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:

1890s model wearing a fourreau under the dress she is modeling.

(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.

Galerie Paquin, 1910, source

Salon Doucet, 1910, source

Research of a new dress model, 1910, source

Les mannequins, 1910, source

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.  🙂