Fashion Models and Postmodern Consumer Society
-By Julia Chan, 1996
site address: http://www.film.queensu.ca/Femina/model.html
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:
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
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:
...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)
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
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)."
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
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
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
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
(Julia welcomes any discussion on this essay. Please
head on over to our Bulletin
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: The Viking Press, Inc.,
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,
98-99, pp. 12-140.
Jameson, Fredric. "Postmodernism and Consumer Society" in Advertising
and Consumer Culture. Ed. Jody Baker. Canadian Scholars' Press
1996, pp. 91-98.
Leiss, William, Stephen Kline, and Sut Jhally. Social Communication
Advertising. 2nd ed. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1990.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1991.
Last updated 11 June 1997 by Julia Chan, Patricia Connolly,
& Chris Kennedy
Julia Chan at firstname.lastname@example.org