MPB is proud to be the world's most popular men's sewing blog!

Jun 27, 2011

Models Then and Models Now

Friends, I'm back and ready to take on the world.  Of modeling.

Suzy Parker.  Dovima.  Jean Patchett.  Lisa Fonssagrives.

These are just a few of the most famous models of the 1950s and early 60s.  Like today's models, they were beautiful.  They were young.  And they were ballerina-skinny.

In those days, models modeled and that's about it.  They didn't star in reality shows (though Suzy Parker did have a role in The Best of Everything and a few other films) and they weren't seen much outside of magazine layouts and ads.  But they were recognizable and certainly embodied a standard of beauty and glamour (maybe more the latter than the former) few non-models could ever match.

Readers, what's different about models then and now?  Why do so many people focus on models today and critique their (genetically) tall, thin bodies? 

Haven't models always merely represented a highly art-directed ideal, human clothes hangers that showed off a dress to its best effect?

When I was looking at photos of models then and models now, the greatest difference I noticed was the amount of skin models are expected to display today.  Skimpy underwear, bikinis, nude shots -- almost nothing is left to the imagination.

Though Fifties models appeared in swimsuits, these tended to be modest one-piece numbers, as was the style back then, and the images were never sexually provocative, but rather, wholesome.

Direct sexuality was the stuff of pin-ups and other "adult" material (think Betty Page).  Today there's very little difference, aesthetically.  And this isn't just true of female models -- men are also expected to pose provocatively in underwear or nothing at all.

In the Fifties, women's clothes may have been restrictive and demanded corsets and cinchers, but the models bodies were covered.  Nudity was rare.

It's as if today, when so much of fashion is standardized, we're more interested in the hanger than the clothes.

Wise readers, your thoughts.

Just so we're on the same page, I'm operating under the assumptions that 1) models are more visible today, thanks to television and the Internet; 2) modeling itself is much more mainstream and often seen as a springboard to an acting or business career; 3) models -- their weight and how they are represented -- are more a focus of women than they were in generations past.  You may or may not agree with these.

Does the increase in nudity reflect our more body-conscious, sexually liberated times?  Does the constant exposure to models' (photoshopped always) bodies create more self-image problems for women than the more covered-up, highly stylized models of generations ago?

I'll have more to say about this later in the week, but why do these Banana Republic ads look like children playing dress-up...

...compared to the real thing?

Is it the makeup, or is it a life spent wearing corsets, heels, and gloves, that make the original models look mature and comfortable and the 2011 models look synthetic, derivative, and awkward?

Jump in!


  1. (((Peter))) Hope mom is on the good to see you back home and blogging.

    The models look like children playing dress up, because they ARE children playing dress up! This past fall, for the very first time, I bought the September issue of Vogue! I had watched the documentary and it piqued my interest (the magazine is still under my bed and I am not sure if I ever got through the 700 pages). What bothered me most when I was reading it, is the obvious young age of so many of the models. They look to be about 13 years old. How am I supposed to relate to a 13 year old in a $2,500 dress? I just don't get it.

  2. I've noticed a tendency to use very young (and young-looking) girls and boys as models, and YES the "baby playing dress up" effect in today's fashion industry.

    The women before had the appearance of real style, grace, and elegance. Femininity. I'm very turned off by the bulk of what I see today and remain inspired by vintage glamour and elegance.

  3. Welcome back, Peter -- I hope your mother is doing well, and reading your posts as avidly as the rest of us will again be doing!

    I'm not really qualified to comment on models, as I don't care much about the commercial presentation of clothing, so I'll just note that whether models are "wholesome" or essentially nude, the intention is the same: Sell those rags!

    It's all about what works (or seems likely to work) in a specific cultural moment.

  4. There's something about a lot of today's models... they almost always look angry or wasted. I think that's part of why I don't feel a real connection to the high fashion world. I don't have hundreds or thousands of dollars to spend on a dress, and if I did, I would want one that would make me feel happy. I can be angry, antsy, sickly and such in my Old Navy tee and jeans and still have money left over for therapy/medication/another outfit.

  5. I think your demonstration that models have always been very, very thin is an interesting one. There seems to be a common assumption that models have only recently become so thin.
    I think the average age of models has been dropping over the past 40 years though. My mother (in her late 60s) swears that models were all in their 20s when she was young. Many of them now seem to be in their teens.

  6. as part of this, adulthood today often doesn't "start" until people hit their late 20s. In contrast, many women didn't go to college in the 1950s; even if they did, they typically were married and with at least one child by the time they hit 25....

  7. I think it's also that years ago people -- women and men -- aspired to look mature. Not old, but grown up. And that has changed. As for the age of models, it DOES seem they start younger, but many of the original "supermodels" -- Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turnlington -- are still working, and they're, what, fifty?

  8. The Banana Republic models look ill at ease in their clothing and the clothes are too tight to be comfortable. My favorite all time model is Carmen Dell Orefice. She was a lovely younger woman and still is.

  9. Should warn of nudity on her facebook page.

  10. I think people are more critical of models' bodies today because they're photographed in "real world," aspirational settings and readers are encouraged (and perhaps unconsciously choose to) project themselves into those settings, however unrealistic and stylized they are. In the process, they apply media standards of beauty to themselves.

    It seems like models used to be photographed in a rareified studio evironment--there were few attempts to portray "real world" situations, and perhaps as a result the viewer was more able to separate themselves from the standards projected by the model?

  11. I think it might be because back in the 50's, the models actually dressed very similarly in real life whereas these days models (and celebrities and such) wear jeans or worse, some seriously crappy getups, most of the time so when they put on a dress for a shoot, they really are playing dress up.

  12. Interesting question, as always, Peter. Welcome back and good wishes to you and your mom.
    I think advertising is more prominent than it used to be, so the advertisers have to work harder to get our attention. They are competing with an unprecedented amount of "clutter," and the couture world is farther removed from the rest of us. I have no personal interest or admiration for the drug culture, the child porn fetish, or the get-the-look-at-any-price mentality, nor do I have hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy indecent clothes. The posturing is to set a style direction that the rest of us can borrow from, to look more modern. Unfortunately, few of us are so tall and thin (don't forget the tall part--5'10" is a short model) we can even consider the Vogue ideas, and we work in places where bare shoulders get us fired. Not in a good way. It's a shame that the fashion designers seem to have abandoned us, and also the rich women whose lives have more purpose than playing dressup.
    Kristina in Ohio

  13. Models are models, but at least in the "old days" they weren't Photoshopped to oblivion. Touched up, yes. But not completely reshaped. It's one thing to want to want to emulate model looks, but it's a completely different thing when those looks are wholely unattainable without surgery or computer manipulation. I think that's what gets the collective ire up more than anything.

    I do like the trend to use more of a variety of body types and ages these days. That was definitely lacking for a long time.

  14. Oh, and welcome back! How's your mom?

  15. Those vintage photos/ads are gorgeous! And the clothes are the center of attention. The modern images seem to focus on the models' hair, abs, skin, face, etc. It's a very different kind of aspirational advertising, imo. I've always interpreted the message to be "People who are this perfect wear our brand"--an inversion of the traditional "wearing our brand will make you more ______."

    Also, I can't believe no one's mentioned Photoshop!

  16. Oops, Debbie just beat me to it. :)

  17. Hey, wait -- I mentioned Photoshop! LOL

    SomeGirl, I LOVE what you said about "people who are this perfect wear our brand, etc." I think it's so true though it never quite hit me before that that is one of the key differences between advertising now and back then. Brilliant!

    Debbie, my mom is doing great, though she'll be on a walker for about a month and can't really bend for even longer. Thanks for asking!

  18. Good grief. Just had a lengthy comment typed up and my silly computer hiccuped and it disappeared into the abyss. *shakes fist threateningly at compuer* Glad you're back, Peter!

    Alright, let's see if I can at least summarize what I had typed. ;) I think you brought up some interesting points. Certainly in decades past, looking sophisicated and grown up (but still youthful) was considered more appealing and attractive than infantalized youth (which is what we chase after today; see all the 13-14 year old models as evidence). Granted, there were always youngish models in the industry (Lauren Bacall, if memory serves me right, was still in her teens when she started modeling. Prior to going to Hollywood of course.). But I think the trend nowadays is to look childishly young--and in many ways the models wearing elegant clothes (such as the Mad Men collection you pictured) cannot embody the sophisitication that age brings for styles such as these. (Somewhat off topic, but I've found that after years of envying older women who can wear structured pencil dresses and vixenish heels, I've finally "grown" into that point where I don't have as much of a baby face and can pull those looks off. Age, it isn't a bad thing! I'm honestly looking forward to my 30s when I can dress like a grown-up woman!)

    One wonders too, if perhaps the reason we find models of the 40s and 50s more appealing is because they emphesized their womanly shape? Albeit, fashion silhouettes have a lot to do with this, but even with their wasp-thin waists they still had the classic hourglass silhouette. Perhaps subconsciously we find that far more appealing than the boyish figures that are popular now? Perhaps too the models of the earlier eras looked less gaunt/unhappy? I was looking through one of my midcentury high fashion books the other evening and was struck by how many models were *smiling* in the photos. A smile is a simple way for someone to say "hey, I'm human too" without uttering a word.

    Food for thought as usual, Peter!

  19. I think the difference is that in the 50s and prior, a model was a ... model. She was showing the clothing, and that was it. With the advent of Twiggy, that started changing, and women started wanting to look like models, not wear their clothes.

    It was originally understood that models were human clothes hangers, but I don't think that magazine/catalog models are seen that way any longer.

    So, yeah. Basically they used to just be walking mannequins, and now they're models in the sense of "something to be aspired to". No wonder we women get cranky about it!

    1. They were actually CALLED "hangers" and "mannequins" back then! The term "model" is relatively new.

  20. This comment has been removed by the author.

  21. I see a major difference difference in both models and actresses from my childhood (I grew up in the 80s-90s) versus today. When I watch TV shows from that era or look at fashion spreads, people looked real. They were thin but not emaciated. The clothes either resembled something most people would wear, or a scenario most of us could imagine wearing something in. They were airbrushed but not photoshopped into weirdness. Nowadays, there are no normal people in the media anymore. Everyone is skeletal or curvy, teeth are fixed to the point of looking plastic, half their body parts are fake...I watched "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" recently and was shocked by the nude scenes -- not by the nudity itself, but by the perfectly normal bodies of actresses Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin.

    That's a bad commentary on society to me -- the fact that we're actually less used to nudity because we're seeing more "naked" people but they aren't truly naked. And now normal "naked" people look strange to us. This can't be healthy for anyone's sexuality.

  22. aha, so it IS a Mad Men oriented collection. Why am I not surprised? (I'm convinced that my previous life was in the 50s because of my affinity for fashions and styles of that era!)
    Of the Banana Republic pics you've posted, the ONLY one that looks like it might have been from the 50s itself is the navy blue dress on the top right. I can't imagine anyone who dressed themselves or a model in the 50s putting together any of the other ensembles. The shoes don't go with the other dresses, or they're too short, or for the men, they shouldn't wear cardigans or jackets half-undone... it goes on and on. Maybe this is just the stylist trying to put a modern "twist" on a 50s's styled set, but if we're going back to the 50s or 60s for styles, why do you NEED to take stuff from more modern times?
    /Rant off.
    By the way, our local National Trust has/had an exhibition on about models of the 50s-70s called Mannequin. I think this link will take you there:

  23. (((((Peter))))) (((((((Peter's Mom))))))) missed you!!

  24. The models of the 50's and 60's had a style, grace and elegance that the average world could grasp and they looked like real people. Models of today?...they look like clones of one another, almost like the same person is walking down the runway over and over annnnd most of them look empty in the eyes...unreal

    Peter I admire that you took time to care for your mother. They are so important and a blessing to have...hope she recovers well.

  25. I think it's a combination of how young models now are combined with airbrushing everything to within an inch of its life. Faces no longer have any kind of character. Make-up, too, is less put together. Everyone wants to look young, rather than wanting to look like a grown-up.

  26. The modern, disposable culture is not elegant, IMO. The women of times gone by were in no way "loose". That is to say, they were tightly wound and there's a certain chic in that. But don't be dissing the 80s supermodels :-)

    PS: The women of yore were not photoshopped but they were waspily thin. Probably thinner than models now, though shapely.

  27. Glad you are back, Peter, hope your Mom is doing well! I'm not much of a follower when it comes to fashion. I like what I like, and if I don't like it, it doesn't matter who is modeling it, I'm still not going to like it!

    Beyond that, I really think that models of "old" looked mature, and models of today look young - even if they may be the same age. I don't know if that is good or bad, just an opinion.

    I think that even the glamourous models of today can't hold a candle to the glamour back in the day!

  28. HI - thought I'd weigh in - the current body aesthetic really got its start after WWI - that was the true emergence of the body as alterable. Up until then, a woman's body was shaped by corsetry, layers and padding. With the advent of bias gowns and barely-there coverage, the emphasis went from altering a woman's shape via accoutrements to altering the body itself and making it the display piece. Corsetry was fairly soft and loose through the 20s and 30s (think Jean Harlow). Smoking and dieting became a mainstay of women's desire for the slim silhouette of the day. The war kept corsetry relatively unstructured but post-war delivered us Dior and the New Look and a return to shape via stuff - because people wanted stuff. Models were rail-thin - really. British and Euro girls, having suffered privation during the war, were like pencils. Go have a look at sizing from 1945-1950. Audrey Hepburn, anyone? Anyway, the stuff, stuff and more stuff madness of the 50's gave way to less-is-more as baby-boomers came of age and reacted to their parents - a lot. Minimalism became associated with authenticity as opposed to the fakery of the 50s and we picked up where the 20s had left off. Sure, models today look like wee infants but who make up the majority of buyers? Boomers waxing nostalgic. So, let 'em have their toys and botox and pilates classes, poor dears. This too, as has everything before and since, shall pass.

  29. Wow, LeftyLu, thank you for that whirlwind tour through fashion history. Well done!

  30. I think Lazysubculturalgirl has a wonderful point on real bodies no longer looking "real." Plastic surgeons have deluded the general public that liposuction is normal and normal breasts are too small and therefore are considered a disorder. Anyone remember Stuart Smalley? "Your dis-ease is your disease." I realize that we are a lot bigger than we were thirty/forty years ago but does anyone think that the tide will turn against this constant need to flatten hair, whiten teeth, inflate boobs, laser anything that can be burnt off, bronze it, and botox it?

  31. Interesting comments. My grandmother use to model corsets, she was born in 1895, and she was hired because she had a nice long neck and shoulders. She basically modelled the lastest in undergarments.
    However, it was because these were the basics of every woman's wardrobe back then. I believe she was young.

    My stepcousin modelled in the 70's. She was very young and thin. She wore wigs, false eye lashes, and heavy makeup.

  32. Oh wow! I LOVE that print of the lay with the elephants! I've had a large print of that image up on my wall for decades! Stunning isn't it! And yeah, I see your point. Not too much difference is there. I think it was just when I was comparing ME from then and now that there's a discrepancy ;-)

  33. Interesting subject. Models have been getting younger because of the current obsession of youth. It may one day swing back. There seems to be a lot of talk lately of the skinniness of models- curious when over half the population of some countries are obese- projection anyone? Envy? Hello?
    Although I do wish models would just stick to modeling instead of everything else . Oh, and maybe eat a little more- tired of the really skinny girls.
    Flesh? Its just normal to display everything. We have become a sexualised society. At this rate music videos will be totally naked in five years.

  34. As others have said, its a shift from the clothing to the actual 'character' of the person wearing it. Sure, in the 50s you would know a model's name, but you were not obsessed with them as a celebrity type as people are now.

    Now we not only know models by name, but we are as obsessed with them as they were back then with actors and other celebrities. That's the cross over appeal. Multitasking. If you are this young and thin, then surely you can transition to acting, singing, or even hosting a talk show! I mean its not like all those other professions take any type of skill, right?

    Selling the personality of a model is just as important to them becoming 'super' as it is to what they look like. Ironic, isn't it?

  35. The result of our culture becoming coarse and "dumbed" down is the lack of sophistication in attitude and choices about style. Marketeers are not interested in building us up culturally, they just want us to spend mindlessly without thought to our own self respect (or respect for others for that matter). Models and the clothes they hawk embody a pretty base cultural trend toward the lowest and basest common denominator.

  36. What about the photographers?

    The supple and sinewy models of old were captured in a manner. There was real art there, and style too. Those models offered a glimpse of a lifestyle, and whomever was behind the camera conveyed the message.

    Every new photo you posted could just as easily be in an ad for a strip club or 1-900 phone sex service.

    The models have changed, they are thin to the point of austerity, not beauty. It takes few pounds to fill out a face and body; we've been lead away from that.

    Delighted that your mother is recovering and that you have returned to your blog, Peter.

  37. I would like to add that when I look at a fashion magazine often you can't even see the garment because of the pose or people laying all over each other.I'm thinking...Well that's stupid what's the point. Sure for us it is about inspiration too but I really am interested in seeing what they are wearing. I don't need attitude or art. I go to other sources for that.

  38. For me, you hit it bang on the head when you said
    "I think it's also that years ago people -- women and men -- aspired to look mature. Not old, but grown up."
    Yep, and I think that may be why I don't really get current fashion and am drawn to and inspired by vintage styles, particularly late 50s.

    Glad you're back too, and I hope your Mum is doing well.

  39. Those ones playing dressups need hips!

  40. I think one of the differences between the Banana models and the vintage pictures you showed is the way they are carrying themselves. The period models hold themselves erect (perhaps in fact due to under garments). They are also, IMO, curvier than the Banana models. Tiny waists, yets, but still having a real bust and hips as well.

    Great posts, Peter. Thanks!


  41. Also, you asked how seeing young models made us feel? The ads at Columbus Circle a couple months ago for Gap's Chambray collection actually completely wigged me (and my bf who has a 13 year old daughter) out. This blog post has a picture of the *maybe* 13 year old girl whose leg is wrapped around the likely 25 year old guy while his hand is practically in her underwear. If you scroll to the second picture the age difference is much more apparent. Ooky IMO.


  42. Oops, link didn't take LOL
    I will stop cluttering up your comments now!

  43. my late mother modeled during her college summers in the late 1940's in NYC, my grandmother designed clothes & textiles and was fashion editor of Mccalls in the mid 1920's (at that time it was like Vogue is now)-maybe part of the difference between then and now is that apparently in the 1940's there weren't all the model agencies with agency heads picking girls, but rather my grandmother knew people in the industry and the photographers would ask around for someone instead of calling agencies-
    In other words the process is more standardized now, producing more models who all look the same
    Sarah c

  44. I like your "children playing dress-up" comment. Very keen observation. But, realize that catalogue models for Banana Republic are not of the same caliber as high fashion models that walk for couture houses during fashion week and pose for editorials in Vogue! There are some fantastic, beautiful, elegant models today. I'm a big fan of Freja Beha Erichssen, Lara Stone, Arizona Muse.

  45. I'm really into the artistry of editorials, I'm a part-time model and a designer and I realize that how you package everything is very important when you're branding yourself. People may say they don't care what the ad looks like or who's wearing the clothes - I say those people are the most susceptible to marketing since they're not even aware that it's working on them ;) Even if your reaction is negative, you still had a reaction....

  46. If you look closely at the women in the Banana Republic ad and the women in the vintage ads directly below, you can see that really, they are similar in size and age.

    What makes the former look like kids and the latter look like grown-ups, IMO, is posture/foundation garments and the cut/construction of the clothing itself. Just look at how the vintage ladies hold themselves -- from the set of their head on their shoulders to the placement of their hips and feet. It's subtle, but makes all the difference.

    It's the same way you can tell a trained dancer, just by how s/he walks (even if the feet are not turned out, ducklike). It's in their carriage/comportment. The new kids don't have it. The vintage ladies did.

    And of course, today's comfort-above-all attitude doesn't work well for those afraid of girdles and snug waistbands, or who couldn't wear a jacket that does not allow one to raise her arms above her head. Super-comfy "Spanx" are about as far as any of us will go toward reining in our curves.

    But you can bet the women in the vintage ads are constricted within an inch of their lives. Their bodies probably weren't surgically altered, but they were most definitely mechanically manipulated, on a daily basis. And that makes a huge difference in how your clothes fit and how you carry yourself.

    As for the clothes, there is no comparison between the Mad Men-inspired modern stuff and the genuine article. The minute you put on an actual vintage dress or suit, you feel the difference. The former look great on the hanger. The latter look great on the body.

  47. I personally think is the personas that the Models Then had, and some of them still have the personas. Models Now are more to catalogues and that is. Models Then had/have this x-factor with then, the personas that I said just now plus the camera is different, it captured the persona of the models. Love this entry.

  48. I think the difference is maturity. Once you were 21 you aspired to be and look like a grownup. As a grownup, you embraced discipline in your habits and dress. That maturity is reflected in the vintage model photos. The contemporary models reflect the desire to embrace extreme youth and a spontaneous ethic, which eschews an obvious discipline.


Related Posts with Thumbnails