Monday, 31 March 2014

More on diversity and fashion

Photographer: Michael Blann. Model: myself

Thanks to a comment left anonymously on this blog I was able to read about discrimination in the Australian fashion industry, which is dominated by Caucasian models. I am giving the link here, as it is in the comments to my earlier post and it may not be immediately visible.
Racism in the fashion and beauty industry is rampant and there are very few non-Caucasian models to be seen in magazines and on the catwalk. Alek Wek, invoked by Oscar winning actor Lupita Nyong'o as her inspiration has been incredibly fortunate, in that she became a supermodel because of  her African look. Yet she is an exception - a welcome one -  and her success is due to exoticization, an 'othering' which is a companion to racism - the famous dancer Josephine Baker, the 'Black Venus', is an apt example of this kind of exoticization.

Josephine Baker, print from

A more common, ultimately racist and, generally, an entrenched bias in the industry that goes unquestioned, is that of wanting models, regardless of their ethnicity, to  be as close as possible to a Caucasian prototype that only applies to Nordic people or people of Nordic descent. So, for example, mediterranean models are chided for not being 'model tall' or 'model skinny', whatever that means.
I was recently reading an interview with Monica Bellucci,  who at the age of fifty is the face of Dolce and Gabbana's beauty and make up range. This is a remarkable achievement if we think that it is not so long ago that Lancome unceremoniously dropped Isabella Rossellini as soon as she hit the age of forty. So well done Stefano and Domenico for deciding to go with Monica Bellucci.
The interviewer, when describing Ms Bellucci, felt compelled to point out that Ms Bellucci is not 'model tall' nor 'model skinny'. Ms Bellucci is not even voluptuous, she is a slim woman whose height is given by her agency Storm as 5'9.5 - hardly short. It is rumoured that she may be about an inch or two shorter, apparently fiddling with height  or with measurements on model cards is relatively common, but even if Ms Bellucci were just over 5'7, that is not short by any means, and Ms Bellucci has long legs, something, incidentally that has nothing to do with height, but with body proportions. Though slim, she is definitely not skinny, and in the past she has said that on occasion she has had to battle with weight piling up around her hips, for which she faulted, facetiously, her mediterranean genes. Even though the interviewer went on to praise her beautiful face, the fact that Ms Bellucci had to be introduced to readers as not your  'normal' model, according to a very questionable 'normality' is an example of the bias I am talking about, so deeply entrenched as to colour people's views, often with them not even realising it.

Photographer: Terri Lee-Shield.  Model: myself

In the case of Asian models, the bias becomes outright racism. It is a fact that a pale complexion and a built that somehow resembles that of Caucasian girls is their only passport to model work. Yet different ethnic groups have different characteristics. On the whole, Asian girls tend to be smaller - in height and in size. Then there is the matter of the eyes - East Asian models often have cosmetic surgery in order to have bigger and rounder eyes, like Caucasian girls. In Asia, model agencies will always try to offer their best jobs to European or American models, especially flown in, or sent by their agencies 'on a loan' for a couple of months. When I was visiting Indonesia, a few years ago, a common complaint was how the catwalk shows were always full of girls from Kazakhstan. "We are not good enough for our designers" told me an Indonesian friend who works in fashion.
Who is to blame? No one apparently. Everyone will tell you they are not biased, they are not racist but...this (ie  Caucasian models)  is 'what the consumer wants' and this is a business, after all.
But attitudes can and must change and I hope to be able to see them change  in my own lifetime.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Is diversity not normal?

M&S new campaign. Copyright: M&S

Everyone seemed to be in a real frenzy the other day when the news that TK Maxx had used real shoppers in their new campaign, featuring a lovely sixty two year old catering assistant and an octagenarian, presumably a pensioner.  On the same day Marks and Spencer released part two of the notable British women campaign, with very well known faces, and only one professional model, Alek Wek, styled to look the high fashion model that she is.

I sometimes write for the HuffingtonPost, so Poorna Bell, Lifestyle Editor of the UK edition emailed me to send a comment for her piece.
I copy it here, verbatim:
As a mature model and an active supporter of diversity in fashion and advertising, I am  happy to see that well known brands are realising that they need to have a wider range of models in their campaigns. I just wish this was not sensationalised!  I still cannot help thinking that much of it is rather tokenistic. The day when we will not feel we need to have articles saying “Oh look!  an older model…a black model…a ‘whatever’ model’  will mark a substantial shift in our attitudes. Diversity should be perceived as normal, rather than something to gawk at.  
I wrote that as soon as I got Poorna's email, it really was a gut reaction.

I then went to a most stimulating panel discussion at London College of Fashion, organised by Dr Carolyn Mair and with noted speakers, among whom James Partridge OBE, Founder and Chief Executive of Changing Faces, a UK charity that supports and represents people with facial disfigurement.
One of the things that transpired, during the discussion, endorsed by the two psychologists on the panel, Dr Mair and Dr Chris Pawson, was that if we get used to seeing something our brains will soon perceive it as normal. This applies to the way we react to people whose faces have been severely disfigured: the more we see them, the more we are able to see them as people rather than 'freaks'. In other words we will adjust to taking in their physical characteristics without constantly seeing them as abnormal.
Photographer: Karolina Amberville. Model: myself
Designer: Tomasz Kociuba

It really has, as a principle, a general application. If every time we see an ad featuring a non-conventional model - and I guess that in this day and age of constant photography everyone is a model of sort - we jump up and down and point our finger, it will have the opposite effect: rather than being regarded as normal we will still view it as exceptional. It follows that the very idea of diversity, apart from being trivialised, continues to be regarded as out-of-the-norm.
This is a topic that really requires greater delving into. Ideas of beauty keep on changing. Back in the 1950s or even 1960s a woman as tall as Alek Wek or L'Wren Scott, the American designer that recently passed away (and for whom Passing Lives asked me to write an obituary) would have been regarded as freakish rather than beautiful. In Alek Wek's case, for a long time, she was seen as an exotic African woman and it was her exoticism that was noted, as an extension of that attitude which Sosipatra discussed in her recent guest post.
As for using real people in advertising, this is a practice that has been going on for decades. Some 'real people' are just a category of models and actors who simply do not fit the criteria for catwalk and editorial modelling but are still professional. The label is bizarre because it kind of implies that fashion models are not real people. But, still, I can see that it is short hand for saying 'people who do not have a model look' whatever that maybe because, as we know, the model look does change. It takes time to change it, but it does change, as shown by Rick Owens choice of models for Paris Fashion week.
That's what campaigns like All Walks are striving to achieve.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Guest post by Victoria

This was another guest post related to the history of art modelling, which I am now re-posting. Penned by Victoria Sears Goldman, whom I thank profusely. 

In their novel Manette Salomon (1867)Edmund and Jules Goncourt characterize the art model as the natural mistress of the artist.  Indeed, century courtesans did often model for painters during the nineteenth century.

Many have speculated as to whether Victorine Meurent, Edouard Manet’s preferred model during the 1860s, was a prostitute.  Beyond this speculation, there has been a persistent and inexplicable desire by Manet historians to assign to Victorine the role of prostitute.  So great has been the discussion of Victorine’s morality or lack thereof both during the 1860s and by art historians since that Victorine herself came to function as part of the content of Manet’s paintings; the morality of the real Victorine has become part of the subject matter of the most famous paintings in which she appears, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, both dating to 1863 and currently in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.   

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe Commons.

But who was Victorine in reality, and why was her identity so tied up with that of the women she embodies in Manet’s paintings?  She is assumed to have been a prostitute, to have lived a life of debauchery.  Are these descriptions accurate?

Victorine-Louise Meurent was born in Paris in 1844 to an artisan family.  Her name first appears in the artist Thomas Couture’s payment accounts for his models in 1861.  Manet may have met Victorine through Couture, but this cannot be determined with certainty, as it has also been claimed that Manet simply spotted Victorine on the street, carrying her guitar. At the age of eighteen Victorine first modeled for Manet for The Street Singer, and she would go on to pose for nine of his canvasesVictorine continued to model for Manet until the early 1870s, when she began taking art classes at the Académie Julian and parted ways with the artist.   In 1876 her paintings were selected for the Paris Salon—the very Salon which, ironically, rejected Manet’s work that year.  She would also exhibit works at the Salons of 1879, 1885, and 1904, and in 1903 she was elected a member of the Société des Artistes Français.  Nevertheless, she struggled for recognition and died, poor and forgotten, in 1928.

Today only one of Victorine’s paintings is known to have survived – Le Jour des Rameaux (Palm Sunday), which was recovered in 2004 and is now owned by the Musée Municipal d'Art et d'Histoire de Colombes.   The locations of Victorine’s other paintings are unknown.  

It is difficult to know whether Manet chose Victorine to model for him because she was already a known personality, or whether it was through his paintings that she became one.   Either way she was well-known in the Latin Quarter.  Some claim she was a minor celebrity, perhaps attending the bals of the Parisian demi-monde: gatherings at which different classes mixed, featuring dancers and actresses, where the attendees could act as either voyeurs or participants.  There are multiple of accounts of Louises and Victorines who frequented the bals.

Prostitutes were, of course, a ubiquitous presence in the demi-monde, and in Paris during the Second Empire, there were many types of prostitutes, from the brothel and street prostitute to the courtesan.  But was Victorine herself a prostitute? The name “Victorine” is not unlike those adopted by prostitutes.  However, there seems to be little evidence to support the claim that Victorine in fact deserved that label.  In her book Alias Olympia, Eunice Lipton found no evidence for Victorine as a prostitute, and while documentation of her life after posing for Manet’s The Railway in 1872-73 is scarce, a letter written by Victorine to Manet’s widow in 1883 hardly suggests she was reduced to prostitution.  Nevertheless, questions about Victorine’s virtue persisted during and beyond the 1860s.  Studio and café gossip in the 1880s implied she was an alcoholic.  Yet she was also a music teacher and competent enough as a painter to have works accepted by the Salon on multiple occasions.

Not only were Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia the most famous images of Victorine; they were also the only paintings in which she would appear nude.  Both paintings quote Venetian works—Giorgione/Titian’s Fête champêtre (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) and Titian’s Venus of Urbino (Olympia)—and share the nude as their subject matter.

Early sixteenth-century Venetian painters created the European tradition of the female nude.  In particular, the sleeping Venus seems to have been an invention of the Venetian Renaissance.  However, it is important to note that traditionally, Venus is not a seductress but rather the personification of a natural force.  Her normal habitat in painting is landscape; once a nude appears in any other context, it ceases to be a symbol of a natural force and becomes a living person in an actual place at a known time.  This is in part why Olympia caused such a stir.  She was explicitly connected to a particular time and place: contemporary Paris.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, female nudes were appreciated so long as they were in the guise of goddesses or mythological figures.  Nude mythological figures were acceptable because they were removed in time and represented an ideal of beauty—an ideal quite separate from the unidealized contemporary prostitute.  The novelty of Manet’s modernism lay in its use of imagery not previously associated with high art.

Olympia Commons.wikimedia. org

Images of the female nude, from Titian’s Venus of Urbino to Cabanel’s Birth of Venus, had always made a “still life” of the human body—a luxury commodity, an object of appetite and imaginary consumption, rather than a sign for subjectivity.   Furthermore, desire was no part of the nude: the nude is human form in general, abstracted from life.  But Olympia travestied the traditional nude.  She was not abstracted from life; she was life.   Indeed, the public saw something other than a traditional Venus figure in Olympia.  They saw a woman who was “unwashed,” and who, by virtue of her dirtiness and nakedness, was indicative of class.  Olympia’s naked presence represented a shocking symbol of the profane prostitute, not of a mythological deity.  T.J. Clark argues that Olympia was problematic because it “altered and played with identities the culture wished to keep still, pre-eminently those of the nude and the prostitute, and that that was largely why it proved so unpopular.”

Camille Lemonnier wrote in 1870 that “in order to stay virginal the nude in art must be impersonal and must not particularize.”  By situating Olympia in contemporary Paris and casting Victorine—a known figure—in the role, Olympia particularized.    Clark writes that “the achievement of Olympia is that it gives its female subject a particular sexuality as opposed to a general one.”

Victorine’s nudity in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe caused a scandal as well.  Scenes of picnicking were by no means foreign to the Salon; it was that the contrast of Victorine to her dressed male companions prevented the viewer from romanticizing the painting into a vision of an innocent Arcadian past.  Manet chose to portray Victorine nude in Déjeuner in order to remove the academic nude from its traditional trappings and insert it into the reality of contemporary society.

It was the combination of the nudity (or perhaps “nakedness” is a better term), contemporary setting, and recognizability of Victorine that caused the scandal caused by Olympia and Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.  In this way, the model itself became part of the content of the paintings and contributed directly to their controversial nature. Manet’s nude was ugly and real; it had neither the pastoral quality nor the anonymity of a traditional painted nude.  It was not a luxurious commodity available for consumption by the viewer, but rather a woman known to that viewer.  It was Victorine.   


Andersen, Wayne, Manet: The Picnic and the Prostitute (Boston: Editions Fabriart, 2005).

Armstrong, Carol, Manet, Manette (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

Clark, T.J., The Painting of Modern Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).
Farwell, Beatrice, Manet and the Nude (New York: Garland Publishing, 1981).

Main, V.R., “The Naked Truth,” The Guardian, Oct. 2, 2008,

Seibert, Margaret, A Biography of Victorine-Louise Meurent and her role in the Art of Edouard Manet (Diss., Ohio State University, 1986).

Sidlauskas, Susan, “The Spectacle of the Face: Manet’s Portrait of Victorine Meurent,” Perspectives on Manet, ed. Therese Dolan, pp. 29-48.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

A guest post by Sosipatra

A couple of years ago I started a blog meant to explore the history of art modelling. I asked a few writers to contribute but then  somehow the blog lost momentum. I cannot manage two blogs simultaneously, that is the bottom line. 
However I am very appreciative of the effort made by these writers and to make amends for the disappearance of the blog I am now republishing those posts here. This one is by Sosipatra whose nom de plume is Appetitive-Soul. 
It is a post exploring a darker history of modelling. 

After the Boxing Day Tsunami, part of the tourist trade that had been centered on Sri Lanka moved to the Andaman Islands, a dependency of India just off the coast of Burma. A few months ago, The Guardian found a scandal tourists' cell phone videos and stills which showed that the Indian soldiers who are supposed to protect the indigenous people of the Jarawa tribe were, for a fee, running tourists through the tribal areas where they would give a few coins or just food to the native girls to dance topless for them. The Guardian described the officers as running a human zoo.

The idea does seem scandalous, but, then, one doesn't have to search the internet very long to find pictures of European women vacationing on the Andamans sunbathing topless or nude, presumably taken by other tourists' cell-phones (and not always with the model's knowledge). Nor is it very difficult anywhere in the West to find a strip club. Then there's the fact that in traditional Jarawa culture, people generally went nude except for a decorative skirt made of leaves that didn’t cover anything very important. So what is so scandalous?

The scandal is Orientalism.

Edward Said's Orientalism argued that the contribution of the Western imagination (as opposed  to Western industrial and military power) to the colonial enterprise of a century ago was to render the colonized peoples as an other, something objectified and possibly commodified, something that had no culture of its own but could serve as a screen for the projection of fantasies. The Orientals created by the West could be noble savages or wily oriental gentlemen, but they certainly weren't like us, even though they couldn’t exist apart from us. They were, in short, just the kinds of things that could be put in zoos, as The Guardian says. Their essential humanity was taken away. Of course, the Oriental could also be made into the object of pity.

There is nothing new going on in the Andaman Islands. The scandals is that it was supposed to have stopped by now. A hundred years ago, there really were human zoos. Indigenous people from around the world were brought to St. Louis in 1904 for the World's Fair and their pens made up one of the most popular attractions as they cavorted with their colorful foreign ways. No doubt they were paid performers in some sense, but they were nevertheless also exhibits.

If you think this is all just an exaggerated manner of speaking, have a look at this postcard:

Tierpark is the regular German word for zoo, literally an animal park.

Orientalism was a popular genre of the European nude postcard industry (stereotypically called French although the cards were produced from Portugal to England) in the first third of the twentieth century.  Many cards were made using European models (who themselves are generally believed to have been prostitutes in Turkish fancy dress). 

But others took advantage of the European colonial empires to objectify real exoticism. There is not much difference between this card and the Andaman cell phone photos:

More interesting are the cards taken in North Africa. These tried to evoke the image of the harem, a fantasy of erotic mystery and subjugation. It is again believed that most of the models would have been prostitutes. Given the strictures of Arab society it is hard to imagine ordinary women posing nude; nor would photographers, who were European, have had ready access to real harems. An image like this reminds us how closeted Arab women were (and in many cases still are).

Of course, this very exclusion could become a source of fetishism.

As distasteful as much of this is, with its exploitation of human beings and especially of women, the paradox is that human creativity can triumph over our baser instincts and create art and beauty out of anything.

Postcards of native women were issued by many publishers and created by many photographers, but the prince among them was Rudolf Franz Lehnert. He was a Wandervögel (a term which can only be translated as hippy), a German middle class youth whose restless dissatisfaction brought him to North Africa which for him became a kind of paradise. He published a huge series of photos, as books and postcards which today are recognized as one of the great artistic achievements of the early days of photography. His partner was Ernst Heinrich Landrock (they may well have been a gay couple), and they did not shy away from gay themes in their work. 

Their main postcard series was called Scenes et types, as if they were part of some ethnographic research project, undercutting the overwhelming erotic content of the work.

Lehnert often worked to use the ostensibly documentary form of photography to create an evocative fantasy drawing on all the tropes of Orientalism, with its model imprisoned by her very erotic identity, a creature from another world as enticing as she was unobtainable.

Lehnert's best work can stand alongside that of the greatest creative artists.

(Images from Sosipatra's personal collection of postcards)

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Fashion Illustration today

Illustration by Connie Lim

When I was a little girl I used to read my mother's fashion magazines. I lived in Italy back then and the riviste di moda that my stylish mother used to buy regularly were a source of endless fascination for me. There were pages of beautiful drawings of all the catwalk novelties and I used to love the figures - the Italian for fashion illustrator is figurinista and back then I dreamt that one day I would be one.
In pre-digital days photos took ages to develop so the fashion illustrator would often be found sketching furiously at catwalk shows, in order to have some drawings ready for the fashion magazine she worked for, the magazine being eager to show the newest catwalk trends. Famous magazines such as Vogue used to have drawings on their cover until the 1960s.
Somehow my dream of becoming a fashion illustrators evaporated - drawing was not really my thing and I developed other interests.
So it was quite amazing, many years later,  to be asked to model for fashion illustration classes, it brought back memories in some way and it also woke me up to the reality that fashion illustration has not died out, as I had thought, but it is undergoing a massive revival. It has changed of course but it is still thriving.

Photographer: Steven Brown 
Modelling for a fashion illustration class or workshop is quite interesting. It is similar to portrait modelling but poses tend to be standing ones and shoes are often worn as part of a mise. I tend to wear lots of fabric draped around the body, to give a fashiony sense to the pose. It is something that truly allows me to understand the relationship of clothes with the body, the way clothes are worn, the volumes created by the fabric. I love seeing the way illustrators capture the figure.
I have done a little reading about it. Yes, fashion photography has the upper hand today but illustration is truly alive and kicking. Blogs by fashion illustrators can easily be found online - Fashionista has a list of what it regards as the best ten fashion illustration blogs. Hopkins in his book Fashion Design states that good fashion illustration expresses a mood or emotion and this is why the best illustrators tend to work with life models.
Fashion illustration has also been anointed as art and prints now have a good market value. Andy Warhol began as illustrator and turned into a most influential pop artist and other illustrators have had their work turned into art prints - it is indeed an important acknowledgement of their skills and talent. The Fashion Illustration Gallery founded in 2007 curates shows and has a well stocked bookshop.
It would be wonderful to see more fashion illustration in magazines, why not? I also feel that illustrators, who often work with life models, with the latter having different body shapes, can do much to change the perception of the "ideal" body, even more so that photographers.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Fashion magazines and fashion photography

Photographer: Steven Harrison Brown. Model: Myself.Published in RunwayMagazine, Italy

A recent conversation with a friend made me reflect on fashion photography today. The number of online magazines - here I mean magazines, not blogs - inviting submissions from fashion teams comprising photographers, models, MUAs, stylists and designers has grown exponentially. Submissions  are not quite the same as commissions,which seem to be confined to fashion editorials in print magazines, whose number is dwindling. There are excellent analyses of such transitions in fashion today written by specialists in the field and I would refer you to their discussions. Professor of Fashion History and Theory Caroline Evans, for example, talks about the role of the image in fashion  and comments that "it is often the faster moving digital versions of print magazines that are more integral to the industry"(1). Such digital versions also include the fashion film, by which fashion can be presented through the moving image, with ShowStudio as the premier fashion film producer.
I am just concerned here about what this really means for models. Once upon a time publication in a print magazine was something to aspire to and if it carried with it  being on a magazine cover, this was regarded as a great achievement for any fashion model.

Photographer: Steven Harrison Brown. Model: Myself. Published in RunwayMagazine Italy

But now that models' images are in online fashion magazines what does it all mean? The sheer number of submissions is bewildering. I believe this marks a major change in fashion modelling but I am not yet able to gauge the magnitude of such a shift. I'd welcome comments.

(1) "Yesterday's emblems and tomorrow's commodities. the return of the repressed in fashion imagery today" in Fashion cultures revisited: theories, exploration and analysis, Routledge, 2013