Fashion Models and Postmodern Consumer Society

-By Julia Chan, 1996
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between things on the one hand and human wants and emotions on the other. ... They make things come alive, make them able to... tempt to show that the role of the fashion model in postmodern consumer culture is reflective of the postmodern condition. A distinction must first be made between two groups of models: models and supermodels. Supermodels are the famous, easily recognizable models like Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford, or Christie Brinkley. Most other models are not famous and usually not recognizable. This essay deals with both kinds of models, but both have slightly different roles in consumer culture.
Fredric Jameson, in his essay "Postmodernism and Consumer Society," outlines his perception of some of the qualities of the postmodern condition. One of the qualities is what Jameson terms "pastiche" which is the appropriation of a past style. Within the concept of pastiche is "the death of the subject": the death of individuality and unique vision. The model is an example of the death of the subject. She is without individuality, unique vision; her clothes have been chosen not by herself but by someone else; she wears a style created by another; she has nothing to say but what someone else has presented her as saying; her "unique" look has no substance or truthfulness. That is an irony of advertising: while the reader is encouraged to find her own individuality (through consuming the product) by using the "example" of the model, the model herself is not an "individual" but a complete construct. Her "look" is not her own selfexpression at all. For example, the models below have been reinvented many times:
Model's Faces
None of these looks are expressions of self; they are the creations of a team: the model who supplies the blank canvas, the designer who supplies the clothing, the makeup artist and hairdresser, and the photographer who supplies the eye through which we see the model. Therefore, the labour which has gone into the creation of the model's look is concealed; her look, presented as effortless and natural, has ironically taken a team of people hours to produce.
Another component of Jameson's concept of postmodernism is schizophrenia, which entails the loss of meaning, the loss of a sense of coherence. Jameson describes the schizophrenic's experience as
...condemned to live a perpetual present with which the various moments of his or her past have little connection and for which there is no conceivable future on the horizon. In other words, schizophrenic experience is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence. The schizophrenic thus does not know personal identity in our sense, since our feeling of identity depends on our sense of the persistence of the `I' and the `me' over time. (95)
The presentation of the model is schizophrenic. Models are perpetually young, seemingly outside of time; if one does begin to age, she is replaced by another who is more youthful. The public takes no notice: the nameless model is "condemned to live in the perpetual present".
The aging of a supermodel, on the other hand, is noted by the public. However, there is still a schizophrenic quality about a supermodel: her discontinuous presence. A supermodel may appear in more than one place simultaneously--on a television ad, in a film, in a magazine, on a billboard, on the runway. For example, the famous model Cindy Crawford appears on television in her show in an advertisement for Revlon in a magazine, in a ween things on the one hand and human wants and emotions on the other. ... They make things come alive, make them able to act almost literally as participants in social interactions. They encipher goods in codes that we can read and act upon. (326)
Models act as these masks. By putting their clothes on a beautiful woman and photographing her in an interesting place, advertisers attempt to create a link between the product (clothing) and the lifestyle, as if by donning these clothes we will be transported into an exciting life. For example, this fashion spread (see Fig. 1) was photographed at the models' own downtown loft apartment. This fashion story lightly appropriates the style of lish clothes on young, beautiful, energetic women obviously having the time of their lives; we are to think, "To get the part, I must dress the part..."
Intimately connected to our model fetish is Berger's concepts of envy and glamour. While advertisers use models as an "example" for the reader, just showing the reader possibilities is not enough: it is necessary to create envy of the model in the reader to ensure product consumption. Berger explains that advertising images use models to display the reader's "self which [s]he might be (132)", a self which is enviable because it is a glamourous self:
The happiness of being envied is glamour. Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest. If you do, you will become less enviable. ... It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them (133).
ISAAC MIZRAHI Therefore, enviable glamour is constructed out of beauty and distance. Models become enviable because their beauty seems effortless, they seem unconscious of it. Their faces are beautiful but blank. We are to envy their lack of effort, and to try to emulate it by buying the product. However, as discussed above, their looks are anything but effortless. Harris points out that sometimes the model displays an "inexplicable unfriendliness (129)", which he explains as being "treated to the ultimate form of glamour, the glamour of rejection, of models so confident of their own mystique that they seem to despise what the reader herself values highly, the so-called `male gaze' (132)."
2 Models
These models, aware of their beauty, have looks of arrogance, of disdain for the reader. We are to envy their perceived right to arrogance; we are to believe that if we look like that, we can also have the right to arrogance and be envied. Therefore, the model's role is to infuse the product with "life" and to make themselves enviable, inciting the reader to consumption.
Due to this state of envied glamour, schizophrenic representation, and lack of subjectivity in the postmodern sense, a model becomes the ultimate object. Because she is without individuality, because she is an envied and glamourous product of others' labour, and because her presentation is schizophrenic, a model becomes a spectacle, she becomes merely something to look at. She exists only on the visual plane. Jameson writes, "[A] signifier that has lost its signified has thereby been transformed into an image (96)." What happens when a woman becomes an image? Berger argues:
Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object and most particularly an object of vision: a sight (47).
The supermodel Naomi Campbell explains:
Part of the problem is that people only take models at face value. In a way, what we do is like acting, except that we don't speak. Because we don't speak, we don't have anything to say. What we try to do is project all our emotion and personality through our faces, but that can be misconstrued. ... When you have a very visual job, your appearance is taken to be the most important thing about you. There is no defence (Craik 87).
Therefore, models are denied their voices and are represented only visually; they must depend on the team who created their look to supply them with some sort of "statement". Since models are presented as the feminine ideal, women are encouraged to do the same: to express themselves most strongly at the visual level, leave the voice behind, turn herself into a spectacle, an object. One needs only to frequent any nightclub in order to witness this process.
In any case, the model's primary function is to create the desire to consume. To successfully do that, the model must conform to certain criteria set by the fashion industry--she must be beautiful, perpetually young, impossibly thin, and abnormally tall. Why such fantastic standards? Naomi Wolf writes:
Consumer culture is best supported by markets made up of sexual clones, men who want objects and women who want to be objects, and the object desired ever- changing, disposable, and dictated by the market. The beautiful object of consumer pornography has a built-in obsolescence (144)
Likewise, Gail Faurschou argues, "Fashion is the logic of planned obsolescence--not just the necessity for market survival, but the cycle of desire itself (80)..." Therefore, the models' extraordinary and short-lived qualities work not only to create a perpetual desire for products, but also to ensure their own disposability and continue indefinitely the cycle of the "new".
As products of a postmodern consumerist society, the role of the model reflects its qualities. As defined by Jameson, the model personifies the death of the subject and her representation in time and space likens to schizophrenic experience. Because of this lack of "reality", models have become the ultimate fetish object, sentenced to expression only through the visual. Their own exceptional qualities, however, are short-lived and ensures their obsolescence, making room for new models and perpetuating the cycle of desire. Presented as role models, women are encouraged to emulate them by consuming the products the models are used to sell, in a neverending chase for perfection that will never be reached, that only drives the consumerist cycle.
-By Julia Chan, 1996

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Works Cited

Works Cited
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: The Viking Press, Inc., 1973.
Craik, Jennifer. The Face of Fashion. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Faurschou, Gail. "Fashion and the Cultural Logic of Postmodernity"
Advertising and Consumer Culture. Ed. Jody Baker. Canadian Scholars'
Press, Inc., 1996, pp. 77-85.
Harris, Daniel. "Some Reflections on the Facial Expression of Fashion
Models: 100 Years of Vogue" in Salmagundi. Spring/Summer 1993, no.
98-99, pp. 12-140.
Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in Advertising
and Consumer Culture. Ed. Jody Baker. Canadian Scholars' Press Inc.,
1996, pp. 91-98.
Leiss, William, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally. Social Communication in
Advertising. 2nd ed. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1990.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1991.

Figure 1

Last updated 11 June 1997 by Julia Chan, Patricia Connolly, & Chris Kennedy
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