Why Do Models Look So Bored?
Last week I spent a delightful morning watching videos from this spring’s fashion shows, picking out the styles I would be happy to wear if I were young, rich, and attending a gala in Monte Carlo, or strolling down an avenue in Milan!
This video from Harper’s Bazaar gives you a sampling of the shows:
(My favorite dresses appear at 4:25 — they pay homage to full-skirted dresses of the past, but they look to be made of organdy or a similar lightweight fabric, giving them a floating appearance. They look like they would be fun to wear!)
I loved seeing the different artistic concepts that the fashion houses chose to display their creations — settings included a parking garage, a hall of glass, some historic palaces, flower gardens real and virtual, an underwater ruin, and the House of Tarot.
But whether the models were parading in form-fitting silk gowns or poufy patchwork, with wet-look hair or golden face masks, they all had one thing in common — and that was their sulky, bored faces.
I have never understood the reasoning behind this — “Yes, I am young and beautiful and wearing tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothing and jewels, striding down a treasure-filled gallery of an historic palazzo — but it is still not enough to make me happy!!”
When did this attitude start? And for that matter, when did fashion modeling start? Fortunately, I have a resource for that! — a book by Caroline Evans, called The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929.
Here is Evans’ summary of the early history of modeling:
It was only gradually, in the second half of the nineteenth century, that women began to be used as professional mannequins and then only in the privacy of the couture house….Before then, society women did not visit their dressmakers’ premises, so there was no need for young women to model there. In the eighteenth century, a lady’s dress might be made by a number of different individuals: the bodice and train by a lady’s tailor, the underwear by a dressmaker (couturière) and the trimmings and fashionable decoration provided by a marchand de modes, or milliner. Until the end of the Second Empire (1852-70) these tradespeople would call on society women at their apartments… in the mornings to transact their business, and even to complete the work, for such clients rarely visited a milliner or couturier. Exceptionally, firms such as Worth, Virot, and Laferriere received customers in their maison, rather than attending them at their homes. By 1880, private clients had begun to visit the couture houses twice a year, in April and November, to see the new fashions modelled by living mannequins. (pp. 12, 13)
These living mannequins were required to wear tight-fitting black silk dresses under all the fashionable dresses:
(I am sorry to share this image straight from the book, especially since the author provided the source information, but I tried for two days to get into the museum’s website, and all I got was the spinning green wheel of doom.)
(These sheath dresses were called fourreaux and there is an interesting discussion of them at American Duchess, but it does not refer to their use on fashion house models.)
Many writers of the time commented on mannequins’ lack of expression. Evans quotes an article from 1880:
Between the four mirrors of an immense salon…They come and they go, thin and tall, neatly coiffed, with no jewelry, with the indifferent air of mannequins, removing and re-donning the same model ten times, and with a slow, rhythmic step they walk away and back again, to turn elegance to good account.”
In a later chapter, Evans writes, “One of their attributes was to appear not to know that they were being looked at, and to cultivate an automaton-like impassivity.” (p. 174)
Apparently this blank look was encouraged, both to enable the client to better focus on the garment and imagine herself wearing it, and to fend off inappropriate ogling from any men in the audience.
Some other interesting facts I learned from this book:
- designers would sometimes create over 100 designs, and send their models out to attend horse races or promenade in the park, and register reactions to the garments. Then they would put the most popular in their collections.
- couture houses were regulated — they had to make clothing to measure, employ at least 20 people, present collections twice a year, in spring and autumn, with at least 75 models shown on living mannequins, and to offer these same collections at least 45 times a year to individual clients. (p. 32)
But while I learned a lot from this book, I did not enjoy wading through it. Not only is the text extremely dense, but the tone throughout is negative, accusing the fashion industry of robbing the mannequins of their true individuality. That may be a valid criticism, but I don’t think making it requires 261 pages, full of terms like “haptic gaze” and “metaphysical and epistemological destabilisation.”
I will pick a page at random and find a typical example — since I am writing this on 2/11, I will choose page 211:
When the mannequin ‘modelled’ the new, slender body shape, she turned her back on the stiff body forms of the nineteenth-century wicker mannequin and towards the differently articulated body of the future, one whose flexions were conditioned by popular dance and sport; as she walked, her form assimilated the rhythms of modernity…Just as the styling and scenography of Paquin’s and Patou’s shows before the war were proto-modernist, so too were the body types of the mannequins they selected…
And the whole book was pretty much like that. And yet it doesn’t seem like it was meant just for scholars and specialists, because of its coffee-table size and the huge number of full-page fashion photographs.
This book has been on my shelf for quite a while and I am glad I finally read it. In watching the videos from Fashion Week 2021, I did catch visual references to some of the classic fashion houses, that I would never have noticed before reading this book.
And in chasing down the sources that Evans cited, I came across some great finds! One is this 1910 book, Les créateurs de la mode, available through the Internet Archive. I love this book because it has wonderful fashion illustrations, and photographs of representative staff members of an atelier, as well as of the models and clients. I linked to the whole book below, but I am going to highlight just a few of the fascinating photographs here too.
So if you would like a peek into the world of fashion in 1910, I recommend this second book — yes, it is in French, but I am pretty sure you could run the whole thing through Google Translate faster than you could read even one chapter of The Mechanical Smile. 🙂
Hmm, I had never thought about it. Guess it was out of my perview! Thanks for that quick look.
The mechanical smile, hmmmm, probably. I always thought they look hungry/grumpy!
I love the old pictures. Something about their fashions once being alive and popular. I too have always wondered why models look so mean. Like I dare you to come within ten feet of me. Of course, maybe I’d feel the same way if I was paid to model such silly outfits in front of the world!
Yes, I would love to know if people actually wear any of those designs to a gala, and what people’s reactions are if they do!
I enjoyed watching the video. Not one garment would be suitable for wearing anywhere I go (or would go, if the places I’d love to go to were open). The clothes I most loved are the ones that would look horrible on my body–the well-fitted ones, or the unbulky drapey ones. Most of the clothes would be too extreme for the fanciest place I ever go, the symphony. (Realize that in Phoenix, half the audience wears shorts and t-shirts.)
I agree, I have absolutely nowhere to wear those designs, but it would be fun to do it once — maybe walking down the Strip in Las Vegas. I just enjoy seeing all the creative details that could find their way into a quilt some day! 🙂
Thanks textile ranger for another interesting lecture. I learn so much from your posts.
Not necessarily useful information, but fun to know! 🙂
What an interesting post. I’ve always figured that the models don’t show any emotion because all the attention should go to the garment. I thoroughly enjoyed the video, some of the design features on the garments were amazing (and how do they do them, I wondered??). None of those garments would look good on me, but the Stephane Rolland designs were stunning!
Yes, and I guess when they are just walking down the catwalk, their expressions aren’t so noticeable — but since they were viewed more closely in the videos, I noticed their expressions more.
That’s interesting that you liked the Stephane Rolland designs — very clean lines, very sculptural. I was more of an Armani Prive fan — not that I could wear them, but I loved all the flowing lines of beading on the dresses.
That was fun. I think models aren’t really bored. They are simply trying to walk in impossible shoes (except for those pink soled high tops) or dealing with double wide mantuas, which must take some concentration. The horse was a nice touch. The other models smiled when that appeared, no doubt glad they didn’t have to ride it.
Yes, the horse was beautiful, but boy, that bride looked mean! If I was her husband to be I would turn and run! 🙂
Thanks! I enjoyed both the fashion show and our post!
I always assumed the Look was to make you disassociate from them as people and engage instead with what they were wearing. Otherwise there was a danger you’d spend the moments they were on the catwalk admiring the beauty of the woman rather than the beauty of the outfit. The extreme make up, may, I think, serve the same function as a mask, anonymising (is that a word?) the personality into a sort of animated, elegant, slinky doll. Great post, really interesting and information-dense.
Even if I had that kind of money, I think it would be hard for me to buy something that didn’t look like it could spark some happiness. But fortunately, I will be spared that choice! 🙂
That was so fun to watch! My favorite outfits were the Armani and the Dior. Everything else seemed a little to crazy for me! But the clothes are truly art and were amazing to see on all those models who look like they desperately need a sandwich – ha! It was very interesting to learn the history of why models look so blank and bored and it now makes sense – great post!
I loved the Armani too, and oh, Dior! My favorite since 1947! (And I wasn’t even born then.) They have a series of very short videos showing how all the techniques are done. I am so glad they are supporting artisans who still do the classic crafts.
I enjoyed your post more than I would enjoy that book, I think, and the video is great. If only we had occasion to wear such things! I wonder if models started off acting as if they were automata manikins. Maybe they were really meant be viewed as clothes displays rather than individual living people. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to see how how it would inspire anyone to want look like them 🙂
The book is good if you just look at the pictures! 🙂 Actually, there were big chunks of it that I enjoyed, where she quoted from actual models, buyers, and even an artist whose job was to go to the fashion shows and steal the designs! But there was too much jargon about economic theories and so on for my taste.
That was fascinating! I never would have thought that the bored expression on models dates so far back. In Macau at one of —really the only—big department stores, one of the high fashion brands used to have models wandering around the store in their clothes sometimes. I found it so odd, though it certainly got my attention.
Oh, wouldn’t that story make a fascinating book? Tracing how the practice of live models moved around the world? It’s got me wondering if fashionable geisha were given kimono to wear out in public to spark interest in new fabric styles, etc. etc.
CONGRATULATIONS! Your blog has been included in INTERESTING blogs in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
Thank you, Chris
I know it is a bit late, but you might enjoy this alternative approach to modeling from Colors of Africa. I certainly did!