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The Death of the SuperModel 

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

By: Cassandra Torres

Influencers, models, and celebrities are among some of this generation’s tastemakers. Before the age of social media, trends were set primarily by fashion magazines and the celebrities featured in them. This idea is depicted perfectly in “The Devil Wears Prada,”, a glimpse into the not-so glamorous life of fashion’s elite. The need for magazines in some people’s lives has become superfluous after the transition into the digital era. Now more than ever, we are seeing a paradigm shift in the fashion industry and the consumption of fashion itself.

According to a report by Axios Media Trends, in the last five years the U.S. consumer magazine industry has decreased by more than 20%. The steady decline of the magazine industry has made space for media consumption through social media. Having access to the newest fashion trends is as easy as opening up TikTok. The newest wave of tastemakers amass a following by posting relatable content on social media platforms, selling out products and creating microtrends whose life spans become shorter and shorter.

Becoming an influencer has no prerequisites, it doesn’t take the familiar approach of being an actor, or a musician, or having pre established fame to gain a following. Everyone can be an influencer as long as they have something to say, making the traditional It-Girl obsolete. The influence these public figures have on the economy is driving fashion houses like Dior, Michael Kors, and Versace to use them in promotion on and off the runway. Who walks the runways in an era of TikTok, influencer marketing and social awareness. This season especially has seen the rise of social media influencers on the runway leaving us to wonder, is the supermodel really dead? To answer this question, we must look back at the history of modeling.

We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day 

Photo courtesy of: @KateMossAgency, Kate Moss at John Galliano Spring 1994

Before the likes of Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and before the Linda Evangelistas of the world, there was a simple way to display the garments to the fashion community. This system was not as glamorous as the runway we know today. Instead, the made-to-order garments were displayed by women who looked like you and me.  

In the early 20s, the term model was referred to as “demoiselles de magasins” or “living mannequin”. The sole purpose of a model was to display the clothing in an atelier where they would be expected to stay still and avoid eye contact. One of the first recorded uses of models was in the mid-1800s with Charles Frederick Worth using young women to display his clothing. Often, he would use models who matched his clients’ body types. Worth would use these models as “doubles” of the client to give them a visual representation. This life did not come with prestige or higher social status, quite the opposite. These young women were seen as immoral for profiting off their bodies regardless of the strict attire that they were expected to wear under their corsets. It wasn’t until the early 20’s that modeling was seen as a viable career path.

The modeling industry steadily changed with the insurgence of modeling agencies, high-production fashion shows, and the Industrial Revolution.

Industrialism, but make it fashion.

Fashion has always been a marker of history and society, and this is no different from the Industrial Revolution. During that time there was a boom in textile manufacturing. New technologies like the sewing machine, the power loom, and steam power provided a new method of production making clothing cheaper and easier to obtain (birthing consumerism), ultimately leading to the alpha sizing system. Making a standardized product made it easier for mass production. Paving the way for the system used today. Despite some of these innovations, Haute Couture continued to be handmade. At the time people had more choices than ever causing department stores and designers to compete for their consumer’s money.

The Alpha sizing system includes sizes XS-XL however, some brands include more inclusive sizing such as 3XL. This system slowly changed the way models looked. Models no longer reflected the average consumer and over time models became slimmer and taller to fit into the sample size garments. Along with sizing came the evolution of the runway.

Before, the average runway took place at department stores. Runways were practical, models would walk slowly on the runway often holding a number making it easy for viewers to order their outfits. There were no elaborate themes, no muddy runways, no rocket launches, and certainly no A-list celebrities sitting front row.

The Emergence of the Runway as Art

Designer Lady Duff Gordon is credited for holding one of the first “mannequin parades.” In 1901 Lady Duff Gordon also known as Lucile held a catwalk for her collection ‘Gowns of Emotion’. Her catwalks told a story complimentary to her designs. Her fashion shows were carefully curated conscious of the lightning, the background, and the music. This was one of the first shows that was invitation only with guests of the same socioeconomic background sitting in the front row.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that everything changed, the fashion show became an entity of its own, it became an extension of the art, adapted to fit each collection. Runway shows were no longer limited to department stores and salons, instead, designers opted to use unique settings.

Caroline Evans in “The Enchanted Spectacle” explains the complexity of the Runway.

“The fashion show also has a relationship to art, theater and film; to consumerism; and to the commodification and eroticization of the female form in mass culture; in short to the wider formation of gender, image, desire and commerce in the 20th century.”

This was the time fashion magazines changed the way models were viewed. Designers had final say on what was seen of their collections. Designers selecting the perfect models with “the look” to be the face of their brand. They put out an image of the perfect woman, young, thin, and beautiful, a cool girl. The Victoria Secret fashion show is a perfect example. The models chosen for their runway is a perfect curation of the image they wanted to put out, an angel. This was their claim to fame but also the bullet that put their runway show to death.

Photo courtesy of @CTurlington

You Can’t Sit With Us 

Many of these events were only for buyers, clients, journalists, and some celebrities behind closed doors. The exclusivity of these fashion shows established to the public unattainable standards. As time went on fashion shows were held in bigger spaces for a wider audience. There were some designers who sold tickets to their shows and the juxtaposition arose between identity and bodies.

“Something of this paradox also typified the fashion mannequin in the same period, where an ambiguity arose as to what, exactly, was for sale: the dress, or the woman modeling it,” explained Evans.

This was a time when the line between celebrity and model was blurred. Models like Suzy Parker, Pattie Boyd, and Donyale Luna (the first black supermodel) began to appear off the runway. Parker, Boyd, and Luna transcended into stardom by appearing in films, magazines, and campaigns. Similarly, the first model to have a partnership with a brand was Lauren Hutton, her deal with Revlon in 1969 would pave the way for the likes of Margaux Hemingway, Paulina Porizkova, and the face of CoverGirl, Christie Brinkley. 

But we can’t not talk about the 90’s

Fast forward to the 90’s heroin chic was in, and neon colors were out. This was the era of the supermodel. The “Trinity:” Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Linda Evangelista. Her quote explained the SuperModel in 10 words or less “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”. This line up would eventually turn into the “Big Six” to include Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, and Claudia Schiffer. The SuperModel became a cultural icon, a celebrity, the zeitgeist of the fashion industry.

What are your thoughts on supermodels in the public sphere and global fashion industry? Let us know on Instagram and Twitter or let us know in the comments!

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