A Brief History of Modeling

Take a minute and think about the models you grew up with, the ones that planted the first seed of thought that maybe, just maybe, a person could make modeling a career. A lot of it will depend on the decade you were experience your teenage years in. In my teen years, I discovered Brooke Shields. Mostly, because people kept saying things to my step-mother like “Oh your daughter looks like Brooke Shields.” It didn’t take long before my curiosity got the best of me and I made it a point to hunt down this girl called Brooke, my first supermodel crush. I did have a slight resemblance, but I’m not exactly her doppelganger.

Julie Gallahue (left) and Brooke Shields (right) Sometime in the 1980's

Brooke Shields was an example of someone making a living by using the good DNA she was born with and I personally applaud her for this. Athletes do it. Actors do it. Dancers do it. Musicians do it. So why shouldn’t a man or woman whom is especially photogenic do the same?

If you were born with a natural ability to calculate numbers in your head without the aid of a calculator or scratch paper, you would want to use this ability to your advantage. If you were a natural healer and fascinated by the human body, you would find yourself drawn towards medicine. This is doing what you can with what you got and a recipe for success.

But, really, these other endeavors don’t freak your parents out, Do they? When you declare your goal to be a professional basketball player or play the Cello in the London Symphony Orchestra, mom and dad are thrilled, proud, and supportive. They sign you up on a league team at the local rec center or buy you your first instrument and hire a tutor.

You tell them you want to make a living having your picture taken, and the room falls silent. And then your dad has a small coronary attach. They say things like, “ok, that’s fine as a hobby, but you need to have a backup plan”. And mom starts throwing out alternatives, like airline attendant or marine biologist. You might as well have told them you wanted to be a porn star.

Modeling got a bad rap and somehow it was tossed into the career basket next to pole dancers and high-end escorts. No hate mail please, I’m not making a judgement on anyone’s career choices in the adult entertainment industry. But, I am saying, modeling is not the same thing and it doesn’t belong in this category, even when the lines are blurred with calendars filled with scantily clad women on the hoods of sports cars.

Imagine a world that did not have models; a can of soup sitting on a clean countertop or a dress hanging on a wire hanger in the closet asking you to buy them and take them home. Hmmmm. So, lackluster. I don’t feel hungry, and I can’t see myself ever wearing that green dress. I just see a can and a piece of fabric. I am uninspired.

Royalty free images provided by Vektor and Bing

People want to see themselves participating with their purchases before they purchase them. People want to know how good that Chicken soup taste before they put the can in their shopping cart. People want to see how that dress moves, and where it gathers, how deep the neckline is, and where exactly the hem will fall. Without this information they may as well just put on a potato sack and secure it in the middle with a rope.

Let’s go back in time, when people were not buying canned goods and did not typically find themselves in Kohl’s with multiple size options for one item and thousands upon thousands of pre-made dresses. Let’s go to a time when the clothing people wore were custom made to fit them and only them.

The word model is derived from the Latin word modulus, meaning “Measure” or “Standard”. And the term can be seen in use in 1570 France and Italy as Modelle and Modello respectively. This makes complete sense. If you are tasked to make a gown for the royal princess, certainly, you can’t expect her to stand still in the middle of your work room, half naked and ready to try on, again and again and again, the pieces of the outfit while they are painstakingly sewn together, by hand, over the course of days, maybe even weeks. Royal princesses have better things to do with their time. So if you are the dress maker, you're going to need someone to step in for princess and that person will need to be the same height, with the same measurements in order to be absolutely certain the dress will fit her perfectly. Royal princesses can be demanding customers and you really don’t want to upset her parents or you might lose your head.

All of a sudden, the young lady that walks past your store front every Tuesday on her way to the market with all of these needed element becomes a valuable commodity. The dress maker needs her. And she needs money to buy the bread and salted meat her family depends on to survive. A perfect employer-employee relationship is formed. It’s a win-win situation.

Jump forward to 1853 and meet an English fashion designer whom would earn the title of "father of haute couture" ; Charles Frederick Worth. He started the House of Worth, one of the first fashion houses in Paris and this guy really did make dresses for princesses, and the rest of their royal families. This man was the first to use live models to market his designs and the experience of shopping for clothes was taken to the next level. Consider that an entire day would be spent in this luxurious and inviting “house” with a few close friends, a bottle of wine and the next season’s wardrobe to be considered.

Charles Frederick Worth, age 30 (left) Empress Elisabeth of Austria (center) House of Worth (right)

The experience was more than just picking up a tee shirt or two from Target to add to the summer staples with your other tee shirts. The pressure for the upper crust was heavy while attending all of those grandly executed balls and social engagements. Wearing the same floral yellow dress from the season before was social death. It was crucial to stay one step ahead of the fashion trends.

But, modeling isn’t only about fashion, although it is a major player in the forward mobility of legitimizing the role these models held in a thriving industry. You can see the need for someone to be an example, or a perfect measure, as far back as 435 BC. Good Ole’ Phidias didn’t make his statue of Zues at Olympia from pure imagination. Someone had to sit for a long time for him to nail down the finer details of the human form in marble and bronze.

Zues at Olympia

It could be argued that evidence of the role models played go as far back to a time when we were living in caves. Try and imagine a scruffy man scratching images into the rock walls of the communal dwelling.

With sharp object in hand, he instructs his cohabitator “Garth, lift your back foot up behind you and look over your shoulder like you’re about to die.”

Garth gets into the position.

“Hold it.” Artist instructs, while telling the second model “All right Rory, now you put this Saber-tooth carcass on. I know. I know. It’s still wet. I’m really sorry about that, man, but we got to get this while the head is still fresh, before the eyeballs lose all semblance of life.”

Cartoon by William Steig for the New Yorker

Meanwhile, an entire clan sits around and laughs while reliving the death-defying effort Garth and Rory and all the others experienced with that tiger, while one of them expresses strong interest in turning that pelt into a lovely piece of home décor.

Was this not the beginning of a profession called modeling? I think it was. As well as a few others, as I am sure there were one or two cavemen or cavewomen contemplating how best to prepare the meat and what could be done with those bones. Historically, the need for a skilled model has been with us from the start.

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