Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model

Ashley Mears writes in this 2011 book:

* They are now so unrepresentative of the everyday woman that they are considered offensive. They are far too young and slender, wearing a size zero and having dangerously low body mass indexes (BMIs), a problem that stirred international attention after the anorexia- related deaths of two Latin American models over the course of two show seasons. They are far too white, nearly exclusively Anglo looking…

* The call for diversity on the catwalk has not accomplished much.

* Bodies are racially coded, and the size zero look comes in one color: white.

* Ever since modeling work formalized into an occupation in the late 1920s, non- whites have worked at the margins of the industry.

* The curious phenomenon of the white, size zero look does not pervade all segments of the fashion market. It is most likely to appear in editorial, not commercial, fashion.

* When trying to describe the appeal and purpose of commercial models, producers in both the UK and United States made frequent references to sexual attractiveness, the “layperson,” and “middle America” several times mentioning “my mom,” “Kansas,” and “Ohio” by way of illustration. Putting these word combinations together gives us a working defi nition of a commercial model: (1) someone
considered sexually attractive by the layperson in Kansas; or (2) someone “your mom” in middle America considers pretty. Or, as Isabel, a casting director in London, says, “To be perfectly blunt, it’s the girls that do Victoria’s Secret, and Sports Illustrated, and JCPenney and Macy’s, you know, accessible to your kind of mass middle market where women want to look like, you know, women who are adored by men. You know that is bigger boobs, big hair, blonde, or at least some sort of like, you
know, glamorous Giselle type.”

In contrast to the “boring” commercial look, the “edgy” editorial model is “unique.” Some producers spoke of editorial looks and bodies with words like “sticks,” “abnormal,” and “freaks.”

* Being “not for everybody,” the scout explains, means not for the masses— not to entice them into consumption, nor to turn them on, nor even to make sense to them. That is because editorial looks are meant to appeal to the high- end fashion consumer and other elite producers; they are a wink and a nod to each other’s cultural competences to appreciate coded avant-garde beauty. They are largely chosen to impress field insiders such as magazine editors, stylists, and industry buyers.

* Whereas commercial models are hired to directly target and relate to consumers, editorial models are hired to communicate brand identities and to evoke ideas of luxury lifestyles.

* The editorial-commercial divide is therefore a proxy for how producers make sense of class distinctions among imagined consumers of looks. Editorial looks, as markers of elite taste, are more prestigious than commercial looks and their mass- market appeal. Visually we can picture fashion models as grouped along class hierarchies and their corresponding dress codes; there is the blue chip editorial in Prada and Gucci on one board and the commercial middle classes donned in Target knitwear on the other. The models in a Prada or a Target advertisement might have few concrete physical differences between them, but the labels featured in their respective advertisements do differ. In other words, the cannon largely determines the content. Vogue Italia says “edgy,” while Target is a dead ringer for “commercial.”

All of this is to say that within the high- fashion editorial market, is rather far removed from the picture. Designers and directors selecting models for Fashion Week do not choose their editorial looks with the layperson or “your mom” in mind, regardless of how loudly she protests outside their gates.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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