August 21 2014

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Where Did Models Come From?


Vintage model images from Caroline Evans' new book

The signature struts of today’s catwalkers, such as Cara Delevingne and Karlie Kloss, can be traced back to the early twentieth century, when the shift toward movement and modernity produced a desire to see clothes in motion. Staged in the U.S. and France, these first fashion shows were—as Caroline Evans posits in her new book, The Mechanical Smile—”a nodal point” for the convergence of everything from visual art and cinema to international trade and women’s liberation. “This shift occurs in the same period as cinema, so you have lots of moving devices, and people were particularly fascinated by the technology,” Evans, a professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, told from London. “Collectively, it contributed to a sense of modernity and a sense of speed and acceleration.”

Though not the first designer to use live models, Charles Frederick Worth was, in the nineteenth century, among the earliest dressmakers to account for movement in his creations. And later, Lady Duff-Gordon and the House of Lucile, as well as Paul Poiret, among others, helped foster the early twentieth-century rise of the fashion show. In time, models replaced the practice of using dolls to sell clothes. “The most pioneering designers were all excellent sales promoters,” Evans said. “Fashion is an industry. It’s a creative industry, but there’s no reason why you can’t sell creativity.”

Vintage model images from Caroline Evans' new book

Evans writes that by the twenties, though they were neither socially respected nor permitted to speak until spoken to, “mannequins had a powerful symbolic presence. They were eloquent icons of modernity, even in their silence.” For instance, fashion models’ “body techniques” took cues from and influenced many manners of society, from women’s favored photography poses (hips forward, shoulders back, hands on hips) to the preference for slender frames, which, for the models, was generally coupled with an unsmiling, blank stare—no doubt a familiar sight to readers of today’s glossies.

The Mechanical Smile: Modernism and the First Fashion Shows in France and America, 1900-1929 will be released by Yale University Press this July and is currently available for preorder.

Photos: Images courtesy of Fashion Institute of Technology|SUNY, Gladys Marcus Library Department of Special Collections 

Dept. of Culture