Fashion forward

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday July 2, 2019
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Fashion forward

Work! A Queer History of Modeling by Elspeth H. Brown; Duke University Press, $27.95

This unique take on the history of high fashion modeling is both fascinating and surprising. Author Elspeth Brown, a history professor at the University of Toronto, has clearly worked hard and done the spadework of gathering insider information, industry profiles, historical data, and stories from the trenches that coalesce into a fresh glimpse of a timeless industry, one that has had its share of radical transformations.

Brown offers chapters of intriguing research into the work of the commercial model, a profession she calls "the quintessential occupation of a modern consumer economy, in which goods and services are bought and sold through the medium of advertising and marketing." Her knowledge of the history of fashion modeling is vast and engrossing as she presents facets of the industry from the early 20th century up to the 1980s, when the transformative term "supermodel" flowed freely from major fashion designers and talent agents. From the showgirls of the 1920s to the reshaping of the industry with the inclusion of women of color on product packaging, magazine spreads, and related media, the author presents a comprehensive analysis of modeling through a scholarly, historical, and queer lens.

She also explores the eroticism of modeling, seeing sexuality "in the public sphere" as a way models endorse and "enliven material goods," while exploring conservative efforts to "de-eroticize" them. By combining queer theory, affect studies, sociological scrutiny, and the history of capitalism, Brown offers a readable narrative history of the profession braided into discussions on fashion and print modeling, editorial and commercial work, the intrepid photographers of the 1930s and 40s, and the relationship between modeling and social change, politics, gender, race, and the physical body.

A collection of photographs sprinkled throughout further illustrates the impact of editorial choices and creative marketing on commercial advertising, the evolution of couture fashion, and race relations. Everyone from armchair fashionistas to modeling industry executives will find something to ponder in this original, creative, and beautifully queer examination of the international fashion machine and the role of the human model.