Friday, 22 July 2016

'Classically ageless': unpacking a classic myth.


This is the time of the year when agelessness, perhaps with a touch of tokenism, is featured in magazines. For some years now  Vogue has had an annual issue dedicated to agelessness, this year it was the one that came out in July with RenĂ©e Zwelleger, now 48, on the cover.
I feel ambivalent about this idea of 'agelessness'.  On one hand,  the notion of agelessness taps into our classical cultural roots - classical art and classicism are after all, by definition ageless - on the other,  it is a euphemism for 'near-youthfulness' or 'youthfulness' which is what classical art, after all,  eulogises.  The 'ageless' women we are prompted to regard as aspirational tend to be the ones who have made a success of having been able to defeat the  'ravages' of time - we truly need a different vocabulary to talk about older age, the words we use to discuss it are so loaded!


Very occasionally magazines will show us images of women who really do look their age and point to them as positive templates, see for instance Elle India who recently featured 72 year old India based Belgian model and designer  Lou Van Damme. Sadly such initiatives tend to attract negative comments, often from other women. Alyson Walsh in her great blog That's not my age posted photos of Lou and commenters immediately remarked Lou was so wrinkly, she looked 'much older', and she must have been out in the sun for far too much of her time  or her face would not be so lined. I personally think her face is rather beautiful, with an amazing bone structure. I do not mind her lines at all.
It is interesting that it's Elle India that carries such a feature. I have seen a more forward looking and more accepting attitude towards old age in Asian countries than in Europe or America. Last year I was in Indonesia and the cover of the September issue of high fashion magazine Dewi, published by the Femina Group, the powerful sponsor of the annual Jakarta Fashion Week, was graced by a 50 plus model, sporting a few un-photoshopped lines on her very beautiful face. I was told it was part of a general warning about botox and cosmetic surgery, making the point that signs of ageing can be graceful - in Indonesia cosmetic surgery is unregulated, and quite widespread among the elite who seem to have been lured into the Hollywood aesthetics of youthful appearance.

Model and actor Sarita Saib who posed for the cover of Dewi September 2015

I truly do not like the word 'ageless', it is quite patronising. The aesthetics of youthfulness, which underwrites it,  significantly informs age identity, and it reduces ageing individuals to members of  a homogeneous group, a fact which could not be further removed from reality.  There is more to the identity of an individual than his or her age. If one is seen principally as an individual rather than as a member of the ‘aged’ or ‘ageing’ group, this changes the way age and the ageing process are perceived.
This is precisely the line of thinking followed by initiatives such as The Age of No Retirement, an intergenerational social enterprise, fighting for ‘age equality’ whilst  keeping a firm eye on fashion and how fashion can facilitate its intervention in the public arena or, within the fashion world, by cutting edge model agencies such as  GreyModel Agency, which eschews the ‘classic model’ template embraced by almost all model agencies, most of whom currently parade an ageless ‘classic’ division to fill what is perceived as a possible gap in the market. Grey's  strategy is to posit  the ‘grey’ man or woman as an individual with personality, with all the quirkiness of an individual.  The agency’s model recruitment reflects this mission and the models, both male and female, are invariably put forward for roles ordinarily filled by younger models in an attempt to subvert perceptions of age as a leveller and of classic  ‘agelessness’ as the golden standard.

Lou Van Damme for Elle India
The insistence on ‘agelessness’  as the only way forward should be questioned, because  it creates an impossible standard, one which is not within reach without external interventions, such as cosmetic surgery. Aspiring to be 'ageless', in other words, won't do us any good. That's why I really celebrate Lou's wrinkles.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

A life model on fashion models

American poet, now also fiction writer, Kelley Swain's new book The Naked Muse was published last May, a memoir of her modelling days. It was also discussed as part of  BBC Radio 4 programme  Start of the Week, on 2nd May 2016 bringing together Grayson Perry, Emma Rice, Alice Coote and Kelley Swain to talk about masculinity.
Swain was a life model throughout  her twenties, while living and studying in Oxford and then London. That was not too long ago, as she is just thirty now. I have to thank Rachel McCarthy, director of the Register of Artists' Models, of which Kelley Swain was a member when she modelled, for alerting current members - hence me - through the RAM blog, of this new publication about life models.
There are only a few books about art modelling written by models and this one is a good read. I went through it quickly and I recognised myself in parts of the narrative, even though I am obviously a very different model from Swain, physically and temperamentally, not to mention other differences due to age and upbringing.
 The similarities are in terms of how I have often felt while modelling for artists, something Swain captures very vividly.  Sure,  I did not pose for Bill in Bruges, nor have I been  portrayed as a saint in a chapel frieze (though an English painter started a portrait of me as Hypatia, unfortunately never completed) but I had the experience of posing for artists that would try and replicate the darkness of the traditional Florentine workshops in their studio. I also had the opportunity to model full time for a residency  at The Retreat in The Marche a few years ago and on that occasion I was gifted with a beautiful painting of me by a known Israeli artist  which now hangs in my living room. I have been posing fairly regularly for a bunch of other artists, too many to mention. I continue to do life modelling (which I prefer to call art modelling even though it may be confused with the art nude photographic modelling I have also done a lot of ) from time to time. I have been art modelling since I was twenty, on and off - I talked about it in a recent blog post.

Photographer: Irene Barlian
I was however taken aback at how dismissive Kelley Swain is, at some point in the book, of fashion models whom she regards as "oddly proportioned, underfed and hardened". That was a rather gratuitous observation she could have spared us with. Her point was that she was not  fashion model material, in her own perception of herself. Fair enough. But I wonder how she could fall  for such a stereotypical appraisal of fashion models in fashion magazines without attempting to see through the artifice of their portrayal? I did not expect this at all and found her remarks not only unnecessary but even a touch offensive.
Modelling for fashion and, generally, for photography, requires skills that no one teaches, and which like one does with life modelling, one picks up while doing it, helped along the way by more experienced models and by photographers, as well as one's imagination and commitment. Fashion models, moreover, are not just a bunch of gangly teenagers who provide the blank canvas for designers, stylists and photographers. In our contemporary world there are many different kinds of photographic models working in fashion and in advertising - old, young, realistically sized, unrealistically sized ie thin and very thin,  fat and very fat, petite and very tall, heavily tattooed and with no tattoo at all. You name it.  There is also the phenomenon of Instagram which is turning absolutely everyone into a model - I have a few friends who have discovered the art of taking selfies which they edit with various filters and upload regularly. It's their personal take on modelling, Instagram has provided people with an instant outlet for their creativity, we are all models and artists now, we just need an Instagram account.

Photo for Selena Shepherd's Lookbook
 Back to Kelley Swain's views  of fashion models.  As someone who has experienced several types of modelling, I can never be dismissive of any and will always try to see it from the model's angle. Fashion models work hard, a lot harder than people warrant. Their level of pay can be pretty abysmal. Sure, there are the ones that are at the pinnacle, the high earners, but they are only a handful.  The reality for the majority of models is pretty different - jobs are often unpaid or paid a real pittance, at least life models are given some cash in hand at the end of the job, they do not have to go through the very tiresome , rather humiliating, process of pestering account departments for their meagre fee. There is also the constant feeling of inadequacy instilled by the awareness that one is after all rather disposable, there are so many other models to choose from and so many who are more beautiful...more whatever than you. Being able to conjure up extreme self confidence in one's looks and talent becomes a survival skill.
So it really does not help when someone as gifted as Kelley Swain also has a snipe at fashion models. Who does it benefit?

A life model on fashion models

Photographer: Vanessa Mills

American poet, now also fiction writer, Kelley Swain's new book The Naked Muse was published last May, a memoir of her modelling days. It was also discussed as part of  BBC Radio 4 programme  Start of the Week, on 2nd May 2016 bringing together Grayson Perry, Emma Rice, Alice Coote and Kelley Swain to talk about masculinity.
Swain was a life model throughout  her twenties, while living and studying in Oxford and then London. That was not too long ago, as she is just thirty now. I have to thank Rachel McCarthy, director of the Register of Artists' Models, of which Kelley Swain was a member when she modelled, for alerting current members - hence me - through the RAM blog, of this new publication about life models.
There are only a few books about art modelling written by models and this one is a good read. I went through it quickly and I recognised myself in parts of the narrative, even though I am obviously a very different model from Swain, physically and temperamentally, not to mention other differences due to age and upbringing.
 The similarities are in terms of how I have often felt while modelling for artists, something Swain captures very vividly.  Sure,  I did not pose for Bill in Bruges, nor have I been  portrayed as a saint in a chapel frieze (though an English painter started a portrait of me as Hypatia, unfortunately never completed) but I had the experience of posing for artists that would try and replicate the darkness of the traditional Florentine workshops in their studio. I also had the opportunity to model full time for a residency  at The Retreat in The Marche a few years ago and on that occasion I was gifted with a beautiful painting of me by a known Israeli artist  which now hangs in my living room. I have been posing fairly regularly for a bunch of other artists, too many to mention. I continue to do life modelling (which I prefer to call art modelling even though it may be confused with the art nude photographic modelling I have also done a lot of ) from time to time. I have been art modelling since I was twenty, on and off - I talked about it in a recent blog post.

Photographer: Irene Barlian
I was however taken aback at how dismissive Kelley Swain is, at some point in the book, of fashion models whom she regards as "oddly proportioned, underfed and hardened". That was a rather gratuitous observation she could have spared us with. Her point was that she was not  fashion model material, in her own perception of herself. Fair enough. But I wonder how she could fall  for such a stereotypical appraisal of fashion models in fashion magazines without attempting to see through the artifice of their portrayal? I did not expect this at all and found her remarks not only unnecessary but even a touch offensive.
Modelling for fashion and, generally, for photography, requires skills that no one teaches, and which like one does with life modelling, one picks up while doing it, helped along the way by more experienced models and by photographers, as well as one's imagination and commitment. Fashion models, moreover, are not just a bunch of gangly teenagers who provide the blank canvas for designers, stylists and photographers. In our contemporary world there are many different kinds of photographic models working in fashion and in advertising - old, young, realistically sized, unrealistically sized ie thin and very thin,  fat and very fat, petite and very tall, heavily tattooed and with no tattoo at all. You name it.  There is also the phenomenon of Instagram which is turning absolutely everyone into a model - I have a few friends who have discovered the art of taking selfies which they edit with various filters and upload regularly. It's their personal take on modelling, Instagram has provided people with an instant outlet for their creativity, we are all models and artists now, we just need an Instagram account.

Photo for Selena Shepherd's Lookbook
 Back to Kelley Swain's pronouncements on fashion models.  As someone who has experienced several types of modelling, I can never be dismissive of any and will always try to see it from the model's angle. Fashion models work hard, a lot harder than people warrant. Their level of pay can be pretty abysmal. Sure, there are the ones that are at the pinnacle, the high earners, but they are only a handful.  The reality for the majority of models is pretty different - jobs are often unpaid or paid a real pittance, at least life models are given some cash in hand at the end of the job, they do not have to go through the very tiresome , rather humiliating, process of pestering account departments for their meagre fee. There is also the constant feeling of inadequacy instilled by the awareness that one is after all rather disposable, there are so many other models to choose from and so many who are more beautiful...more whatever than you. Being able to conjure up extreme self confidence in one's looks and talent becomes a survival skill.
So it really does not help when someone as gifted as Kelley Swain also has a snipe at fashion models. Who does it benefit?

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Life post-Brexit

Photographer: Carolina Mizrahi. Model: me For Afternyne magazine

The past two weeks have been so weird I have often thought I was having a prolonged nightmare. The 23rd of June was a very normal day, I did a shoot for Pompom magazine, August issue, at a great Hampstead location, the magnificent Pergola. I was late in getting to the polling station but I made it. On the way, I kept on bumping into people giving out 'In' stickers and I took two of them for both sides of my large bag from a very cheerful young woman  - even laughed about it with her, explaining why I really wanted two. At the polling station I said I would keep my poll card, as a 'souvenir' of a momentous referendum. More laughter. I never meant to be a Cassandra!
It did not even cross my mind that this referendum would be won by the Leavers - I agreed, for once,  with David Cameron  when he said dismissively,  a few years ago, that the Leavers were fruitcakes. On the 24th morning I had nowhere to rush to and put the TV on while breakfasting - bad habit I know, but I wanted to check the results - and then I choked. I was...incredulous, stunned, not sure I had seen or heard the right thing.
For the past two weeks I have tried to get my head around it. What is going on?

The Pergola, Hampstead
It is the question my relatives in Italy have been asking me. Italian politics is usually highly dramatic and full of antics but since Brexit won the UK has surpassed it. For the past two weeks my TV has been constantly tuned on BBC News. Every day there is some twist and new development  in a riveting narrative no theatrical production can possibly compete with, except that it is all rather tragic and it affects people quite badly. You just don't know what's coming next, our political class seems to have completely lost the plot.
Brexit is bad news. It has unleashed xenophobia and made it all right for people to be openly racist. It has made uncertainty a constant. My young son called me the other day to say he was applying for an Italian passport at once, could I help him with the forms (his Italian is good but legalese is not his forte)? He had delayed it for a long time, never believing he would really need this second passport and not wanting to part with the passport fee.  Not anymore. "I have been stripped of my European identity and status" he said. "I want it back". And he is considering relocating to a EU country in the long run.
I am British because of my marriage - long dissolved. When I realised London was going to be my home I wanted to be able to vote and participate with full rights in the life of the community. But I am Italian by birth and European by upbringing. I come from a very cosmopolitan family. As things stand, I would not be surprised if at some point people like me, with two nationalities, one of which from a EU country, were asked to choose one, absurd though it might seem now - I hope I am not having here another Cassandra moment.

The Pergola , Hampstead
Last weekend an article by Charlie Porter in the FT considered what Brexit might mean for fashion. The article opens with the lines "the impact of Brexit on the fashion industry is daunting, brain -scrambling and multi-levelled". Not very good at all. The article raises the question of what will happen to British talent who for the past thirty years has benefitted from flowing so freely in the various capitals of fashion, Paris for example. Now a situation will arise whereby top recognised talent will obtain visas and work permits but young fashion graduates will no longer be able to go and knock on say, Givenchy's or Dior's doors for a job that will teach them all the ropes.
Will it change the modelling business? I am not sure of all the implications.  I know that at present models can go to Milan and Paris and get easily hired for Fashion Weeks. This might not be so easy in future for British models as the issue of work permits will arise. There will be a lot of screening.
Meanwhile I keep on monitoring the situation.
One thing is certain. I'd rather leave by choice than being forced to by political whims.