty that models are thought to possess…a specific logic.”[1]

But who decides the “look” of the season? And why does it always seem so narrowly defined, save for “token” features like gap teeth (Lara, Lindsey, Ashley, Jessica), the barest hint of curves (Crystal, Bar, Doutzen, Daisy, and Lara, again), and “being Asian” (the year 2010)? In her breakdown of the “economics of the catwalk” through the working practices of not only models but also their glamour producers – clients, agents/bookers, stylists, photographers, etc. – Mears repeatedly returns to one of the most fundamental attributes of the look: its vigilantly guarded sense of mystique (“I can’t define the look, but I just know it when I see it,” as every model scout likes to say).  In the name of the indefinable, a counterintuitive economic model reigns, where the most unusual looking models accept exploitatively low wages (if they are paid at all – too many of them actually lose money in the course of their careers) to take on what are considered to be the most prestigious jobs: avant-garde editorials and runway shows for high-profile designers.  The conventionally beautiful get some of the highest paid and most consistent jobs doing commercial campaigns and catalogs, but they give up their fashion credibility in the process. In other words, Sears models never have the “look.”

Other revelations in Mears’s study simply confirmed a lot of my assumptions about the industry, such as the fact that models’ careers, if they’re lucky, last on average around five years, although male models can last a lot longer if they pursue commercial work.  When fashion folks are asked why models are so darn skinny, casting agents simply sigh and point the finger at designers (“they make the clothes too small!”), while designers blanch defensively and argue that they’ve got to make the clothes too small because models come in that size (“and besides, those are the standard measurements we learn at design school”).  With no accountability and apparently no incentive to change the size-zero status quo, it’s no wonder that models still live and, tragically, die by Kate Moss’s infamous rule, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

But the most interesting revelation to me is that haute-couture size-zero editorial modeling is all about taking sex out, which goes against everything that I tend to think of when I think of fashion.  Yes, glamour (Sc. glamer) is all about spell-casting and seduction, but it excludes certain kinds of sexuality that are coded as excessive and vulgar – think fleshiness and non-whiteness, especially.

For the first variety, we need to look no further than Ms. Kate Upton, erstwhile internet video star of the Dougie and Cat Daddy fame and bodacious front-cover babe of Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition 2012.  Erstwhile, I say, because she has been trying hard to parlay her commercial superstardom into a respectable editorial career ever since, with a great many obstacles thrown in her way.  Back in February, Sophia Neophitou, the formidable force behind the casting of Victoria’s Secret shows, bitchily proclaimed Upton a “Page 3 girl” and “a footballer’s wife, with the too-blond hair and that kind of face that anyone with enough money can go out and buy.” (I guess Victoria’s Secret is too high fashion?)  Then in June, the “pro-ana” (i.e., anorexia-promoting) blogger Skinny Gurl raged against the “well-marbled” phenomenon:

Is this what American women are “striving” for now? The lazy, lardy look? Have we really gotten so fat in this country that Kate is the best we can aim for? Sorry, but: eww!

The sudden surge in fame for Kate Upton makes me wonder how much further our plus-sized fixation is going to go. It’s not that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was ever high art, but thanks to Kate Upton securing this year’s cover, it’s now barely a notch above Playboy.

Fashion is supposed to be aspirational – and the kind of people who aspire to look like this shop for clothes at Wal-Mart.

As a Norma Kamali-for-Walmart fan, I am deeply offended.

Anyway, Mears addresses this systemic fear of voluptuousness in her book, but I think she puts it best in an interview in T Magazine when asked about the occasional championing of so-called “curviness” by the fashion industry:

But a lot of that — the curvy models — that’s more the result of tokenism, right? It’s distinct from a kind of shift in the baseline preference, which is for extraordinarily thin and tall white women.

Right. The baseline never changes.

So why is that?

I argue it’s class. The distinction between editorial and commercial fashion ultimately is a class distinction. If you look at a historical trajectory of what, in Western society, elite culture values, it’s this prized aesthetic for women with extremely thin, taut, controlled bodies. A corpulent body, a body with rolls and with flesh, is a body that signals looseness, sexual availability, and is antithetical to a kind of “elite” body. You can see this in strip clubs as well. There’s some ethnographic work that shows that strip clubs that cater to higher-class audiences have thinner women, and whiter women. You see it reproduce in all kinds of different settings.

Which leads me to the most obvious, and yet one of the most infuriating, revelations of Mears’s study – that most of the fashion industry is goddamn casually racist beyond belief (my words, not hers – in fact, I think she can let them off a little too easily, such as when she describes them not as “particularly racist or sexist…[but] well-intentioned” and primarily constrained by market demands [2]).  Not that any of the liberal and artistically minded producers of the “look” will admit to such a charge, of course.   As the researcher Christopher Boulton described the U.S. advertising world in his doctoral defense “Rebranding Diversity:  Colorblind Racism Inside the U.S. Advertising Industry” (2012), the fashion industry seems to suffer from a similar “fundamental disconnect between material practices and ideological screens:  persistent race inequality on the structural level vs. ‘post-racial’ attitudes on the level of individual subjectivities.”

As proof, I think I’ll let Mears’s quotes speak for themselves:

We don’t like using the same model too often, but it’s harder to find ethnic girls.  And…well, I don’t want to sound racist, but – well for Asians, it’s hard to find tall girls that will fit the clothes because most of them are very petite.  For black girls, I guess – black girls have a harder-edge kind of look.  Like if I’m shooting something really edgy, I’ll use a black girl – it always just depends on the clothes.

- Ann, New York magazine editor [3]

Well, think about for a jeans ad – if you’ve got a black or Latina, are they gonna be able to fit the jeans, or are they gonna be able to wear that type?  It’s just, you know, specific clothes are made for specific people, and for high fashion usually you’re trying to tell the story to a target audience.

- Billy, New York photographer [4]

Yeah, and I did that one project because I really wanted to do that project. And it was – yeah, in a way it was like a sexuality that I wanted.  But I felt like I could only get it out of a black girl.

- Bruno, London stylist [5]

Basically, high-end ethnic means the only thing that is not white about you is that you are black.  Everything else, you are totally white.  You have the same body as a white girl.  You have the same aura, you have the same, the old, aristocratic atmosphere about you, but your skin is dark.

- Clive, New York stylist [6]

So, I mean we have a very successful Asian girl, but – do you know what – she has got a very approachable look.  The structure of her face is not – her eyes aren’t too wide set, she’s got a very American version of the look, if you see what I mean.  She is very smiley, she’s got such an American personality.

- Paul, New York booker [7]

To be honest with you, the most kind of unusual, the most kind of interesting girls on the planet are the girls that have got some kind of unusual mix.  You know, they’ve got like parents that are from different kinds of backgrounds.

- A London casting director [8]

At this point, I’ve seriously run out of words to add.

. . .

In general, I found Mears’s study to be a truly wonderful work of ethnography, but I found myself often wondering where she was in all of this as a working model herself (which may be precisely what makes it a good ethnography, I suppose).  Mears’s own feminist analysis, where it emerges, seems deeply complicated and implicated – on the one hand presenting the industry as incredibly sexist and infantilizing to female models, but on the other hand as empowering of those very bodies and faces that have been anointed as the “look.”  As for the “look” itself, while Mears characterizes it as necessarily indefinable, I wonder whether it is more legible than it seems. After all, even its “non-legibility” (for instance, by non-haute-couture Walmart-wearing readers) is itself an extremely well calibrated act of interpreting and reading.

With all this in mind, I couldn’t help feeling a bit rueful when I saw that Anna Wintour had recently decided to turn Kate Upton into her latest makeover project.  In the June issue of Vogue, Upton was dutifully wrapped up in the designer Joseph Altuzarra’s severest equestrian coats, showing no sign of cleavage or excess skin.  She was taken on a tour of Michael Kors’s studio, where he praised her assets and made a noncommittal non-commitment for her to walk in his show this September (she ultimately wasn’t invited).  Furthermore, the Vogue profile tried too hard to clean up her Youtube past, hilariously and oh-so-pretentiously describing the Dougie video as “a cinema-verité classic gone viral.” It was all creepily reminiscent of Eliza Doolittle, albeit one who is fully complicit in her own re-fashioning.

Indeed, Upton remains optimistic despite haute couture’s deeply entrenched prejudices. “People told me I couldn’t be fashion, that I’m just an old-fashioned body girl, only good for swimwear,” she told the New York Times. “But I knew that I could bring back the supermodel.” Reading this, I couldn’t help thinking, who knew blonde, busty all-American girl Kate Upton would become a symbol of otherness, akin to the Alek Weks, Crystal Renns, and Liu Wens of the modeling world?  (I write this, even now, with a heavy dose of irony.)

Still, after reading Mears’s book, I will say that perusing through images from Fashion Week and Style.com will never be the same again.  A pretty face really isn’t just a pretty face.  And of course we all knew that already, but thanks to Pricing Beauty, I now know it as a cold, hard, market-driven fact.


[1] Mears, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model (Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press), 2011, p. 25.
[2] Ibid., p. 207.
[3] Ibid., p. 194.
[4] Ibid., p. 195.
[5] Ibid., p. 195.
[6] Ibid., p. 196.
[7] Ibid., pp. 196-97.
[8] Ibid., p. 197.

. . .

Update 9.19.12:  A great post by the Lingerie Addict’s Cora Harrington on being a woman of color in the lingerie industry, and on the lack of representation of women of color in lingerie modeling more broadly:  the original post here, and cross-posted on Racialicious.

Just got tweeted by Jenna Sauers of Jezebel (and favorited by Dorian Warren!)…

Screen shot 2013-01-03 at 3.59.04 PM

7 thoughts on “the elusive “perfect” look

    • Oh man, no kidding, right? So much of it all based on an architecture of ignorance — and yet I am still mesmerized. How much worse to be mesmerized and not to be aware of all the underlying b.s.? Anyway, Mears’s study was a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes.

  1. Pingback: fashion and fame | yijihae

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