In the last decade, the high-powered, recognizable celebrity has taken over the model’s role as artistic inspiration, a move that reflects the industry’s general desire for commercial viability before taste. But when it comes to the clothes themselves, they still simply look better on the professionals. With the Met’s The Model as Muse exhibition in New York, as well as American Vogue‘s May issue focusing on the importance of the model to fashion, there is an obvious desire for re-inserting the power of the model. Is a comeback not far off for these long-legged beauties?
“The model will always remain as muse,” insists Louie Chahan, director of Women Management, the agency behind Kate Moss. “When it comes to advertising, I think some designers think a celebrity is more of a powerful selling tool.” The current trend of celebrity-as-model is a reversal of the model-as-celebrity supermodel era of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell almost two decades ago. “Actresses don’t come cheap, but nevertheless, companies need to sell more,” Chahan observes.
Though the curators of the The Model as Muse exhibit don’t attempt to interpret the trends and changes within the last sixty years of modeling, the show’s presentation speaks volumes. The galleries illustrate a model’s power to inspire a design, to elevate a garment to a status much larger than life. A 1964 photograph of Peggy Moffitt, for example, features the iconic model donning a simple, black Rudi Gernreich bathing suit, but in her pose the piece exudes a kind of timeless sex appeal. Beside the photograph is the original bathing suit, clinging to a stark white mannequin, dethroned from its sultriness, looking almost weak in comparison to the original image.
With this in mind, it’s easy to share Chahan’s hopes for a model comeback. The industry is missing out on the imagistic representation of beauty that was perpetuated by the likes of Dorothea McGowan, Donyale Luna, Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss. Today, if the model is even seen on a glossy cover, she’s an anonymous pretty face, rather than the culmination of an entire generation’s aesthetic expectations. Yes, Kate Moss is still around, and Gisele Bündchen is certainly another exception, but the spotlight that once illuminated the catwalk for all eyes to see has since gone out.
A global financial crisis may have already changed this dynamic, however. Celebrities come with a huge price tag and, now more than ever, companies have to sell clothes to pull themselves out of the debt-filled hole they’ve fallen into. The price of a recognizable face only makes the hole bigger. Vogue‘s May issue is a celebration of modeling, and appropriately goes hand in hand with the Met’s exhibit, and yet neither makes an effort to explain why the model is a muse, why her power has waned in recent years or why a comeback is so necessary. The weakness of both is that they take the model’s power as a given. So, then, is the presentation of a model’s beauty explanation enough? Only time will tell, but the facts seem to add up to an imminent comeback—despite some inevitable setbacks.
The Model as Muse is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 5-August 9, 2009.