“Models are just glorified clothes hangers.” This is a popular phrase that has been used by audiences, stylists and even high profiled models such as Twiggy. There’s a lot of debate if modelling can be considered a real profession; from the outside, modelling seems fairly simple. They just have to stand there, all dolled up in fancy clothes and have their picture taken, no? Models in retrospect do much more than that. The act of posing for a photograph or walking down the runway actually plays the necessary role of either exhibiting, endorsing or advertising a designer’s new creation in order to create public interest. Some models even follow in the footsteps of Maria Vernet Worth, the wife of Charles Frederick Worth, father of Haute Couture and the first modern couturier, and go as far as becoming the muse for art works. However, the model does more than just wear these garments or accessories to convey the designs and the designer’s intention to the vast audience.Modelling as a career, at a basic level, falls into the category of immaterial labour. According to Maurizio Lazzarato, a Parisian sociologist and philosopher known for his studies in immaterial labour and for the breakdown of the wage system, he defines it as a “series of activities that are not normally recognized as ‘work’ – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.” Through fashion shows, advertising and appearance, models play a part in fixing cultural standards and consumer-guides that represent the luxury-consumption lifestyle perpetuated by the fashion industry.
This labour, though often on a project-to-project basis, is responsible for helping create a series of relationships in multifaceted production networks. While the world is only privy to the single final image that makes it into the magazine spread, there was an entire ecosystem of shoot producers, prop stylists, makeup artists, manicurists, photographers, fashion stylists, hair stylists, set designers or location management, and assistants that brought the project to fruition.
On a more advanced level, modelling can be described as an affective labour. The idea was a development on Lazzarato’s theory by the authors of best seller – ‘Empire’, Michael Hardt, an American literary theorist and political philosopher, and Antonio Negri, an Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosopher. In their definition, ‘affective labour’ is used to describe an activity that produces “intangible feelings of ease, excitement, or passion” through either virtual or physical human interaction. Put simply, they not only make you feel something; they make you feel good.
According to the author of a study entitled ‘Modelling a Way of Life’, Elizabeth Wissinger argues that models strive to affect their audiences below conscious-awareness levels. The interesting thing about modelling is that the boundary between image and reality is more often than not, quite blurred. Therefore, when one gazes at a picture of a model they’re not only exposing themselves to the possibility of being sold on a product, but also to the regulation of bodily affects. Wissinger describes that these manifest in the form of interest, envy, attention, desire, the need to belong, or excitement.Achieving this level of affectiveness isn’t easy as it’s more a physically expressive labour than a verbal one. On the hit television series, ‘Americas Next Top Model’, you’d often hear Tyra Banks and the other judges critiquing the models about ‘smizing’ (smiling with your eyes), or requesting a more expressive range of emotions whilst maintaining the high-fashion facade. Without a single peep, successful models can be exquisite communicators, that’s why you’ll find that the likes of Gisele Bundchen, Cara Delevingne or Adriana Lima command so much attention when they are in a room or event (or the zeros at the ends of their pay cheques). However, this communication skill works both ways, as they have to be highly perceptive in order to make this complex production networks work. If you’ve never had the opportunity to be at a fashion photoshoot, there are basically two types of models a crew will encounter. There’s the one who seems a little confused and needs to be coached throughout the entire shoot. Then there’s the model that comes in, gets a feel of the clothes, hair, makeup and overall theme that is being used in the shoot. And when the photographer starts clicking, they deliver such great pictures without much direction from the team, that the problem becomes having to narrow down to which image the designer/ magazine will use because there are too many good options. A good model is able to switch from on client to another seamlessly, and still meet each client’s brief and embody the desired emotion/mood/character. Models like this have the sixth sense of reading the rooms energy and learn to become attuned to it and its subconscious and constant shifts. They’re open to the possibilities of the moment and channel whatever mood is present in order to produce the unexpected that will move audiences.
A model’s marketability thus becomes more than just an emotional labour i.e. smiling or pouting on cue, but are more valued for “their ability to unleash a wide range of responses, responses that might shift or be modulated faster than they can be subjectively recognized as emotions” as Wissinger describes.
So the next time you see a fashion model and think ‘hanger’, ‘mannequin’ or that they’ve gotten things easy, career wise, think again. The highly competitive career of modelling isn’t just about photogenic individuals, it’s an industry that uses aesthetics and natural chemistry to exploit human vivacity below conscious awareness to sell all things fashion.