Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Fashion and the older model

Maye Musk with son Elon, photo reblogged from BBCNews

I was very happy this morning when on my BBC News feed, among the most depressing news concerning  leaked Brexit papers, the usual song and dance about the young Royal couple(s) and the forthcoming Royal wedding, speculation over Beckham's MLS team and the statement that there is no gender bias in the BBC pay decision making (I thought, from past claims, that there was, I don't quite know what went wrong here) there was an article about 69 year old Maye Musk , also known as the mother of billionaire Elon, currently enjoying a renaissance as a model. It seems that in 2017 she booked more jobs than at any other time in her long modelling career, which she began at age 15 - with gaps.
In the article, Rebecca Valentine, MD of Grey Model Agency, which also represents me, is quoted as saying that the presence of older models "is a response to market pressure where, for the first time, this ageing group are refusing to sit down and shut up." But she admits that it is still a bit of a struggle. Vincent Peter who runs Silent model agency in Paris is quite dismissive of the whole phenomenon "I don't see any trend here." End of.
Meanwhile Musk is having a ball. She talks about her struggle to keep an optimum weight so that she can fit into a UK size 8- I note she emphasises diet and does not mention  exercise , which to me is a great mistake because the older you get the more problems you are likely to have with bone density and maintaining good flexibility in your spine is a must. Many older women (and men), especially over the age of seventy, are very thin but have no flexibility at all, can hardly lift anything heavy and are at the constant risk of injury. They also tend to curve.
I love Maye Musk and am happy she is so successful. She is a role model, truly. If she can do it there is hope for us. But I have no illusions.  It is not yet 'normal' to have older models on the catwalk. Yes we have made some inroad into fashion editorials, commercials (but there have always been older models in commercials, representing stereotypical grannies).  Yes, there are forward looking brands that are happy to be inclusive - you will not find them  at London Fashion Week though, they tend to be young designers who cannot afford the exorbitant prices they would have to pay for the privilege of  showing their work on the LFW runway.

I have been modelling since my late forties. I have definitely seen some changes, over the past decade. I have booked interesting jobs but it's never enough and am not yet able to rely fully on modelling for a living. I am still asked, countless times, to work for free. Musk says that there is less competition among older models though she readily admits there are fewer work opportunities. I disagree with her, there is plenty of competition, precisely because there are such fewer work opportunities. The presence of an older model is often no more than box ticking, to show that the industry has embraced diversity. It is rare to have two older models booked on a job, one is always enough, unless of course it is a product that aims at an older market, in which case  you will often find an older couple representing the ideal consumer of that specific product
Whether we like it or not beauty is still thought to be a prerogative of the young. Older bodies are not flawless by definition and consumers seem to be reluctant to regard such flaws as pleasing, they have to be hidden from sight - with exceptions. When designers make clothes they rarely imagine an older woman or man wearing them. If they do, they have in mind someone who is 'ageless', someone that does not exhibit obvious signs of ageing.
Next month there will be London Fashion Week. I am curious to see whether any older model has been booked to appear on the runway. It will be interesting.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Beauty: nature vs nurture

The news that  documentary film Timeless Beauty which I  mentioned in an earlier post  is about to come out has made me think again about beauty. Let me clarify: I only have a very small role in this film.  I was interviewed for it together with fellow model Stefanie Lange and Rebecca Valentine, owner and MD of Grey Model Agency, which represents me. I have not yet seen the film in its entirety, I only know what I said in my interview and I await, with trepidation, the final edit, so I cannot really comment on this film at all. All I will say at this point in time is that the documentary is a worthy initiative and it will definitely stimulate debate, especially so because it has a strong international cast of models who perform as themselves, as this is a documentary.
Discussions of beauty, especially of the social and cultural construct of beauty, seem to be back in fashion.  But we have been talking about beauty for decades.  In 1990 Chatto & Windus published the book by Naomi Wolf The Beauty Myth better known in its 2002 version published by HarperPerennial, with a new introduction by Wolf. It has been one of the most influential books of the past three decades, cogently arguing that ideas of beauty are manipulated by the fashion and beauty industry, that they can be identified as a way to oppress women, and also that they are subject to change. For Wolf beauty does not really exist, precisely because it is posited as a construct. It is, as the title of the book says, a myth.

The Beauty Myth is linked to the rise of third-wave feminism. It has received accolades but it has also been criticised, most famously  by Camille Paglia, for not  having been rigorously researched and for presenting inconsistencies in its analysis. Paglia's critique is scathing: "Look at The Beauty Myth, that book by Naomi Wolf. This is a woman who graduated from Yale magna cum laude, is a Rhodes scholar, and cannot write a coherent paragraph...She has a case to make. She cannot make it. She's full of paranoid fantasies about the world. Her education was completely removed from reality". Typically,  Paglia does not mince words!
If you believe, like many do, that Wolf has dealt with the issue of beauty once and for all, think again. After reading The Beauty Myth you must also read Nancy Etcoff's Survival of the Prettiest. The title may already make you feel uncomfortable, especially if you are a staunch Wolf's supporter.  But Etcoff's work  must be  acknowledged because beauty is extremely complex and very, very controversial and Etcoff really probes into it.
Written in 1999, the book benefits from Etcoff's expertise as a cognitive neuro-scientist, with impeccable research credentials. She brings biology back into the equation, arguing that beauty is not solely a social construct. As she says "''What was biologically advantageous became an esthetic preference... Individual tastes, historical periods and, most especially, particular cultures have certainly influenced -- and, in the case of cultures, exploited -- these preferences, but they didn't create them, any more than Coca-Cola or McDonald's created our cravings for sweet or fatty foods.''
Etcoff maintains that, like it or not, there is a genetic instinct for beauty which is universal and is linked with sex: "beauty is a universal part of human experience, and ... it provokes pleasure, rivets attention, and impels actions that help ensure the survival of our genes"It affects women and men, not just women. With Etcoff we are back to Darwinian evolution, with beauty being part and parcel of the survival of the fittest. 

I am partly troubled by Etcoff's thesis, I had not considered the possibility of a universal instinct for beauty but I welcome further discussion of the issues involved and in truth, I have to admit that am not convinced beauty does not exist. There is so much evidence to the contrary, which Etcoff garners and which has also been presented by others  before her. As she says "Turning a cold eye to beauty is as easy as quelling physical desire or responding with indifference to a baby's cry. We can say that beauty is dead, but all that does is widen the chasm between the real world and our understanding of it."
I am not denying the strong influence of culture and society (the nurture) on prevalent ideas of beauty but it would be not be an intelligent reaction to refuse to look at arguments proposed by biologists and cognitive neuro-scientists (the nature)..
As Etcoff says "there is a core reality to beauty that exists buried within the cultural constructs and the myths". It is time to delve into it, rather than denying its existence, uncomfortable though it might seem to be.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Fashion in fiction and literature

(This is my first post in 2018 and I take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year.)
I came across this article by Helen Gordon while researching fashion in fiction, after reading the homonymous book, which inspired me to look for more. I love Gordon's take on the whole thing. I totally agree on how important the way authors dress their characters is, how they take on the role of stylists to place their characters in the right context. Gordon mentions Tolstoy and Anna Karenina's black gown, which she demurely wore at the fateful ball where she danced with Vronsky inciting  the jealousy and despair of Kitty. The latter wore lavish lace effortlessly and  Gordon notes that Tolstoy gives the very definition of stylishness when describing Kitty's attire: "as if these bows and laces and all the details of her toilet had not cost her or her people a moment's attention, as if she had been born in this net and lace". Which she actually was.
Think for a moment of your favourite books and the heroines and heroes that appear in them. What are they wearing? How has this influenced the way you dress?
Gordon cites Holly Golightly and her LBD- visualised in the film rendition by Audrey Hepburn wearing Givenchy and that elegant hat which she puts on, immediately asking, quite redundantly, "how do I look?"
As Gordon says "fashion, even when peripheral to plot and meaning, does tend to date a novel by fixing it within a certain historical moment. Style, which some have argued is the opposite of fashion, has the timeless quality evident in Fitzgerald and Waugh's musings on dress."
Literature is not immediately visual, or so we contend, yet that is a fallacy because when reading a novel we cannot help but visualise an entire world peopled by characters, all wearing clothes. And the clothes are described by authors in great detail. They may be marginal to the narrative but only just. Miss Havisham's wedding dress, in Dicken's Great Expectations  is a case in point.  Her whole existence is defined by her rotting wedding dress. This is how  Dickens describes her "she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white ... But, I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its luster, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone".
(When I participated in the second BBC Hair competition in 2015  as a model, my hairdo was inspired by Miss Havisham, who, as a character had left a great impression on my stylist, Phil) 

Another iconic dress is the one Scarlett O'Hara wears in Gone With The Wind, made out of a green velvet curtain, to match her eyes, when visiting Rhett Butler in jail and attempting to seduce him. 
But there is no doubt that Franz Kafka's words in his short story The Clothes will leave us pondering on the significance he gives to dress as a metaphor, whilst ostensibly discussing its value as apparel:
"Often when I see clothes with manifold pleats, frills, and appendages which fit so smoothly onto lovely bodies I think they won't keep that smoothness long, but will get creases that can't be ironed out, dust lying so thick in the embroidery that it can't be brushed away, and that no one would want to be so unhappy and so foolish as to wear the same valuable gown every day from early morning till night.'
There is indeed more to fashion than meets the eye...