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The first fashion models came in all shapes and sizes

…because they sold more clothes that way.

A model sported one of couturier Charles Frederick Worth’s designs in 1923. (Seeberger Freres/Getty Images)

order to sell clothes to the greatest number of customers, early fashion designers employed models who looked like their clientele. That meant short, tall, thin, large, busty, narrow-hipped, and more.

French designer Charles Frederick Worth, hailed as the “father of haute couture,” hired his first model in 1853. He sent Marie Vernet to parties wearing his designs, a human business card to impress wealthy socialites. Worth later married Vernet.

When customers came to his shop in Paris, Worth paraded his “house models.” Clients could observe the fit, movement, and quality of the designs.

“Worth’s models looked like his best customers. When a customer gained weight, Worth told his model to do the same,” writes Kate Havelin in Hoopskirts, Union Blues, and Confederate Grays. “Customers saw dresses on models that looked just as they would look on them.” He even used mood lighting to represent how clothes would look at dinner parties.

Worth was the first major designer to control the outcome of his clothes, the style, the brand. He asserted his position as an artist, not a tailor. Instead of letting customers dictate instructions, Worth was in the driver’s seat and created clothes for customers who prized his aesthetic. Hence, haute couture.

Still, women needed to wear these clothes. He believed a 5’2” woman may have a hard time envisioning herself in a gown worn by a 5’11” model. A variety of live mannequins aided her imagination. House models, also known as fit models, had no other measurement requirements. According to a New York Times reporter in 1907 Paris:

“The life of a mannequin is not unpleasant…While waiting they remain in a special salon where ordinary mortals never enter…Here and there, almost everywhere, are cakes and candies, flowers and novels. The demoiselles chatter, read, and manicure their pink nails.

“Then the door opens. A saleswoman cries: ‘Give me Mireille!’

“‘Mireille’ is not the name of a mannequin but that of a costume…A mannequin rises, a dresser deftly drapes her in ‘Mireille,’ and so robed she saunters gracefully, easily, almost condescendingly into the presence of envious sisters.”

Worth’s approach spearheaded an entirely new career, mostly for women. But house modeling was only a small portion of the industry’s potential. And body diversity would later take a backseat to an idealized status quo.

Swedish model Lisa Fonssagrives got directions from photographer Horst P. Horst in 1949. (Roy Stevens/Getty)

The advent of fashion photography and media in the early 20th century cultivated a new type of model: editorial. When Condé Nast took over Vogue in 1909, fashion became an aspirational phenomenon across its glossy pages. Wearing elegant silhouettes from designers like Lucy Duff-Gordon, models posed in utopian dreamscapes, with rich props, on luxe sets. Later in the 1920s, models became muses for designers like Coco Chanel and Jean Patou, who liberated women from the restricting dress forms of the Edwardian era with relaxed, carefree shifts and suits. During this time, slender figures were prized by the media whereas plus-size fashion was relegated to mail-order catalogs. Lane Bryant pioneered style “for the stout woman” in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, American fascination pivoted from high fashion to what would become known as “the golden age of Hollywood.” The lines between models and silver screen sirens blurred; some attempted to straddle both professions, such as Ruth Ford and Helen Bennett.

Arguably the first supermodel, Swedish-born Lisa Fonssagrives dazzled the world with her dancer’s poise from the late 1930s through the 1950s. At 5’7” with a thin frame, Fonssagrives appeared on over 200 Vogue covers during her career. She once described herself as a “good clothes hanger.”

Still, model measurements would continue to vary slightly throughout the 1950s, when media featured more voluptuous female models and celebrities compared with today.

The 1960s marked another major shift in fashion design, however, and expectations for models changed along with it. Paris was no longer seen as the epicenter of taste, with its conservative, unattainable luxury. The day’s youth protested by donning mod shifts, color-blocking, mini skirts, and wild materials. Lanky models like Twiggy and Veruschka advertised futuristic designs. Ready-to-wear fashion became the new, more democratic norm. It was a global style disruption, and Worth’s house models fell out of popularity.

The modeling industry grew while splitting into more subgroups like glamour models, fitness models, and commercial models, who represented a wider variety of body types. However, high fashion and mass media in general continued to prize waif-thin women with measurements that are unattainable for most. By the mid-1990s, “heroin chic” was the model body type du jour, and its poster child was Kate Moss.

Models like Ashley Graham represent a shifting of accepted body types in the fashion industry. (Gustavo Caballero/Getty)

Though the trend dissipated, concerns about models’ health gained steam, prompted in part by news reports about their eating disorders and drug abuse. Fashion houses and magazines across Europe and the US were pressured to hire models over 16 who met certain BMI requirements. In 2015 France adopted a new bill banning models deemed to be “excessively thin.”

The initiative comes amid international outcry over the unrealistic standards set by fashion advertising, and a push for media representation of diverse body types. Models like Ashley Graham are challenging runway norms; brands like American Eagle are hiring non-models to showcase “real” bodies.

The pressure to conform to a certain body ideal is far from over, and fashion doesn’t make intentional strides to correct it. But it’s worth looking back at the first fashion models, who were hired to look like the people buying the clothes, not the other way around.

Timeline

News in Context

Written by

Writer, culture/history junkie ➕ founder of Soulbelly, multimedia keepsakes for preserving community history. soulbellystories.com

News in Context

Written by

Writer, culture/history junkie ➕ founder of Soulbelly, multimedia keepsakes for preserving community history. soulbellystories.com

News in Context